Russia's Refusal to Face Its Past

Roundup: Talking About History

Duncan Currie, in the Weekly Standard (12-17-04):

[Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.]

THE GHOSTS OF 1917 have not been laid to rest." That's how Orlando Figes closed A People's Tragedy, his magisterial history of the Russian Revolution. Figes was writing in the mid-1990s, at a time when the success of democracy in ex-Soviet bloc nations did not seem a fait accompli.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. The spirit of the day touts Ukraine as ground zero for liberty-loving peoples everywhere. To borrow from an oft-used dictum, we are all Ukrainians now. And the democratic "Orange Revolution" may well reverberate throughout the former Soviet Union. At least Russian liberals hope so. Moscow's meddling in the Ukrainian election has become a stark emblem of Vladimir Putin's anti-democratic--and increasingly anti-Western--governance. "[I]t is time to see Mr. Putin as a challenger, and not a friend," opined the Economist last week.

Other commentators have gone further, proclaiming the onset of a second Cold War. Such talk is premature. Putin's Russia is not the USSR. Not even close. And it's too soon--way too soon--to say the Kremlin is resurrecting an "evil empire." But it's not too soon to discuss Russia's complete and utter failure to properly account for its Communist past. That failure, indeed, is closely linked to Putin's illiberal rule at home and abroad.

Consider: On September 11, 2004, Russians unveiled a new statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in the Moscow suburb that bears his name. This event went almost wholly unreported in the Western press. It capped a two-year debate over whether to return a more notorious Dzerzhinsky monument to its plinth in Moscow's Lubyanka Square.

Who was Dzerzhinsky? In no particular order: a secret policeman, founder of the Cheka, architect of Lenin's Red Terror, father of the KGB, and planner of the first Soviet gulags. He was, in sum, the Hermann Goering of Soviet Russia. (Goering started the Nazi Gestapo and set up the initial concentration camps.) Dzerzhinsky, nicknamed "Iron Felix," directed the Bolsheviks' machinery of repression, torture, and executions during the Russian civil war. On a single night in 1919, by virtue of a "dreadful mistake," Orlando Figes writes, "1,500 Moscow prisoners were shot on Dzerzhinsky's orders." We'll never know precisely how many killings and jailings the Cheka chief sanctioned. But as Figes points out, "it was certainly several hundred thousand . . . [and] it is possible that more people were murdered by the Cheka than died in the battles of the civil war."

Dzerzhinsky's 40-foot-tall, 14-ton bronze bust stood outside KGB headquarters until August 1991, when thousands of Russians famously cheered its toppling. Now his menacing grimace is back, thanks in part to a campaign led by Moscow's ex-Communist mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. The mayor wants the original Iron Felix statue restored to its base in Lubyanka Square, citing Dzerzhinsky's work in behalf of the homeless and support for the Russian railway system. Luzhkov may eventually get his way.

If he does, it won't come as a shock to most Russians. Nor, for that matter, will most Russians disapprove. The Putin years have witnessed a steady sanitizing of Soviet history. Hence the attempted rehabilitation of Iron Felix. Or the treatment of Stalin on the 50th anniversary of his death in March 2003. Or Putin's celebration of the late Yuri Andropov, the "Butcher of Budapest," on Andropov's 90th birthday in June 2004.

None of this seemed especially unusual to ordinary Russians. Which tells us something about the Cold War's unique denouement. Following World War II, a defeated Germany firmly repudiated Nazism. Likewise Italy with Fascism. But the Soviet Union never had a Nuremberg-type day of reckoning. Thus, bloodstained ex-Soviet officials got off lightly, to say the least. Putin's government indeed draws heavily from the ranks of former KGB agents.

What does this portend for Russia's future? Nothing positive. A country that sugarcoats its bloody totalitarian past will never be a true friend of America and the West. Moreover, a country that fails to atone for a shameful history threatens to repeat that history. Figes was right: The ghosts of 1917 aren't dead.

As Vladimir Putin reminded the world, last month, in Ukraine.

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