Russia is condemning itself to repeat history

Visitors look at works on display at the opening of “The Commissar Vanishes” exhibition in the state museum of Gulag history in Moscow, April 2, 2012. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Visitors look at works on display at the opening of “The Commissar Vanishes” exhibition in the state museum of Gulag history in Moscow, April 2, 2012. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

It’s a central tenet of liberal thinking and liberal politics that facing one’s own country’s history is an activity necessary to the mental health of the people.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the chronicler of Soviet oppression, said on his return to his native soil in 1994 after 20 years in exile that “national reconciliation is a great thing and much needed, but there cannot be national reconciliation without spiritual cleansing.”

Solzhenitsyn was an uncertain liberal: but in this he agrees with a paid-up member of the liberal intelligentsia, Ian Buruma. In his Wages of Guilt, he contrasted the German assumption of responsibility for Nazi atrocities with the stuttering response of the Japanese to their war guilt, writing that “when society has become sufficiently open and free to look back, from the point of view neither of the victim nor of the criminal, but of the critic, only then will the ghosts be laid to rest.”

Russia, flexing old imperial muscles, now sees history as a weapon in the neo-imperialist armory. Not for the present regime the muddled forays into the dark — Soviet — past. Unlike the government of President Boris Yeltsin, which came to power through the ruins of the Soviet Union, President Vladimir Putin needs the past to be scrubbed clean of all possible embarrassments. The Soviet period — in which the working class lad he was rose to be a lieutenant colonel in the KGB — is seen again, with some regrettable lapses, as a period of heroism and global power.

Russian power has always tended to totalize, all institutions looking to the Kremlin. The Orthodox Church was part of this: it has many saintly and gracious figures in its past, but institutionally, it was among the first to bow to state power. So it is again.

Solovetsky Monastery, a religious citadel on a bleak island in the Russian far north of the same name, has a bleaker history. Purged of monks, it became, in 1926, a concentration camp. That past has been remembered every year since, with a ceremony commemorating the camp’s victims on Aug. 7. Last month, for the first time, neither the state nor the church sent a representative. Solovetsky was to be consigned to the memory hole.

Yet Solovetsky had been greater in historical memory than just one more prison camp site. It was among the first created by the victorious communists after their 1917 seizure of state power, a laboratory for the cruelty visited on the millions who passed through, and often ended in, the Gulag.

In 1989, in Moscow, I went to a showing of a documentary film made about the prison-monastery: the showing was remarkable for the presence of Raisa Gorbacheva, wife of then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. We watched, as a litany of horrors rolled out from the screen. The prisoners were beaten, half starved, worked for 12 hours a day in sub-zero temperatures, punished by such inventive methods as being strapped to a heavy log and rolled downhill, or (in the brief summer) tied to the ground and eaten to death by swarms of voracious mosquitoes.

What Raisa Maximovna made of it, I could not say; her security detail blocked any attempt to get near. But I was moved, horrified — and cheered, that it was being done and shown at (near) the highest level in the Soviet state.

Now, the commemorative initiatives taken for the monastery have largely gone, or shifted outside the walls. The monastery’s hierarchy prefers it that way. Yuri Brodsky, a former engineer who became a fulltime activist for remembering the dark past, told New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquar that “repentance does not mean we should hide our heads… rather we should look back and think about the path we followed.”

Russia is looking back: but it is seeing a glorified tableau of its past, whether Soviet or Czarist. The critical view is strictly forbidden. It seems to give the nation strength, but it weakens its civil society as much as the present Western sanctions and low oil price weakens its economy.

Of course Russia is hardly alone in its struggle with its darker history. My own Britain is over its imperial urge, laid to rest from the post-war 1940s onward. Most books written of the imperial period recognize the oppressions it brought, while sometimes arguing — as did Niall Ferguson in his 2003 “Empire, How Britain Made the Modern World” — that its effects could also be benign. But the two incidents Indians most strongly underscore as imperial horrors — the massacre in Amritsar of some 370 demonstrators by the British army in 1919, and the Bengal Famine of 1943, when Britain was still the imperial power — have received no apologies, which angers some.

Prime Minister David Cameron did visit the Amritsar killing ground in 2013 – the first UK Prime Minister to do so – but offered no formal apology, arguing that he was there “to pay respect to those who lost their lives, to remember what happened, to learn the lessons… time, to learn from the bad and to cherish the good.” Tony Blair, when prime minister, took a line similar to Cameron’s. He said of the Irish famine (1845-52), “that one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.” So with slavery, which the British at first promoted, then proactively banned. While still leader of the opposition, Blair expressed “sorrow,” but no apology.

I’m with Cameron and Blair on this: It is wrong to apologize, for that assumes you (personally) have done — or not done — something that you could have remedied. The arch realist, Lady Macbeth, remarked: “things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done is done.” An apology implicitly promises a possible remedy.

Black spots shouldn’t, however, be “without regard”: it’s essential to acknowledge their place in history, even when you have no personal or institutional guilt to assuage — for history lives, changes and influences always.

So efforts to grasp the nature of the past and to take, as Buruma put it, “the point of view of the critic” aren’t just historical.

Critical thinking on the past hurts national pride: but it soothes national anxiety, punctures national arrogance, moderates nationalist aggression.

It’s a prophylactic against history repeating itself.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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