Russia and the Communist Past

A new book crystallizes what Russia must do to have a remote possibility for democratic change.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Satter who, for more than three decades has written about Russia and the Soviet Union.  He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is the former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London (1976-82) and has written three books about Russia, Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, which has been made into a documentary film, Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State and, his latest book, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, which is just out from the Yale University Press.

FP: David Satter, welcome to Frontpage Interview. Congratulations on your new book. It could not be more timely, coming as the ground is shifting under the feet of Russia’s authoritarian rulers.

What are the main arguments of your book?

David Satter: Thanks Jamie.

I try to show that the source of Russia’s historical tragedy is the distorted relation between the individual and the state, the degradation of the former and the deification of the latter. The notion that the individual has no inherent value but is only a means to some crazed political end is traditional in Russia. This attitude found its most radical expression under communism but it exists in post-Soviet Russia as well. It automatically conduces to dictatorship. This is why for Russia to have a democratic future, the dignity of the individual must be restored.

FP: But how can this be done practically?

David Satter: Russia needs to begin with the memorialization of the victims of the communist regime. There were 20 million victims of the Soviet regime. By this I mean those either put to death by the regime or those who died as a result of its repressive policies. This figure does not include the millions who died in wars, epidemics, and famines that were the predictable consequences of Bolshevik policies but not completely the result of them. Until that time, no country had ever inflicted such a holocaust on its own people. But the memory of these millions is still not honored in contemporary Russia. There is no national monument to the victims in Moscow, the city from which the orders for mass killing emanated. The only mark of remembrance is the “Solovetsky Stone,” a boulder in Lubyanskaya Square that is nondescript, easy to miss and, in any case, dwarfed by the surrounding buildings of state security. Those burial grounds that have been identified are either not commemorated or else, as in the cases of Butovo and Kommunarka, the two major execution and burial grounds in the Moscow area, turned over to the Russian Orthodox Church, which depicts the victims of communist crimes as religious martyrs, an interpretation which has no relation to reality.

FP: What about outside of Moscow?

David Satter: There have been some attempts to memorialize the victims in the regions. The largest monument to the dead in Russia is the “Mask of Sorrow,” a 60 foot high sculpture by the Russian sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny in Magadan, the gateway to the Kolyma gold mining region in the Far East. There is also a small museum in the basement of the former NKVD headquarters in Tomsk and the former Perm 36 labor camp about two hours from Perm has been restored. The problem with all of these memorials is that they are very remote from the principal population centers and have little effect on the consciousness of the country.

During the perestroika period, there was a nationwide movement to commemorate the victims of communist oppression. The Solovetsky stone in Moscow and the monuments in Magadan and Tomsk date to this period. At that time, history was important in Russia and, as a result of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, it seemed that the country was dedicated to setting the record straight about the communist regime’s crimes. This impression was misleading. History was an issue because the record of the past could be used as a weapon against the tottering communist regime. Once the Soviet regime fell, the energy behind the drive to settle accounts with history all but disappeared. During perestroika, plinths and pedestals were erected all over the country to mark the locations of future memorials. They are still there, haunting reminders of a promise that Russian society lacked the will to fulfill.

Today, the regime does not even bother with plinths. A huge execution site near the village of Toksovo outside of St. Petersburg where approximately 40,000 victims of the Stalin era terror are buried was discovered in 2002 by volunteers from the Memorial society but it is unmarked to this day except for a wooden sign put up by Memorial at the entrance to a road leading to the burial pits that says that thousands of people were shot in this place and asks passersby (of whom there are very few) not to disturb the victims’ graves.

FP: But Russia today is in the throes of change. The Russian people are no longer passive. Is there hope for democracy?

David Satter: There is hope for change but only if Russia can establish a tradition of respect for the individual. This, however, cannot be done without facing the full truth about the past. What exists in Russia today is an unwillingness to assimilate tragic history and evaluate realistically the consequences of Russia’s authoritarian political tradition. For many, such an examination is simply too painful because it seems to imply a rejection of Russia itself. In fact, without such an effort, Russians are caught in a trap. Denial and aggressive nationalism feed on each other leading Russians to see themselves as victims not of their country’s political practices but of unseen outsiders and transform sympathy for their people into feelings of aggression against the outside world.

FP: Putin’s rule is now being challenged. What are the dangers in the present situation?

David Satter: The Putin regime is corrupt, lawless, and authoritarian but it is not really ideological despite its occasional efforts to depict itself as the protector of Russia and to exploit Russian nationalism. Without coming to terms with the communist past and also the abuses of post-communist Russia, the possible democratic alternative to Putin will be hobbled and the field will be cleared for the appearance of a new regime based on a debased form of Russian Orthodoxy and extreme Russian nationalism. Such a regime could be a much more dangerous opponent of the West even than the Putin regime which is limited by its greed and the desire of its leading members to keep their money, children and property in the West.

FP: Is recognition of past crimes enough to prevent this if Putin is removed?

David Satter: It would make an enormous difference. Religious and political power were fused in Russia. The result was the deification of the state. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the state lost its aura of sanctity. The status of the individual, however, did not improve. He was rightless under the Soviet regime and, although he is a great deal freer, he lacks reliable democratic rights today. This is the fundamental difference between Russia and the West. The individual in Russia has everything on condition, including his life. He is secure and free only until the moment when he finds himself in conflict with the authorities.

Facing the past honestly is important because, by extending even a small degree of posthumous justice, to the victims of communism, the conditions are created for changing the status of the individual in Russia generally. It was intended that the victims of communist terror would disappear and never be heard from again. The regime sought to kill the person and kill the memory of the person. For decades the victims’ relatives and friends feared to speak about them even in private. If Russia now recognizes the value of the millions of lives that were destroyed, that act would also be a warning against all future ideological projects that seek to use individuals as raw material. It would create the moral conditions for Russia to establish a system of rights and for the country to experience a new beginning.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.