October 31, 2014

Idols and Anniversaries

Idols and Anniversaries

Twenty-five years ago, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, it was a time of hope and relief. Since the 1940s we had held our breath, limping from crisis to crisis, hoping that Dr. Strangelove was not hiding in a dark corner, waiting to make his play.

In November 1989 we could breathe again. Eastern Europe was unshackled. One after another, communist icons and idols teetered and fell: one-party rule, the planned economy, forced labor camps. Suddenly there was freedom of travel, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience.

The euphoria was heady. Yet the hangover soon followed. In August 1991, the forces of reaction made an attempt to regain power, promising stability, security, and a return to the coddled past. Thankfully, they were rebuffed, and crowds descended on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. There, with the help of a crane, they toppled the massive statue of Iron Felix.

With this act, it seemed as if Russian society had crossed a Rubicon. By tearing down that fearsome sentinel before the KGB building, it was signaling a turn toward the Right, away from terror, sovietism and Big Brother. Within months, the republics of the Soviet Union, six or more decades after being press-ganged into the USSR, were loosed to create their own futures.

But seven decades of warped economic and political theories could not be remedied quickly or without significant pain and suffering.

A decade of economic crises, wars and social strife followed. Russians became disillusioned. Democracy and capitalism were promising aspirations, but you can’t eat free speech. The newly-enfranchised, disorganized masses were powerless to stop the machinations of elites bent on stealing the nation’s wealth. Yet somehow, the country endured and, by the early 2000s, even began to prosper, thanks to rising oil prices.

Yet one important thing has been missing. At no time during its 25 years of transformation has Russia seriously reckoned with its past. There was no Truth and Reconciliation process to grapple with the excesses of Soviet rule. Sure, there were occasional movies, documentaries, books and even monuments (including one to Gulag victims on Lubyanka Square). Yet thousands of statues to one of the twentieth century’s worst mass murderers, Vladimir Lenin, still stand at the heart of thousands of Russian cities and towns, and his mummified body continues to lie in Red Square. Stalin is still revered. Talk of Gulags, informants, the Ukrainian famine, or collaboration with Hitler are discomforting and thus considered inappropriate. And, as late as December of last year, according to a VTsIOM poll, 45 percent of Russians favored the restoration of Iron Felix to Lubyanka Square. Only 25 percent were firmly opposed.

Then, as this issue was going to press, we learned that the Russian Ministry of Justice was petitioning the Russian Supreme Court to “liquidate” the Memorial social organization on a legal technicality. Amongst hundreds of very disturbing neo-Soviet moves we have seen by the Powers That Be in Moscow since 2012, this ranks very near the top. For Memorial is the singular organization in Russia making a concerted effort to remember and memorialize the victims and horrors of the Soviet past. And, as we know from hard-won experience, if a society cannot come to terms with its past, it endangers its future.

This editorial appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Russian Life.

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