'Soviet Times': the Real Russian Catastrophe

Vladimir Putin has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th Century. Western leaders have been quick to brand this as old-fashioned thinking. 

Their condescension sounds eerily like Neville Chamberlain’s remark that Hitler “missed the bus” in the Czech crisis.

The “bus” the Russians have missed is not failure to accept the breakup of the Soviet Empire. Rather, the great “catastrophe” of the 20th Century was its very existence. Behind this difference lies the amnesia that enables President Putin’s adventurism in the Ukraine and his determination to put the wheels back on a malevolent and lethal machine.

In 1989, the entire world witnessed the defeat of the Soviet Union across every front: ideology, economics, technology, and moral philosophy. This purported “catastrophe” freed enslaved satellite states from the terror and autocracy exported by the Bolsheviks across Eastern Europe.

Initially the Russian people joined with central and eastern Europeans in shedding the corporeal and spiritual chains of totalitarianism. But the moment proved fleeting when the Russians looked into the abyss and recoiled.

Russians now refer to their entire history from 1917 through 1989 as “Soviet Times.” Not Communist Era or the Reign of the Bolsheviks. Not the Red Terror or the Evil Empire. They instead adopted an anodyne phrase that has the ring of a Californian’s recollection of forbears who came from “somewhere back east.”

“Soviet Times” are comfortably moored far away from anyone’s experience or understanding, like a mysterious civilization that melted into the Siberian forests, leaving behind no people, artifacts, or runes. The disastrous policies and practices, the systematized cruelties, the twisted logic, and the murderous paranoia are lodged in some other universe of the mind, providing no leaven for thought or opinion, and certainly no instinct to examine with skepticism the leadership of Russia Redux.

Leningrad has reverted back to St. Petersburg to get the stink off of its name. Yet Lenin’s corpse still molders on display in Red Square. The Communist Party is now a maligned splinter group, but Putin’s United Russia Party is led by the nomenklatura of the old CPSU. Artwork confiscated by the Bolsheviks is still hanging in the Winter Palace innocuously labeled “from the collection of” the victim, while masterpieces looted in World War II are proudly displayed as glorious battle trophies. GUM department store in Red Square is now a luxury mall that would make a Kardashian blush, but the missile parade and goosestepping still headline the May Day parade. 

One looks in vain for Russian literature or journalism exposing the predations of the Communist regime during “Soviet Times.” There is no scholarship that draws lessons from the “success” of the Comintern and Stalin in infiltrating and purging foreign political parties, particularly Social Democrats and other home-grown leftists. There is no accounting of how many of the much vaunted 20 million Soviet dead in the “Great Patriotic War” fell at the hands of grossly incompetent generals, “state security organs,” well-armed commissars, and willfully blind apparatchiks.    

Asked what it was like to live under surveillance by the KGB during Soviet Times, Russians will insist that they personally had never been troubled. They have no stories about how the security system co-opted them to report on the “antisocial” activities and thoughts of schoolmates, coworkers, and neighbors. None of them was a member of the Communist Party; none spent youthful days in Komsomol or the Young Pioneers. No one in their families disappeared into the gulags, and no schoolmates died of head shots in the basement of the Lubyanka -- much less prepared transportation manifeststo the Kamchatka death camps, conducted midnight interrogations, or pulled the triggers on antisocial elements.

If this degree of denial seems implausible, consider this item from ITAR/Izvestia. On April 30, as Russia was digesting the Crimea and roiling Ukraine, a deputy foreign minister denounced Western sanctions as “a revival of a system created in 1949 when Western countries essentially lowered an 'Iron Curtain', cutting off supplies of high-tech goods to the USSR and other countries."

So that’s what Winston Churchill was referring to in his Westminster College speech.

Such obliviousness to the postwar grab of Eastern Europe by the Red Army staggers the imagination. Yet it illuminates Russians’ persistence in denying and rewriting their history. It is the same attitude that is reflected in internal polls showing Russians are fervently behind the new aggressiveness of Putin’s regime. They have easily fallen back into the hands of the same bloodthirsty revanchists who ran the system in Soviet Times; indeed, they treat with indifference the ascendancy of a man whose entire career from KGB High School on is the embodiment of the very secrecy, paranoia, and megalomania that oiled the USSR.

So long as Russians remain in denial of their antecedents they will be a belligerent and dangerous force in the world. It will be equivalent to what would have unfolded if the Allies had not insisted on “de-Nazification” of postwar Germany. Germans were not allowed to rebrand and reinstall the Gauleiters, SS commanders, Gestapo thugs, and Nazi party hacks as leaders of the new republic. Sixty years on, Germans are still called to account for newly discovered instances of Nazi cruelty and kleptomania and the shameful collaboration of industrialists, professors, jurists, politicians, and civil servants.

Japan has faced the same reminders of its past wickedness. Like Germany, it has admirably restored itself and its people to the community of nations, but the reminders still come of their brutality in World War II. Efforts to attribute it to long-dead fanatics invariably fall on deaf ears.

South Africa implemented Truth and Reconciliation procedures to bring to the surface the policies and programs of apartheid and racism. The reborn republic defied expectations of a reign of terror by insisting that reconciliation and the integrity of the process be paramount.

When the USSR disintegrated, the Eastern European nations aggressively confronted their Communist past. East Germans literally seized access to the notorious Stasi files, where ordinary citizens read what their government had done to them and who among them regularly reported on “suspicious” activities of friends and colleagues. Similar stories played out in all the Baltic and Central European States. These painful experiences sharply lessen fears of the people returning to the bad old days or the bad old actors.

By contrast, the Russian people today may be fairly compared with Germans after the “Great War.” They were never forced to confront the implications of their very culture losing a titanic clash with the democracies. A generation later, Germany was back on the path to world war. So too the restored states of the Confederacy refused to examine the social constructs that had created and fostered the evils of slavery, the planter aristocracy, and the Civil War. The South truly “rose again,” but in the hands of the same malevolent forces of racism and resentment.

The “catastrophe”of 1989 was the failure of the Russian people to confront Soviet Times for what they were and to identifythe evil forces that they spawned.The ongoing crisis in Europe will not abate unless and until they remedy this failure