And So History Always Wins
May 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
Warning: this is not a pleasant post.
Week 18: It Was A Long Time Ago And It Never Happened Anyway by David Satter
I am a German historian by training. Although my expertise includes a wider understanding of Eastern European history, I’m by no means a Russian historian. I know a good bit about Russia, especially in the 20th century, but I can’t call myself anything close to an expert, especially with regards to events post-Communism (1991 on).
But this book tells us a bigger story, something greater, and at the same time, lesser. There’s a common thread in 20th century history that really holds true in this book: there are things that you’d rathernotknow. That’s one of the terrible things about studying something that you didn’t know much about before. There is a good chance you’ll find out something that changes your perception of the world for the worse. In this case, you will learn that Russia is a place that hurts, and hurts badly.
When Lenin and the Bolsheviks created a Russian government in 1917, it was not a done deal. They spent six years embroiled in a horrible civil war that killed millions above and beyond those killed in World War I. Jews were killed, rich peasants were horribly murdered, and, frankly, anyone who even thought about disagreeing with Lenin was murdered. This was only the beginning.
Years later, once Stalin was First Secretary in the 1930s, he initiated both a period of terror under the Great Purges and the famines under forced collectivization and the Five-Year plan. Living in a period of prolonged terror became the norm among the Russian people, and all those under the Soviet government. But all was not lost, because the terror abated. Just in time for World War II.
The people of the Soviet Union were hollowed by the Great Patriotic War. Among those who fought with the Soviet armies, at least 10 million died, and when civilian losses are included, they reached up to 30 million.
30,000,000. That is more people than you will ever meet in your life multiplied by at least several thousand.
Once victory was achieved, the Soviet government extended direct control over a wide swath of Eastern Europe, reaching all the way to Germany. They established a system of repressive control, aided and abetted by a draconian intelligence system that pitted neighbour against neighbour and friend against friend. There was no peace; there was control. There was no freedom; there was the Soviet State.
Satter explores two themes that are closely linked, and he begins his exploration into the remnants of the Russian system of violence by asking why Russia does not commemorate those killed by the Soviet state. There is no national monument to those murdered by the KGB, or the Red Army, or by the pen of Stalin, and by exploring why that is, Satter argues that the statist ideal, that the Russian State is a sacred entity that must exist and must be all-powerful, is still powerful in Russia today (as embodied by Putin), and that this ideal manifests itself as a complete disregard for the people of Russia. If they were to acknowledge and commemorate the dead, then they would have to acknowledge the culpability of the state. That is impossible. The State can never be at fault, only those within it.
The people of the state, therefore, are the currency that the State spends in order to increase it’s power. There is no, as Satter argues, transcendent morality that says, “No, it is not acceptable to sacrifice your citizens in order to become more economically powerful.”There is a place outside Volvograd (once called Stalingrad) called Mamayev Kurgan. There, the Red Army was able to push back the Nazi army that encircled the city and break the siege. The phrase “meat grinder” is, unfortunately, eminently appropriate.
At the height of the struggle for the hill, Soviet battalions fed into the inferno were being annihilated ever six minutes. (Satter, 204)
Pardon my math, but that seems to come out to about 4,000 men dead every six minutes. Now that is World War II, which was the pinnacle of man’s destruction of man, and that is the Red Army which was particularly famous for treating its own men like garbage to be disposed of. While that is true. it is a legacy that lives on to this day. In the Chechen wars of the 1990s, Russian Federation forces systematically destroyed the city of Grozny: block by block and house by house. By March 7, 1995, 27,000 civilian inhabitants of Grozny had been killed. The majority were ethnic Russians and Russian citizens.
This book is much like Imperial Reckoning,which told a story that you probably did not want to hear, but once having heard it, can never look at the world the same again. That is the power of Satter’s book, but a power you wish he didn’t have.
It is important, however, to remember that Communism fell not even a generation ago. I would have been born under Communist rule had I been born in Russia. The past dies hard, and it was only the children of former Nazis who truly rejected that past. These things take time.
But Satter suggests that time may not be on the side of freedom. He points to worrying trends of increased authoritarianism and as blatant a disregard for the lives and well-being of the Russian people, even today. The book ends on the chilling note that suggests that the office of Vladimir Putin may have been responsible for terror attacks that, not only killed innocent citizens of Russia, but also propelled him into the office of President. What is more frightening about it, though, is that it seems the majority of Moscow did not believe the bombings were actually done by Chechen terrorists, and yet they still voted for Putin.
Russia, Satter argues, needs to come to terms with itself, and with the responsibility a state has to its people. And for their sake, may we hope they do.
– John is going to drink some vodka now, but remembers that there is always hope.