Remembering Avtorkhanov and Reaffirming His Ideals
Conference on Centenary of Abdurakkhman Avtorkhanov
November 10, 2018
Thirty-five years ago, on June 6, 1983 as a junior State Department bureau of intelligence and research analyst on soviet nationalities, I had the honor of organizing and hosting Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov in the Bureau of European Affairs conference room where more than 50 senior officials from around the US government came to listen to this great man.
That meeting was important for me for personal reasons, but much more so for political reasons then and political reasons now, with the last being perhaps the most significant. Today, I’d like to briefly discuss each of them with you.
A decade before that event as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I prepared a seminar paper on Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars and other nations during World War II. In the course of preparing it, I read the 1958 volume of the Institute for the Study of the USSR entitled Genocide in the USSR as well as Avtorkhanov’ss 1952 classic, Narodoubisstvo v SSR. The latter title is usually translated as genocide in the USSR, but Avtorkhanov told me that it had a far broader meaning and was better translated as “killing people.”
In my paper, I referred to the NKVD’s effort to hide the fact that it had missed four Crimean Tatar villages by loading every man, woman and child in them into garbage scows and taking htem out into the Black Sea before bludgeoning them to death. My professor, one of the leading Sovietologists of the time, said that as bad as the Soviets were, they wouldn’t have done that. He was wrong as Avtorkhanov confirmed to me in our conversations in June 1983 – and as the archives showed after they were opened at the end of Soviet times. In fact, as the great Chechen leader said, Moscow’s minions have done far worse.
In the 35 years since that time, I’ve never forgotten those words about the evil the Soviet system represented. They stayed with me every day of my career at the State Department, Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, and now in retirement as a blogger at Window on Eurasia. Indeed, I am proud to call myself his students and can say that in many ways I owe my career to Avtorkhanov, both his books and his remarks.
But neither then nor now am I important. Avtorkhanov however was and is. His talk at State was important because it reminded his audience that fighting communism wasn’t enough; one had to fight Russian imperialism as well. That is something many found difficult to accept because it was a larger challenge and carried with it challenges that few wanted to shoulder. But in 1983, it was a subject that was in the air.
Eight months earlier at his Guildhall speech in London, President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” Many didn’t want to accept that or at least the evil part. But Avtorkhanov argued persuasively on the basis of his personal experience and expertise that Reagan was right on both counts, that the West had to join with the peoples of the Soviet empire to defeat it and give all of them the chance for a better and independent life.
Avtorkhanov thus helped turn the tide in Reagan’s direction – the meeting gave him a rare standing ovation at the end of his talks – and helped set the stage for the end of the USSR in 1991 and the continuing struggle with Russian imperialism since that time.