The lack of a proper assessment of communism and appreciation of the past’s importance led to the warning signs being ignored.
.In the morning of 24 February, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance sent a letter to its partners, informing about the Russian aggression and the beginning of fighting. It also contained the following statement: “we would like to emphasize once again that today’s war between the Russian Federation and Ukraine has become possible on a large scale because the crimes of the Soviet communist totalitarian regime have not been properly condemned by the world community. This is clearly seen in the words and actions of the president of the Russian Federation.”
Obviously the following cannot be strictly proven, but many arguments supports such a vision of this war’s roots. Most importantly, Russia would look different today had that been done. Unluckily, the process of decommunisation initiated by Boris Yeltsin broke down quickly. The communist party, despite losing assets, was quickly reborn. Contrary to the hopes of Vladimir Bukovsky, the documents confirming soviet crimes he retrieved from secret archives did not become ground for a “second Nurnberg”.
Such a reckoning would surely have allowed the Russian society to be based on truly democratic values. Condemning lies, dictature and crimes would mean promoting truth, democracy and justice, would make building a civil society possible. Even the current government saw that. Ten years ago the Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights (there is one!) under the then president Dmitry Medvedev prepared a document admitting that dealing with the past is a necessary condition for modernizing Russia: “Historical experience shows that a modernization can only be successful if both the elites and the entire society are united in a common sense of civic responsibility toward history. And this sense, the sense of responsible country leadership, cannot in turn be resurrected by hiding – not from the outside world, but from ourselves – the truth about what our nation has done with itself in the 20th century. Hiding the truth about the past robs us of the possibility of respecting our own nation, without which we cannot create the basis for a true patriotism, which in turn means that modernization remains a distant wish.” The prepared programme was to be implemented by the then prime minister Vladimir Putin.
In a decommunised Russia, the KGB would be dissolved, and not only renamed. The chance for a colonel of the disgraced organization to lead the nation wouldn’t be high.
However, this isn’t only about Russia. Regardless of the (rarely) more or (usually) less successful attempts at dealing with the past in particular countries, the experience of communism was not dealt with in a general manner. A new Nurnberg was not organized – we did not organize it – neither in a legal nor symbolic dimension. The existing instruments of international law were not used, most importantly the rule of universal jurisdiction – any state can prosecute crimes against humanity or genocide.
When the “Black Book of Communism” was published 25 years ago, many intellectual circles have rejected its findings. The European Parliament needed a decade to add the word “communism” next to “stalinism” in the condemnation of totalitarian systems in its anniversary resolutions. In the House of European History in Brussels the section devoted to totalitarianism still contains only the former. The appeal for prosecution of communist crimes Bukovsky published (jointly with prof. Renato Cristin) soon before he died was signed only by a few dozen Western intellectuals and a handful of politicians.
A public acknowledgement of communist crimes and denouncement of the system would not only be an act of justice for the victims. It may be naive, but I believe that if communism was viewed equally with Nazism, the West would be more careful about a former KGB agent leading Russia. Most importantly however, the fact that the basis of understanding his mentality and nature lies in his soviet and security service past would not be ignored. Meanwhile, the opening of archives in Central-East Europe (including in particular Ukrainian ones) was only a new avenue of historical research and a new source of media scandals. The process was not seen as a chance to gain knowledge allowing us to understand Putin’s regime and counteract his aggressive aspirations.
The lack of a proper assessment of communism and appreciation of the past’s importance led to the warning signs being ignored. The most important ones were the persecution of independent Russian historians, the effective rehabilitation of Stalin and last but not least a long-term campaign of historical disinformation. The latter was mainly directed against Ukraine, but also Poland and Baltic Countries, and in recent times also Czech Republic and some Western countries. Putin’s personal engagement in the last three years – articles, public appearances – was ignored. At best, those statements were treated as proof of a harmless obsession with the past, and not a sign of future aggression. Only the dictator’s insane appeal from February 21 made everyone realize that history matters.
However, we should remember that it is not only a matter of Putin’s Russia. Condemning communism would also put relations with the People’s Republic of China – in which Mao’s and his successors’ crimes have grown enormous – under consideration. More than a half of all victims of communism were Chinese. What’s more, it is not only in the past – the destruction of Tibet’s identity, Uyghur genocide and the persecution of religious groups and the few remaining dissidents are ongoing. And it seems nobody is bothered by it, since the whole world participated in the Olympiad in Beijing. After our eyes are opened towards Russia’s true nature, will the same happen towards China? Are we ready not only for higher oil prices, but also giving up cheap Chinese production? Or does a cheaper smartphone mean more to use than freedom, truth, and justice?
.I share the conviction of my Ukrainian friends that the lack of a reckoning of communism is one of the reasons for the current war. They ended their letter with “This work has yet to be done after the victory of the civilized world over the aggressor!” It is paradoxical that I find it hard to share the optimism filling those words written in bombarded Kiev.