Wednesday, February 5, 2020

‘Sooner or Later’ Russia Must Follow Germany’s Approach to the Past, Sergey Medvedev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 31 – Russians are now wallowing in their past but “literally going around the edge of the enormous black hole [of Stalin’s crimes], afraid to look into it,” Sergey Medvedev says. But if they are to make progress, they must behave as Germany has done, acknowledging the crimes their country has committed.

            “Sooner or later,” the Russian historian told a EU-sponsored seminar at Oxford, “Russia will have to pass along the same path” if Russia is to reacquire a future (

            “Memory has become one of the most important platforms of present-day political life,” the historian says, “the sphere where the hottest wars are breaking out. Twenty years ago, no on thought that the past would become ‘a mine field’ where we would fight over the interpretation of World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin and so on.”

            “Now this has become mainstream” especially in Russia and especially in this 75th anniversary year of the end of World War II. The fact that the Polish president did not go to Jerusalem and the Russian president was not invited to Auschwitz is emblematic of this fight over the past as a way of dealing with the present and future.

            And as Medvedev notes, it recalls the old Radio Armenia joke: Will there be a third world war? The station is asked. No, there won’t be such a war, “but there will be such a struggle for peace that it may seem like a war.” And what is striking is how rapidly this has occurred: “If in 1991, we had a world of the future, now we have a world of the past.”

            This “transformation has taken place booth in Russia and abroad, both from below at the level of individual families and personal histories and from above by governments and international coalitions.”  The question naturally arises -- “why has this occurred?” -- the Russian historian says, and why is there such “a strong demand for dignity and identity?”

            The Germans have been remarkably immune to this trend because they were forced as a defeated and occupied people to confront their  past honestly, an experience which continues to exert “a strong impression on German policy” be it with regard to thinking about the Nazis or allowing immigrants to come into the country.

            Other countries have had less success in avoiding this turn to the past in part because they did not have this German experience. Russia in particular has had “problems with memory” in part because “with us, memory is very weak: in Russia there are many badly preserved cemeteries and there are no graves which are preserved for centuries.”

            “Our memory was taken from us by the state and the empire,” Medvedev says. “The Russian people once every few decades or even more often passes through a meatgrinder” because “this is the problem of an imperial nation. And having begun a search for their roots is a delayed reaction to this lack of memory.”

            “We live with a black hole in the midst of our national memory,” Medvedev continues. “This is an enormous hole which was formed in the middle of the 20th century. We go along the edge of this black whole and are afraid to look into it.” And that opens the way for “the falsification of history” which justifies this obliviousness to the actual past.

            “Now it is considered right to think that the history of Russia is a history of victories. Suvorov, Stalin, Zhukov” and that there has been on uninterrupted series of such victories with nothing else in between. That demands averting one’s eyes and believing many things that aren’t true – and there are plenty who will supply these new myths.

            According to Medvedev, “with us, the era of utopia ended with the collapse of the USSR. But we now are nostalgic for that utopia” and its imagined benefits. “We have a Museum of Victory, but why don’t we have a museum of war?  There cannot be victories without war,” and war involves more than victory marches.

            Stalin has become fashionable with Russians:  he is now “a pure brand.” “Why? This is connected with nostalgia for order. People think that under Stalin there were no tortures in the militia. This is a kind of protest voting for Stalin. A paradox. This is a fashion which reflects an absolutely demoralized note.”

            “Not 1991, not, 1917, But 1945 and May 9, 1945 is when the USSR was at the height of its geopolitical greatness and decided the fate of the world. All of today’s geopolitics of Russia is an attempt to return to that condition,” Medvedev continues. To that end, the Putin regime has created “an indisputable myth which is easy to package and sell to the people.”

            But this isn’t going to save Russia, he says. The only thing that will is to go along the path Germany did, one that involves both “soft memory like literature and stories, and hard like laws, memorials and school textbooks. In Germany there are both.” Russia needs to have both as well.

            “Memory is a question of enlightenment. On need not insist on one’s memory; one must recognize one’s guilt. The vicious circle is broken when all the participating sides recognize their particular guilt – Germany for the Holocaust and Russia for the occupation of Eastern Europe, the border guards, SMERSH, and its attacks on Poles about the Holocaust.”

            And then Medvedev concludes: “Only from that point will Rebirth begin. In the opposite case, the memory wars are fraught with civic, political and military conflicts.”

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