Step by step the edifice of Putinist version of Russian history is starting to show itself, the ultimate creation of a ruler who is desperately trying to go down into history as a creator instead of a destructor. Over the past fifteen years we have repeatedly been offered a glimpse into the man’s mind, and every time the glimpse has been unsettling. Over the years, the short and stocky-built KGB agent from backwater GDR-times Dresden has shown himself as a revengeful, narrow-minded and empathy-lacking political leader who continues to believe in all the values that Andropov’s KGB instilled in him: power-politics, coercion and where needed brutal force, a ruthless attitude to ideological “diversion” and exalting the Potemkin Village that the USSR was and Russia continues to be.
The sad issue for Putin is that he is in charge of a country that is not only a Potemkin Village, but also one that is built on corpses of the millions of people that were eaten up by the system and its hangmen and collaborators. Wherever you look in Russia you will find corpses, and many of them still lie hidden, close under the surface of the endless stretches of taiga and forests of Siberia. Russia’ history is by definition one of hardships, although in the West most people remain blinded by the other side of the story: the writers, poets, painters and other artists, the beauty of the Moscow metro… Stop! Wasn’t that one also built by forced laborers? Indeed, tens of thousands lost their lives doing so, including the engineers who suddenly became “enemies of the people”. Yet the happy Western tourists who flock to the metro only see the pretty lamps and marble, and look at statues of Bolshevik murderers without even knowing what their eyes are focused on.
Putin set himself the impossible task of rebuilding the glory of Russia without any catharsis, without ever coming clean. Rather, those who dare to “slander” Russia’s (read: Soviet) past and are engaged in “anti-Russian (Soviet) agitation and propaganda” are all foreign agents who should be banned from public life and see their voices muted by the full force of Russian (Soviet) justice. Russia is in a collective state of denial, not realizing the horrible fact that all the nightmares of seventy-five years of Communism lie to a large degree on its shoulders, and that it bears a historical responsibility that is identical if not bigger than that of Germany. Sure, the Soviet regime found many collaborators in the countries it subjected to Soviet rule, from the Baltics to Central Asia, from the Caucasus to occupied Karelia. However, it is clear that Russians or Russia-based power formed the backbone of the regime. So when Russia embraced the historical legacy of the USSR it also embraced this not so pleasant legacy. So what to do with it?
Putin has the answer, and it is typically KGB: you just rewrite it. You don’t deny, but you turn the murder of tens of millions people into a “tragic page” in the history of the heroic struggle of the Russian (Soviet) nation. In practice this means that you close the existing museum of the Gulag in Perm 36, and you have the organization “Memorial” – that like no other records the history of Soviet repression – branded as a “foreign agent”. You put everybody who deals with the issue the way you don’t like outside the law, and you respond by creating your own alternative. It is so simple, that only a KGB-mind could think of it.
So here we are, a new Gulag museum opened in Moscow, a State organization and paid by the KGB-state that wants to commemorate its victims. It finds allies in the widow of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of the momentous work “Gulag Archipelago” who, like Putin, believed in the historical destiny of the Russian people and the inviolability of Russia’s borders – the Imperial borders, for sure, the ones that include the Baltics, Finland, preferably also Poland, definitely Ukraine… Among the allies is also the American historian Stephen Cohen, already in the 1980s an apologist for the “peace-loving” Soviet regime and now one of Putin’s apologists. The original creator of the idea of the museum, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, son of a prominent Bolshevik who fell victim to his own regime, and who died without seeing his dream fulfilled, would turn around in his grave knowing that of all people it was Putin who stole his idea and turned it into another distasteful element in his quest to rewrite history.
Putin has one powerful ally: the ignorance of Westerners, Western leaders included. Most forgot about the Soviet past, many were basically still wearing diapers when the USSR disintegrated. What do they know about the execution of 7 million Soviet citizens, the horrible deaths in the taigas of Siberia of some 14 million others, the at least 7 million Ukrainians killed in the artificial hunger of 1932-1933, and the millions of others who lost their lives while “contributing” to the biggest catastrophe in human history?
While writing this I watch another parade on Red Square in Moscow celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany. I lost track of how many parades we had over the past years, and don’t even want to think how many are still ahead. I watch the glorification of battle, knowing full well that hundreds of families in St. Petersburg and elsewhere are in desperate grief over their lost ones, killed on the plane brought down as a result of another one of Putin’s “successful” policies. I see the troops marching in white winter-uniforms, and remember the 400,000 Soviet soldiers who lost their lives during the Russo-Finnish War of 1940, another of those useless battles wages by one of Putin’s great examples, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin. And I wonder where this all is going to end.
I am sure, however, of one thing: Putin has much more up his sleeve. We already know it will include the inauguration of a monument to victims of political repression, yet another disgusting situation where the hangman “honors” his victims after killing them. It will involve more military adventures, leading to soldiers losing their lives in “accidents” and families told to shut up or pay the price. And it will definitely lead to more suffering for the Russian people, and for those nations who happen to have the fate of living in their neighborhood.
And Putin? Putin is probably admiring himself in the mirror, a mirror that distorts the image and makes him as big as he would like to be.