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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Compared to Russia, Ukraine is a Democratic Paradise

The Ukraine megablog Maidan says that, compared to the disaster that is modern Russia, Ukraine is looking mighty good on the democratic front (yet, Ukraine must still fret over the enormous anti-democratic Sword of Damocles hanging literally above its head):

An attempt to take stock of the 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union can fill a committed democrat with frustration if he looks at Russia, but with restrained optimism if he turns his gaze to Ukraine. During these years Ukraine has succeeded in showing that it can take part in international politics and be guided by its own ideas and interests. It is now, furthermore, demonstrating the existence of viable democratic institutions. Russia has passed through this decade and a half only to return to its old values – a strict internal regime, a security service for whom all is allowed, threats to the outer world, idolization of a leader, and, one should add, the lack of rights of ordinary citizens.

The end of the Soviet empire was seen by dissidents as the primary and overriding objective. The choice of form of development of the Soviet realm later did not seem a big problem after the main and mesmerising problem of the Soviet regime itself was eliminated. The impossibility of the existence in the Soviet Union of the individual and of different nations was the imperative for thinking, and the details for how the scenario for the development of Russia and its satellite republics “later” seemed for many unimportant. Meanwhile, among concerned citizens one could identify at least three groups with very different fundamental social concepts, yet cooperating with each other in the face of the KGB. One has in mind here representatives of the “pro-Western”, Eurocentric tradition of Russian culture, the “pochvenniki” [“people of the soil”] who were the ideological successors to the Slavophiles, and the nationalists of Ukraine, the Baltic States and other peoples of the Soviet Union. One should mention that it was not the differences in worldview, but the general recognition of the Soviet empire, the general understanding of its internal mechanisms and memory of one of its creators, Stalin, that became for all groups of dissidents the main component part in their communication.

For Ukraine and Russia the ideas of the dissidents after 1991 did not become the main guide for reforms, with no process taking place for de-KGB- and de-Sovietization of the government, nor lustration. The entire 1990s for state administration in both Russia and Ukraine were no more than a time for change and adaptation of the Soviet class of officials to the new, non-Soviet reality. Yet now criticism from dissidents of Soviet authoritarianism and totalitarianism needs careful attention.

We can say that the anti-empire tradition of Soviet dissidents has suffered defeat in the mass consciousness of contemporary Russian, while in Ukraine it can take on new meaning.
In Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The First Circle”, the author writes about camp prisoners, their future and at the same time about the future of the whole country. “Years will pass, and all these people, now oppressed, indignant, despairing and choking with rage will go to their graves, others will become weak, flabby, while a third group will forget it all, renounce it, with relief burying their prison past and a fourth will be turned around, and they’ll even say that it was all reasonable, and not ruthless – and maybe none of them will get around to reminding today’s executioners what they did to the human heart!” In contemporary Russia the idea that the terror was “reasonable” or “required” is gaining ever greater influence, most often they prefer not to remember it at all.

According to several studies, Putin’s authority in today’s Russia is measured not only as the authority of the “head of state” but as “spiritual” authority, and this latter is higher than the influence of yesterday’s “conscience of the nation”, the GULAG prisoner Solzhenitsyn. Note: the moral influence of a professional officer of the political enforcement body on the average Russian is higher than the experience of its former victim whose fury and pain made him worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature. However one can say that in Ukraine an individual like Putin could never aspire to the role of moral authority, in the first instance because of his past.

Over recent years many Ukrainians have become convinced that their country is freer than Russia, that their democratic institutions are much more developed and that at the end of the day, the Ukrainian state is more humane or, more accurately, less inhuman than Putin’s regime.

The level of freedom both of Ukrainian, and of Russian society can be measured by the weakening or strengthening of the enforcement structures of the state – against its citizens. A Ukrainian feels that living without an omnipresent and all-powerful secret police is possible and very comfortable, whereas Russians loudly declare their attachment to unlimited power of the state and their readiness to endure its police, both secret and open. Modern Ukrainians do not face any dilemma of whether to forget the fate of their grandfathers who were left to rot in labour camps, or the fate of their parents frightened to talk with foreigners – and to forget who made their life like that – or to feel redundant in that colony of fervent patriots which Russia is once again becoming.

In contemporary Ukraine, at least two general groups are implacable opponents of the re-emerging Russian imperial spirit, being able to speak about themselves as victims of Soviet Russia – the descendents of Ukrainian nationalists and the Crimean Tatars. The link between the Crimean Tatar dissidents and the Ukrainian nationalists was strong back in the times of their common struggle with the Soviet regime. Mustafa Dzhemilyev, leader of the Crimean Tatars, knew many of the outstanding figures of the Ukrainian democratic resistance, in particular, Petro Grigorenko. Nowadays in the Crimea Grigorenko is well-known as “a friend of the Crimean Tatar people”, and on one of the squares of Simferopol the Crimean Tatar community has erected a monument in his honour. Crimean Tatar Deputies are trying to gain legislative approval for measures in memory of Grigorenko. In Soviet days General Petro Grigorenko was one of the few who openly spoke about the deportation of 1944 and of the tragedy which the Crimean Tatars suffered.

The connection between the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian dissidents is being continued by their descendents and this commitment to the memory of their heroes provides an antidote for any temptations towards new authoritarianism. However in Russia, the words of Sakharov and the testimony of labour camp prisoners are important to only a small number of human rights activists and journalists. This is an incredible feature of human beings – their ability to forget. Russians prefer not to remember their recent horror, and they don’t see that they are but a stone’s throw away from its new manifestation.

The fate of the Crimean Tatars gave them a unique experience – they are in the full sense of the word a “dissident people”, “a nation – victim of Stalinism”. Whereas Russians may imagine that the Stalin purges or the persecution of free thinking during the Brezhnev times were justified or necessary, it would simply be criminal for a Crimean Tatar to think in that way: their grandfathers who died in train carriages being deported to Central Asia, or the homes taken from their families in the Crimea are permanently in their consciousness, and any justification for the state’s crimes for them would be inconceivable. There is a similar atmosphere in the villages of Volyn or the Carpathian mountains, where each family remembers the Ukrainian resistance fighters and the methods of the MGB [predecessor to the KGB]. These people are unwaveringly aware that “there are crimes which it would be criminal to forget”, and the Soviet ethnocide ranks among these.

There is no need to list the disturbing facts of public life in modern Russia – what is appalling is that Putin’s administration is itself providing examples of suppression of those who express dissent.

If the restoration of authoritarianism were taking place in Russia as a trend among bureaucrats, the situation would be less depressing, however unfortunately the roots of the restrictions on freedom and the abuses by the Putin regime lie in the approval of this from average Russians. The desire to prove their national importance is seen as justifying the humiliation of other nations and neighbouring countries, and if it’s necessary to sacrifice their freedom and the freedom of their fellow citizens, such a sacrifice will be made. The Russian post-imperial syndrome is not unique, but it has national features – the low value placed on individual freedom plays a considerable and key role.

The beginning of the 21st century showed that Russia’s eternal drama – tyranny – will plague it in contemporary times. The reality of a global world and the conditions of “modernity”, it appears, have not penetrated the depths of Russian consciousness, the Russian worldview, and what might have seemed like a national mistake – Soviet totalitarianism – is seen now as a link in the chain of forms of Russian lack of freedom. Such an easy return to “a strong hand”, the relief when this was found, such widespread love towards him, i.e. towards Putin demonstrate that serfdom, the autocratic rule of the Tsar, the terror of the red commissars and the tyranny of Stalin were all aspects of the essence of Russian history.

The contemporary world and the liberation of 1991 did not become a threshold to a new life for Russia, but instead gave rise to a refined type of Russian state dictatorship, a new step in the consistent logic of outwardly different, but internally identical Russian dictatorships.
Who now will cry out together with Solzhenitsyn’s hero, the prisoner Nerzhyn: “And for all of it, all, all, for the investigations under torture, for the dying camp dokhodyagi [“goners”] – four nails in their memory! Four nails for their lying, in the palms and in their shins, and let them hang there and stink under the Sun goes out, until life fossilizes on the planet Earth”.

The nation which called itself the greatest readers in the world, the descendents of those Muscovites who organized triumphant Poetry Evenings in the 1960s, has forgotten about the fate of its poets. They have forgotten the death while being taken to the camps of Mandelstam, they have forgotten Akhmatova’s “Requiem” and the trial of Zabolotsky. Or perhaps today’s Russians are more children of those who organized the campaign against Pasternak, perhaps they are rather the offspring of those communists and chekists? Those who are persecuting Georgians in Petersburg airports and on Moscow streets would not I suspect be averse to organizing the persecution of a Georgian poet.

Fortunately, Ukraine is not sharing this disheartening path.

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