Stalin, Putin, and the Challenges of Memory

The high price of denial.

itPolish thinker Leszek Kolakowski (often called the philosopher of "Solidarity) saw the post-communist landscape as marred by enduring Leninist legacies. He called these debris "moving ruins," referring to the avatars of the old elites, the absence of moral clarity, and the persistence of ideological and cultural relics of the old regime. The first stage of the revolutions of 1989-1991 was dominated by an exhilarating sense of recovered liberty and the widespread belief that authoritarianism had been irreversibly defeated. Sociologist S. N. Eisenstadt accurately  described those revolutions as non-utopian, non-ideological, non-eschatological. As a rule, they were non-violent eruptions of civic discontent against the supremacy of lies and the rampant cynicism of the communist bureaucracies. The thrust of the mass protests was favoring the dissident philosophy of freedom, civility, and  dignity.

The initial expectations were high and very few were able to foresee the advent of ugly forms of populism, exclusiveness, cynicism, and intolerance that Vaclav Havel diagnosed as the post-communist nightmare. Bolshevism seemed defunct and political scientists celebrated the triumph of liberal revolutions. This euphoria has dissipated in recent years, leaving behind it a sense of discomfort, discomfiture, and disillusionment. One of the major problems lies in the failure of these societies (especially in the former Soviet Union, but also in Romania, Bulgaria, even Poland and the Czech Republic) to reckon with the totalitarian past.

For those who want to understand the avatars of post-Soviet Russian politics and the failure of both elites and society to come to terms with the traumatic Bolshevik past, David Satter’s insightful book It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past ( New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2012) is a truly illuminating guide. A veteran observer of Soviet and post-Soviet affairs, Satter is both a gifted journalist and a chronicler of intellectual and political currents. His main argument is that a democratic polity in which the individual is treated decently and where human rights are taken seriously cannot be erected on amnesia, mystification and blatant lies. The crucial question he deals with is how Russians process the Stalinist legacies, how and why the generalissimo’s ghost continues to haunt collective memories and public imagination. Splendidly researched and engagingly written, this book offers invaluable vignettes of various reactions to the still unprocessed remembrance of the totalitarian times. Putin’s “managed democracy,” in fact a creeping authoritarianism with an eclectic and questionable constellation of ideological claims (statism, Eurasianism, nationalism), is rooted precisely in this perpetuation of denial.

Formed in the secretive culture of the KGB, “Czar Vladimir” remains deeply attached to the possessed founder of the Bolshevik secret police (the Cheka), Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Polish aristocrat who decided to give his early dream to become a priest and turned instead into a fanatic Leninist. The chapter dealing with the ongoing efforts to lionize this torturer is particularly revealing and deeply disturbing. In the same vein, Satter highlights the endeavors to instill a sense of admiration for Yuri Andropov, himself an adamant Leninist, who, as chairman of the KGB in the 1970s and 1980s, supervised the persecution of Soviet dissidents and the neutralization of any form of opposition.

Understandably, the Putin regime finds in such unsavory figures examples of civic dedication and political idealism. At the same time, independent researchers and journalists who want to rescue memory remain isolated and seem to engage in quixotic searches for truth. In this respect, Satter’s book is not only an excellent report of the unsettling status of memory and moral justice in contemporary Russia, but also an effort to support the beleaguered activists of the “Memorial” society who refuse to endorse the official policies of forgetfulness.

For Satter, Russia is a country “that has not been willing to face the full truth about Communism.” After the inconclusive attempts under Boris Yeltsin to organize a trial of the Communist Party, things have moved in a different direction: the mythologies of the Soviet times have been restored and those who continue to insist on the atrocities of the past have been increasingly marginalized. No surprise therefore that Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political commentator with close ties to the Putin leadership and Stalin’s Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s grandson, puts it bluntly: “People are not interested in the past. Any attempt to dig into the past evokes only irritation.” It remains to be seen who are those who repudiate this reckoning with the past and what are their motivations. How does one explain that two decades after the collapse of the USSR there has been no expression of state repentance for the millions of innocent individuals murdered by the Soviet regime?

I agree with Satter that no lawful state, no functional and credible democracy can exist if the lawlessness of the past remains ignored or is systematically trivialized. Using all kinds of rationalizations, the Russians have avoided the coming to terms with the appalling past. The result of this depressing situation is that Russia’s morality is beset by cynicism and widespread contempt for values cherished by the dissidents: civility, dignity, memory. The Russian state sees little reason to cultivate the anti-totalitarian ethos. The Orthodox Church, with its own history of martyrdom, but also of complicity, tries to annex the memory of the victims to its own refurbished self-image of unmitigated resistance to Communism.

One of the best chapters in Satter’s book deals with the appeals of communism, an enduring and still enigmatic topic. I am not sure that by the end of the 1970s Bolshevism was still an energizing Messianic project. In fact, it was rather a stultified, hollow dogma. The original dream of world revolution had been abandoned in favor of more traditional imperial expansionism. Still, for decades, communism played the role of a secular religion, proposing the main reference points, the moral compass, for generations. Its genuine amoralism was shrouded in rhetorical proclamations of equality and fraternity. It was bogus, but exhilarating bogus. This quasi-ethical cement is now regretted by many who prefer to remember the victory over Nazi Germany rather than the horrors of the Gulag. Compared to the experiences of political justice in East-Central Europe, Russia has basically shunned its moral recovery. The reasons for this failure are definitely linked to the weakness of political will. Putin confessed admiration for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but the state-backed history textbooks published with his blessing have been crude attempts to condone the mass terror of the 1930s. If Russia is to become a genuine democratic community, it will have to finally address the issues so poignantly explored in this book.

As a matter of fact, a few years ago Putin lamented the collapse of the USSR as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century". For him and his former KGB cronies, pluralism remains the enemy. In this respect, Putin is more Stalin's than Yeltsin's heir. His ideology has little to do with Bolshevik mythologies, yet his mindset remains authoritarian and inimical to individual rights. His worldview is conspiratorial, sectarian, militaristic, and exclusive, a prolongation of Lenin's Manichean political cosmology.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author most recently of The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 2012).