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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why Are Russians Such Cowards? Part II: A Russian Speaks

Why are Russians such cowards? Writing in Transitions Online, St. Petersburg Times staff writer Galina Stolyarova tries to answer:

I was standing at the Levashovo cemetery for the victims of political repression when I felt my cheeks burning with shame. I was at a late-June ceremony to unveil a monument to more than 1,000 Italians who perished in the Soviet gulags. It was attended by prominent Italian politicians.

My deep embarrassment came halfway through the speeches, when I realized that no Russian official had turned up to utter a word. The St. Petersburg vice governor, scheduled to attend, never showed.

Speaking at the ceremony, Piero Fassino, head of Italy's Left Democrats, compared the unveiling of the monument with the lifting of a thick cloud of hypocrisy that for many decades covered shameful parts of Russian history.

The Russian officials who ignored the event apparently prefer to continue hiding behind that cloud. And their absence was just a symptom of their overall unwillingness to admit the mistakes of the communist period.

For a nation to develop an immunity to totalitarian rule, the majority of people need to understand it. They must at once feel a connection to it and be able to assess this historical period critically. But understanding is lacking in the country. And the connection for many Russians is still missing.


Despite Russia’s bloody Bolshevik legacy, there is still no museum devoted to the political repression it inflicted on our country. And the nation’s only gulag museum is a remote, former prison camp in the Perm region of the Ural mountains.

And what Russia's schoolchildren get to learn about gulags is confined to a few controversial paragraphs in a history textbook.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former secret service officer, once publicly likened Joseph Stalin to the 14th-century Central Asian despot Timur, or Tamerlane. Although Putin has conceded that Stalin was a dictator, he often repeats that Stalin’s role was instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany and that it should not be ignored.

Polls conducted in the country over the past eight years show that 30 to 40 percent of Russians believe that Stalin played a positive role in history. Almost as many say his role was negative.

Similar polls are held every year around the time of Stalin's birthday or on important Communist anniversaries, yet the figures hardly change. Surely this is because no effort at the government level is made to open people's eyes to what really happened in that shameful part of our history. Instead, the majority of people continue to turn a blind eye.

If their own leaders will not inform them, they should listen to democrats from abroad – people like Fassino, the Italian politician who attended the Levashovo ceremony.
“Stalin’s repressions were the most brutal manifestation of the Communist regime, with its deeply flawed dictatorial philosophy of creating a just and equal society without liberty,” Fassino said. “Equality and justice can exist only in a free society.”

Fassino's words echoed the kind of criticism that today’s Kremlin attracts on a regular basis from liberal politicians and human rights advocates.

Most probably, the problem comes down to a wrong perception of the nature of national pride. One of Putin's favorite phrases is that Russia must become a strong state. Another is that "the weak are always beaten."

In his view, apology is a sign of weakness. The Soviet Union was a strong state, and it never apologized for what it did. And for that reason, like his predecessors, Putin has offered no apologies to the foreign victims of Stalin's crimes.

The president sees his political mission as restoring Russia's status as a superpower. And the model of greatness he is using seems to be the Soviet Union, whose collapse he has famously described as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.

If the country continues in that mindset, the new Russia could suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union It will induce not respect but merely fear. And eventually will suffer inevitable collapse.


I would not start by adding extra paragraphs to the history books. Russia is already notorious for rewriting its history and replacing facts with ideology.

What could be done in Russian schools does not take any financial investment at all. It just takes some volunteers and a bit of effort. The effort to tell our young people more about the not-so-distant past.

Many are now chillingly ignorant of it. In June, I attended a roundtable discussion organized by the Memorial human rights group following the Russia-Estonia spat over the moving of a bronze Soviet soldier monument in Tallinn.

Memorial invited a large group of students, who were all very vocal about condemning the Estonians but who could not explain the roots of what they called "hatred of Russia."

One girl stood up to say that she had only very recently learned about Stalin's repressions but said she "can't bear thinking about it because it is too difficult" and added that she had no definite opinion about it.

Back in the last years of the Soviet Union we had "war lessons," when World War II veterans went to classes to recount how they survived, how they suffered, how their lives were turned upside-down by conflict. The intention was that young people should learn and feel connected to those events.

To organize such lessons – this time on the subject of political repression – would take only political will. It would help people to make the connection. Thereafter it would be up to them to form the desire to stand up against terror in their own lives.

I find it hard to imagine that Benito Mussolini's popularity in modern Italy would be anywhere near the level of approval Stalin continues to enjoy in Russian polls.

The difference? Italy was willing to admit its mistakes and learn from them.

"We are here to say we will remember the bitter lesson,” Piero Fassino said that day in Levashovo.

The Italians came to commemorate 1,000 dead. But the Russian victims of Stalin's purges run into many millions. And plenty of them also lie in Levashovo cemetery.

Yet to our lasting disgrace their vast numbers are not sufficient to induce the Russian government even today to confront our own past, to tell the truth about it, or to mark the lives of our countless victims with a fitting official memorial.


Yurii said...

There are times when Russians love to berate themselves. Galina Stolyarova appears to be doing that.
Perestroika is not even a generation old. Does Galina expect that all Russians are now fully convinced that they are better off under the new regime. Russia has undergone an economic and a political crisis. So far people do not appear to be better off in the new freedom. There is poverty, lack of resources and a new class struggle. Under the burgeoning 'capitalist' system there is a new wealthy aristocracy and the majority is poor and powerless. A period of at least 2 generations will pass before the Russian people will experience true democracy.
Russia is not the only country to rewrite history books. All countries/nations are guilty of this. History is what it says it is. It is a 'story'. Told and retold many times through the lens of whoever is in power at the time. Dear Galina! there is no absolute truth.
Why the comparison to Mussolini? Don't forget the millions of Russian lives sacrificed during World War II. USA did not enter the war until fairly late.
Wonder what the Italians were doing in Russia to deserve incarceration in Gulags.
So Galina, you think Russians should listen to democrats from abroad? Italians? British? Australians? All these democracies who are slavishly following the USA policies. Do you believe that Iraq is now enjoying a democracy after USA intervention? Are you aware that the west now has 'anti-terrorist' laws that enable the police to arrest people and to hold them without a charge, not even inform them of their crime? Are you aware of the practice of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "rendering practices"?
Democracy indeed! Shades of Stalinism and Maonism

Tomek said...

People like Galina give me hope that Russia can some day be a "normal" country. I know she is in the minority, but nonetheless, at least some Russians understand the enormity of what needs to be done in Russian society for it to overcome its past.

[i]Why the comparison to Mussolini? Don't forget the millions of Russian lives sacrificed during World War II.[/i]

There are those of us who saw very little difference between Hitler and Stalin, and for whom a Soviet liberation in 1944 still meant being subjugated, with a foreign-imposed dictatorship, a brutal police state, political prisoners, secret mass graves of disappeared civilians, our economies hijacked to serve the Soviet imperium, and our constitutions overflowing with guaranteed freedoms -- all of them completely fictional. The Nazi German and Soviet empires were one and the same as far as those who experienced them were concerned; they both had their own traditional bogeymen and both were quite willing to commit mass murder to destroy those bogeymen and fairy enemies. That they cooperated in 1939-41 was a surprise to the West perhaps, but not to us. It is quite natural that two such evil and murderous enterprises should cooperate, and it was just as inevitable that one would eventually betray another; it was their nature.

My hats off to Galina for taking a truly brave stand for the truth, a truth most Russians prefer deny or pretend is or has happened everywhere else anyway. Sorry, Jurek, but while I disagree with Bush and his policies and agree with you they deserve condemnation, there is nothing in the West's history that comes close to the horrors of the Soviet Union, either in character or scale. And worst of all, the ones who will suffer most from modern Russia's refusal to face its past -- aside from, as usual, Russia's neighbors -- will be Russians themselves who through theor denial will ensuire the continued rule of Tsar Putin and his like, thereby guaranteeing a long future of continued poverty and ignorance for most Russians.

Anonymous said...

There are times when Russians are clueless and slow. Yurii’s comment is a very good example of precisely that. It seems that no single point raised in Galina’s article got through. It must be the effects of the “thick cloud of hypocrisy”.

La Russophobe said...

TOMEK: Very well said. Ms. Stolyarova is a truly great Russian patriot. History will view heroes like her as the last, best hope of Russia.

ANDREI: Bravo! Encore!

If either one of you is interested in writing something for publication on this blog, you are invited to submit via e-mail.