Sunday, 10 April 2011

War, Stalin and memory

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 Soviet nostalgia. It is clear 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 two decades 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 Josef 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, part of society still cannot reconcile itself to the humiliating economic and geopolitical position into which Russia was plunged after the end of the Soviet Union. This only drives them into a trap. By upholding their country’s honour and dignity they also defend a leader whose crimes before his own people and other nations are both undeniable and unforgivable.

Ascribing victory in World War II to Stalin, rather than to the multiethnic, multinational Soviet peoples, leads to a complete dead end. It inseparably links victory 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 simply “for” or “against”) hints at an inferiority complex.

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.

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 other countries.

If Moscow takes the lead on this, the project could become the consolidating factor in the post-Soviet space.

Above all, 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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