A Russian Katyn

27 july 2010

Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Resume: The issue of one of the main roots of Russia's problems – our inability to overcome the legacy of the horrible-for-Russia 20th century.

Several developments and events of recent time make me raise, before myself and readers, the issue of one of the main roots of our problems – our inability to overcome the legacy of the horrible-for-Russia 20th century.

In May, we celebrated yet another anniversary of the Great Victory, perhaps the only episode of the last century that this country and its people can be absolutely proud of. On the eve of the celebrations, Moscow was involved in a strange discussion as to whether Stalin’s portraits should be hung on Moscow streets, which looked like someone’s malicious joke or too sophisticated a PR-campaign. Finally, the country recognized the Katyn Massacre fully and unconditionally and displayed nobleness and sympathy for Poland’s grief.

Yet it has been unable so far to admit that the whole of Russia is a large Katyn, studded with nameless graves of millions of victims of the regime that ruled it for the larger part of the last century. This regime largely destroyed the sense of patriotism, which is natural for a nation and a human being. The state treated its people as aliens, bringing them mostly suppression, poverty and death. And the people treated the state as it deserved.

This was the main reason for the self-destruction of the Soviet Union, which had succeeded to “Great Russia” – the Russian Empire.

This is one of the most important reasons for the present decay of public morals and rampant thievery – I have become more and more convinced of that over the years. The elite despises ordinary people, covertly and sometimes openly, and people despise the elite. Both the elite and ordinary people do not have any particular reason to respect oneself. Of course, there are many worthy people in Russia. I – and perhaps everyone else – know at least several such people. But it is not them who make the image of the nation, and there are fewer and fewer of them. Some people give up and follow the crowd; others are sidelined. Still others step aside or leave the country.

One can dig for the roots of this attitude thousands of years back in history, and this should be done.

But in this short article I will focus only on one thing, namely, the legacy of Soviet socialism, alias Stalinism.

Both the president and the prime minister of Russia have denounced Stalinism over the last year.

And yet we do not dare to completely abandon its legacy and repent the outrages upon ourselves and our own nation, committed by us and our ancestors. They say one should not hurt the feelings of veterans. This is a cowardly and intellectually bankrupt argument. It means that we will never be able to take an honest look at our history, because later the same “don’t-touch” attitude will have to be applied to veterans of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras, veterans of the roaring 1990s and the subsequent era of rampant corruption.

They say one should not fertilize the ground for foreign Russophobic sentiments. But they are real and exist regardless of our action or inaction. Russia is a large country with a complicated history. Many countries and peoples around it suffered from it, and now they are trying to treat their historical complexes at Russia’s expense. Anti-Russian sentiments are strong also because we ourselves cannot part with the worst things in our history.

Unless we bow to the victims of Stalinism and unless we admit our country’s guilt to them, we will remain successors to the other part of our nation – their executioners, guards and informers, all those who voluntarily dispossessed kulaks and destroyed churches. Later, they themselves often became victims.

Historians still argue about specific numbers of victims of the Soviet regime, of which there were millions or even tens of millions. But for me, one thing is indisputable. The Soviet Stalinist regime destroyed mostly the best people – the most brilliant, hard-working and free ones.

We recall with bitterness that most Russian families and families of people in other countries that have emerged as a result of the Soviet Union’s break-up were bereaved of relatives during World War II. But as many families lost their members in the years of the Civil War, collectivization (which, as Stalin himself wrote, was launched primarily to destroy the peasantry), famines, and several waves of repression.

To regain our self-esteem, which requires overcoming the legacy of the cursed 20th century, we need not only to rehabilitate the victims of the regime, but also admit our guilt to them. We must also grant them at least the same rights as those enjoyed by home front workers and, possibly, war veterans. Those people did not fight for their country because they could not do that – they were in labor camps. By mining coal and ore, felling trees and building roads, they forged the weapon of Victory.

Perhaps, the simplest thing to do would be to stud the country with monuments to the victims of Soviet Stalinism. Next to monuments to fallen soldiers we should put crosses or obelisks to honor our compatriots who fell at the hands of this regime. Around this idea, we could organize not a new version of the Young Communist League or the Young Pioneer Organization, but a truly patriotic youth movement, which would seek to identify the names of our fallen compatriots, so that they could be inscribed on these obelisks. This movement could unite the peoples of the former Soviet Union. It could unite us with our former forced socialist camp mates, as the regime destroyed the best representatives of all peoples – Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kazakhs, Estonians, Tatars, Jews, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and others. Also, representatives of all these peoples were among the executioners.

The streets of provincial Russian towns must bear the names of not only Lenin or quite phantasmagorically widespread Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg but the best sons and daughters of our people, destroyed by us in the 20th century.

After that, we could make the next step – namely, revive the names of millions of forgotten heroes of the Second Patriotic War, alias the Imperialist War, alias World War I.

And, of course, we should not cross out what was the best in the last century, specifically the names of Korolyov, Zhukov, Pasternak, Tvardovsky, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and other, less famous Russians who served their country and people. But that century was certainly a disaster for Russia. We must recover from it and step over it.

If someone wants to continue glorifying the name of Stalin, let them. Let them glorify the regime, associated with him, which was destroying us, thought was unable to exterminate us all.

This is not a call to return to the past, but a call to put an end to it and regain what was the best in it. Finally, it is a call to look into the future with a clear conscience and, most importantly, with self-esteem.

| Rossiyskaya Gazeta

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