24.07.2009 | Halya Coynash

Shouting down history


In a Hassidic tale a wise man who has long realized that no one is paying him any heed, continues loudly calling people to repentance so that the crowd’s din does not deafen him. What the Russian authorities are calling to would seem little connected with repentance while who they’re trying to deafen is also worth considering. The following is about what they obliquely term “historical policy”, but I am prompted to write these words by very different thoughts which no cacophonous racket will deafen.

On 15 July the human rights defender Natalya Estemirova was abducted in Chechnya and murdered. Calls were immediately heard from all over the world for an independent investigation to be carried out. The words were virtually the same as those heard six months ago following the murders of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, and earlier after Anna Politkovskaya’s murders and others.

From people close to Natalya in the Memorial Human Rights Centre we heard also that the policy of terror had probably succeeded. How many times can you send people you hold dear to their death, how many orphaned children are needed?

The terror will continue. There will be more killings, abductions, torture, only nobody will know.

Who launched this terrorist war I would not like to judge, however the fact that the Russian authorities are doing so shamefully little to wrench the country from this vicious cycle of lawlessness and impunity makes them complicit in terror.

They seem to have other concerns. Take, for example, the war they’ve declared – supposedly defensive but they’re ready to fight it on foreign territory. They plan to fight historians, the media and politicians. Anyone in fact who dares to use the word “occupation” to describe the presence of Soviet forces and the NKVD from 17 September 1939 on territory which was then part of sovereign Poland, or their analogous and no less bloody presence in the Baltic Republics from June 1940.

Just keep up the decibels. Make sure that the din prevents us from considering the far from easy choice of an alternative word to “occupation”. Dull people’s attention through a torrent of words about monsters supposedly “rehabilitating the organizers of the Holocaust” or who collaborated with the Nazis. Make people wax indignant that “sometimes collaborators are given a larger pension than soldiers of the Soviet Army” and not even think to check what exactly is going on and where. No proof whatsoever, but the principle is simple: the more often you repeat the claims, the greater the likelihood that it will all be taken as long-known – and proven – facts.

No less effective a technique is to muddle different things or to combine issues which cannot be squeezed into one category. In the introduction to an interview with Modest Koperov, one of the members of the working group which drew up the Russian draft law “on combating the rehabilitation of fascism”, we hear about two legislative initiatives – that in Russia and the tabling in parliament by Ukraine’s President of a draft law aimed at imposing criminal liability for denial of Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people. One can point out various differences, however since I myself consider such an initiative to be an unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression, I will stay with just one. In Ukraine this really can be called an initiative which effectively had no chance of becoming law. It was roundly criticized by some historians and in the media, as well, of course, as in parliament. In the Russian Federation such decisions are taken “up top”. Mr Koperov can go on as much as he likes about “a lot of real bureaucratic decisions” to try to explain why the draft law has not yet been passed. Just as nobody had any doubts a year ago as to the name of Russia’s next “President” after Putin had made his choice, now too it is clear to everybody where the fate of this draft law will be determined.

It could just conceivably be that the constant muddle between State and individual initiatives is due to the lack of any clear dividing line in the Russian Federation. Russian journalists probably have difficulty understanding that some Neanderthal activists from the rightwing parties VO “Svoboda” or “Patriot of Ukraine” are not repeating the official policy from Kyiv. Maybe just maybe they haven’t noticed that it is no easy matter in Ukraine’s political bedlam to decide what policy is “official” anyway. The Russian media may not grasp the difference however those in power must know where a country’s official position ends and free expression of different views begins. And if they’re declaring war, then it would seem appropriate to ascertain the direct target of their considerable arsenal.

It is difficult of late to rid oneself of the feeling that the Russian authorities are trying to shout down half the world. Mr Koperov’s point of view regarding the recent OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Resolution “Divided Europe Reunited” (hereafter the Resolution) is repeated by Russia’s Council of the Federation which “strongly condemns attempts to give a biased interpretation of historical facts”. The following is clearly prompted by the Resolution:

“they are resorting to active efforts to reconsider the real reasons for the War and to place blame for the beginning of the War equally on the USSR and Hitler’s Germanyand at the same time to absolve those who abetted the Nazis and committed crimes on the territory of countries occupied by the Nazis”.

It would be worth seeking an assessment of the Council’s following conclusions from both political analysts and psychiatrists however there is something else which is even more staggering. There is absolutely nothing in the Resolution which even remotely warrants such an accusation. The Resolution states that:

“in the 20th century, European countries experienced two major totalitarian regimes, the Nazi and the Stalinist, which brought along genocide, violations of human rights and freedoms, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

It only recalls “the initiative of the European Parliament to proclaim 23 August, when the Ribbentrop –Molotov pact was signed 70 years ago, as a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, in order to preserve the memory of the victims of mass deportations and exterminations”

Do we have a situation like the statements once made in the Soviet Union about the novel “Doctor Zhivago” – “I haven’t read it but I know that it’s disgusting anti-Soviet propaganda”? Hardly likely: the Resolution is put succinctly and it is difficult to imagine that nobody is following the bemused reactions from various organizations, including Memorial, which have already publicly pointed out the bizarre misreading. 

I suspect they were counting on something else. They assumed that the Resolution would not be read and that people would simply be indignant at entirely fabricated disrespect for the soldiers of the Red Army. People would be right to feel indignation – were there even a modicum of truth in the allegations. There is not.

What they were trying to achieve besides reflex indignation is hard to gauge. If they hoped with their draft law “on combating the rehabilitation of fascism” and “commission on countering attempts to falsify history” to force European countries to simply not mention the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the Molotov Rippentrop Pact and the events up to June 1941, then they clearly miscalculated.

What is of much more concern are their plans within the Russian Federation itself, and in post-Soviet countries. The hysterical shouting about an imagined “offence to our multinational people” does not only revive unhealthy stereotypes from Cold War days. It also blurs the main issue, one that is subject to no doubt or justification – the crimes of the Stalin regime. The process of “reassessing” Stalin’s role and Soviet history altogether is in full swing and they have clutched at the War and are using soldiers with no less shameful cynicism than did the dictator himself.

That this will not wash in the international arena is clear, although admittedly those in the Kremlin and Federal Security Service may lack the mental scope required to comprehend this. In the West the shameful and treacherous nature of the 1938 Munich Agreement is not in question, and the pact between Hitler and Stalin is also largely viewed in the context of events as a whole. Stalinism is condemned as a bloody totalitarian system which claimed the lives of millions of innocent people.

Difficult to fathom the lack of respect for ones own people needed to find justification for the crimes of Stalin’s regime. And no deafening din can conceal the foul Soviet propaganda techniques being used by the Russian authorities.

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