Russian Amnesia; History of Stalinist Gulag Which Russia Now Forgets

Article excerpt

Byline: Arnold Beichman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

This book is a justifiable indictment not only of the Soviet Union but also, even more justifiably, of its successor state, Russia. And why Russia? Because from President Vladimir Putin down, few Russians today, with honorable exceptions like Alexander Yakovlev, have been willing to face the hideous Gulag history of the criminal Bolshevik dictatorship. And why won't Mr. Putin and the Russian people face up to the crimes of V.I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin and their heirs? Because, said Mr. Putin, an ex-KGB officer, it would be a "mistake to get bogged down in old problems from the past."

Here are Mr. Putin's own words (Agence France Presse, Jan. 16, 2002) which explain Russia's refusal to face up to its sanguinary past: "We don't want and we will not equate Nazi crimes with Stalinist repression."

But Mr. Yakovlev, a onetime member of the Soviet Politburo and the intellectual architect of perestroika, sees it differently. Unlike Mr. Putin, he thinks Russia should get "bogged down in old problems from the past." Appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev and reappointed by Boris Yeltsin as chairman of the Russian Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Repression, he has become the conscience of Russia. He told Anne Applebaum,the author of "Gulag: A History," that "Society is indifferent to the crimes of the past because so many people participated in them."

Adds Ms. Applebaum: "The Soviet system dragged millions of its citizens into many forms of collaboration and compromise. Although many willingly participated, otherwise decent people were also forced to do terrible things. They, their children, and their grandchildren, do not always want to remember that now."

The situation is even worse today. Stalin's approval rating is going up, according to All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion. A March 4th report of its latest poll shows that more than half of all Russians, 53 per cent, interviewed the previous month in 100 Russian towns and cities in 40 regions approved of Stalin overall, 33 per cent disapproved and 14 per cent declined to indicate any opinion.

The seven Bolshevik decades were among the most horrible in modern history. Millions and millions of innocent men, women and little children were slaughtered before the Marxist Moloch. And yet, the author points out, Russia "continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union's history." Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression nor a national place of mourning, nor "a monument which officially recognizes the suffering of victims and their families."

In fact, Mr. Putin granted a legitimacy to the KGB when, after the November 2000 Duma elections, he and other party leaders in a post-election Kremlin conclave commemorated Stalin's 120th birthday with a toast. Earlier,Mr. Putin placed flowers at Yuri Andropov's grave in Red Square and on his monument at the onetime KGB Lubyanka headquarters.

One result of Mr. Putin's politics of amnesia is that the heroic opponents of the Soviet regime remain unhonored. The dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Yuri Orlov, and many others who fought the regime at risk of their lives, are unpersons rather than heroes in today's Russia. In fact, Mr. Putin doesn't even have the guts that Nikita Khrushchev had. in 1956 Khrushchev exposed the horrors of Stalinism. Thanks to Putinist policies, Russia is a country without a past. Or, as Ms. Applebaum puts it, for Russians "The past is a bad dream to be forgotten . . ."

A pathetic event occurred a few weeks ago, too late for inclusion in Ms. Applebaum's book. The Duma upper house, the Federation Council, in late January approved a bill whereby children who before they became adults lost one or both parents because of political repression were granted the status of victims and became eligible for state benefits. …