Questions of history prompt heated debate and stir powerful emotions in Russia, as in all post-Communist countries. Many attempts have been made to settle the problems of the past, but none was seen through to the end. It invariably turned out that the time was not right because of political instability, an economic crisis, or social problems.
On February 1, the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a consultative body comprising representatives of human rights organizations and NGOs, submitted a draft program on memorializing the victims of the totalitarian regime and on national reconciliation to President Dmitry Medvedev.
As expected, it sparked an intense public reaction. The document, whose authors believe that the past century was a time of tragedies and crimes committed by Russians against Russians, has provoked a wave of nostalgia for the Soviet past.
Some even claim the council laid the blame for unleashing WWII on the Soviet Union. Since the document says nothing of the kind, there is no need even to attempt to refute that allegation.
What the fighters for the “truth” are referring to is the phrase that “the whole of Europe was a victim and the whole of Europe is culpable for the tragedies of the 20th century – the two world wars, the two totalitarian regimes, and the deep rift that has not been fully mended to this day.”
This is also fresh proof that some people find it impossible to view Russian history objectively as an inalienable part of European and global history.
However, the debate this document has stirred could prove useful in that it concerns the key question of the heritage a nation should draw on when formulating its future trajectory.
The ideological confusion of the past twenty years, following the Soviet Union’s collapse, has produced a strange aberration in society. Although Russian history boasts a myriad of glorious episodes, many people associate its might and successes solely with Joseph Stalin.
This could be due to certain forces’ conscious, deliberate efforts to nurture a sense of contemporary Russia’s inadequacy and a yearning for the “great power” we have lost. But there are also objective reasons for this.
For example, a considerable part of society still cannot reconcile itself to the humiliating economic and geopolitical position into which Russia was plunged (and from which it struggled to emerge) following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This only drives them into a trap. By upholding their country’s honor and dignity, including in international relations, they also defend a leader whose crimes before his own people and other nations are both undeniable and unforgivable.
Ascribing the Soviet Union’s victory in the Great Patriotic War (part of WWII) to Stalin, rather than to the multiethnic, multinational Soviet peoples, leads to a complete dead-end. It inseparably links the country’s victory in the bloodiest war humankind has ever seen to the actions of one of the most merciless regimes in Russian history.
Deliberations about Russia’s tragic dialectic could be interesting from the philosophical viewpoint, but politically they are a no-win option.
Russia’s unwillingness to confront the whole truth about its 20th century history (which is much more complicated than the discourse of “for” and “against” would have it) hints at an inferiority complex. Furthermore, it encourages other countries, primarily in Eastern Europe, to force their interpretations of history on Russia.
This is unacceptable for a country that did not lose that war and which has solid reasons to consider itself one of the few fully sovereign world powers capable of dealing with internal problems without foreign assistance.
Therefore, we should show initiative not in response to foreign demands but to ensure national reconciliation and development.
Russia could propose establishing an International Memory Institute, as the presidential council has suggested, to pool the efforts of all post-Soviet and post-Communist countries in assessing the past and also act as a counterweight to similar, but clearly anti-Russian, institutes established in some individual countries.
If Moscow takes the lead on this, the project could become the consolidating factor in the post-Soviet space because, after all, former Soviet republics will never come together under the banner of protecting “the glorious Soviet past.” That boat sailed long ago, assuming it was not sunk by its lack of a centralized ideology.
The post-Soviet period in Russia’s history, which began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, is drawing to a close.
The world in the 21st century will be unlike that of the previous century. It may revive the mores and customs of a more distant past, when ideologies played a less important role, or create new forms of public consciousness.
If it is to find a fitting place for itself in this new world, Russia needs to rely on its historical tradition as a whole, and stop focusing on a very short period of its past as it searches for a new political identity.
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Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.