An apocryphal 16th century story has Polish diplomats meeting their Russian counterparts about yet another Muscovite invasion. The Poles try to reason with the Russians: “Look, you come every year and we defeat you invariably. Each time you lose at least 10,000 men. What a waste of human lives!” The negotiators respond: “We have a lot of people.”
Cracow’s envoys dealing with Moscow at the time were usually Polish nobles of Ruthenian, Eastern Slav origin and often Chrisitan Orthodox faith. They were virtually cousins of the Muscovite diplomats. However, unlike the latter, they were also Westernized. They valued human life. They understood innate dignity of individuals. Their counterparts did not as they emulated their erstwhile Mongol overlords to subjugate human beings to the needs of the state for the purpose of retaining, increasing, and projecting power. Thus, in the Muscovite system the individual was expendable.
Historians Jan Kucharzewski and Richard Pipes have described this vicious modus operandi of the Kremlin throughout Russia’s history, including the Soviet times. Now David Satter, in his incisive new book, has demonstrated that the tradition sadly continues in Putin’s Russia.
The pattern of disregarding the individual translates into the inability of the Russian Federation to shake off the legacy of the past and to construct a viable Rechtsstaat with a robust free market economy. The post-Soviet system is simply post-Communism rather than liberal parliamentarism. The system retains institutions, personnel, and symbols of the USSR. It evolved merely into a soft totalitarian version of its predecessor. It is corrupt and oppressive.
Only a comprehensive dismantling of the totalitarian legacy, physical and spiritual, could result in a free Russia. But to do away with the heritage of collectivistic Communism requires a paradigm shift to Western individualism. The Russians would have to embrace the shocking idea that the state serves the individual and not the other way around. That should be the foundation of a successful transformation of Russia. It has not happened precisely because the post Soviet successor elites refuse to jettison the bad old ways for they alone guarantee their monopoly of power.
The easiest way to commence the dismantling process leading to the reassessment of Russia’s priorities would be to examine the past critically. That, in turn, would require coming to grips with the crimes of Communism as they impacted individual human beings. However, the post-Soviet ruling elites are incapable of relating with empathy to human suffering. They continue to think that the horrors of Communism were justified because they resulted in a strong state, which stood the test of history, most notably during the Second World War. For them Russia is the state, and not the people. In this context, human suffering is immaterial. Consequently, for the lack of empathy really, Russia has failed to change.
Instead, Moscow treads a familiar path of glorifying state power through stubbornly pursuing a schizoid historical policy (istoricheskaia politika). It is based on brazenly upholding and meshing all features of Russia’s past that are congruent with the idea of the supremacy of the state, on the one hand, and on rejecting and vilifying all elements that challenge the statist myth, on the other. Consequently, it consists of a dialectical series of ideological and propaganda contortions forged by the Tsar and tempered by the komissar. For instance, there is an effort to reconcile the Whites and the Reds in Russia’s Civil War in a way that suggests that both were right.
The ostensible reason for the Kremlin’s historical policy sounds like the U.S. State Department’s mantra: stability. The official trope goes as follows: If we open the archives to independent inquiry, it will result in chaos and civil war. The truth about Communist crimes is dangerous because brother murdered brother in Russia. So let’s keep everything under wraps. Therefore we must also ignore, discourage, and even persecute, if needs be, grass-roots efforts to commemorate the victims of the Red terror. If there is no other way, let us neutralize them by allowing the Orthodox Church to appropriate and monopolize the commemorations. Thus, despite the fact that they came from all ethnic backgrounds and faiths, henceforth all victims will be considered and perceived as Russian and Orthodox, thus further unifying the state. This also permits them to use the Christian gospel of forgiveness to let the perpetrators off the hook. Commemorating therefore will be collective, anonymous, and harmless to the executioners. The process is foolproof because of the traditional, Byzantine nexus between the Church and State in Russia, including past KGB pedigrees of many an ecclesiast and current chummy personal relations with the FSB.
The Kremlin argues that denigrating Russia’s past undercuts the state. Let us be positive. Hence, the best way to commemorate the history of the KGB is to put up the plaque to its erstwhile head, Yuri Andropov, at the Lublianka headquarters of the secret police in Moscow. And let us not forget the great Feliks Dzerzhinski, Russia’s leading modern hero (but never mind that he was really a Polish Catholic nobleman Feliks Dzierżyński, hell-bent on destroying the empire of the Tsars). These Chekists must be remembered and eulogized. Meanwhile, there is no mention of the torture and execution of tens of thousands at Lublianka and millions elsewhere in the former USSR. The victims are either glossed over in silence or sentenced to obscurity as reflected by a handful of understated, even abandoned memorials half-erected in obscure places. Mass graves remain unexplored; their contents consigned to anonymity. Only the perpetrators bask in the Chekist glory. After all, they served the state and only carried out orders, even if mistakes were made.
Moscow’s foreign policy also serves this paradigm. Take the most notorious case, the Katyn Forest massacre, for instance. At the end of the 1980s, during perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev resolved to re-visit the case and admit Soviet guilt to an extent. But he also created a propaganda safety hatch: the story of 40,000 Bolshevik POWs who allegedly died in Polish captivity in 1920. In fact, some Soviet prisoners did die, along with the Polish guards and hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians because of hunger and epidemics, in particular so-called “Spanish fever” which decimated Europe in the wake of the First World War. But at the twilight of the USSR the Soviet propaganda introduced a false narrative to posit a parity between Stalin’s treatment of Polish POWs and Piłsudski’s attitude to captive Bolsheviks. The humbug of the Red military martyrs is alive and well under Putin, despite the impressive cooperative effort by Russian and Polish scholars alike, which conclusively has shown that Poland did not massacre Soviet POWs in 1920.
David Satter, the former Moscow correspondent, clearly and succinctly explains all these intricacies of Russia’s pathology with great wisdom and compassion. He hopes to enlighten the Westerners about the sources of Moscow’s condition and, perhaps, to help the Russians defeat their historical amnesia. Remembrance is an indispensable tool to imagine and implement freedom. Russia will learn this or relapse deeper into servitude.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics , A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.