Dusty and streaked with dirt, an enormous bust of Vladimir Lenin, finished only from the nose up, sits in a desolate courtyard. Its eyes seem to have risen from the ground itself, peering at all who pass by.
Taken in 1992, just months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is the photograph that appears on the cover of the latest book by veteran U.S. journalist and Russia-watcher David Satter.
The choice is fitting, for the main argument of “It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway” is that Russia today is haunted by the specter of unfinished Soviet business — or rather, unfinished emotional processing, on both the level of the state and in the Russian psyche, of the great human tragedy of the Soviet Union.
Satter writes, “In Russia, the idea that tragic history can be absorbed and made part of the national consciousness has not been acknowledged.”
Moreover, he argues, the failure to fully acknowledge the root of communism’s crimes — the idea that individuals are inconsequential in the state’s pursuit of its goals — has allowed the same dynamic to take hold in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“I think it would take a psychological change in Russia. I think it would take a change in mentality. I think it would take a commitment on the part of people in Russia to defend the integrity of the individual,” Satter says. “That commitment isn’t there. It’s not that Russians don’t value their own lives or value the lives of those who are close to them, but they’re too willing to write off the deaths, for example, of hostages in hostage situations, the deaths of Russian soldiers from hazing or in training exercises, the deaths in hospitals from mistakes or incompetence, deaths from accidents, suicides, murders. It’s a society that doesn’t do enough to protect life and protect individuals.”
Lost In The Cityscape
Satter argues that the foundation of that attitude was laid in tsarist times and solidified during the unprecedented brutality of the communist period. He writes that the “lack of will to understand the moral significance of what took place” has only deepened that mindset.
The memorials that do exist to some of the estimated 20 million who died at the hands of the Soviet regime were mostly created during perestroika and are often lost in the cityscape. The Solovetsky Stone, a boulder from the site of the first Soviet camps for political prisoners, sits today in Moscow’s Lyubyanskaya Square, the home of the former KGB, but is overshadowed by the buildings it is meant to decry.
There is neither a national monument nor a national museum to the victims of the communist terror, Satter notes. And more importantly, there is no national anger about it.
Along with examples from across the country, Satter’s book memorializes in writing some of the hundreds of sites throughout Moscow that remain without plaques or statues — the sites of KGB murders and executions that he says have been too easily resigned to history.
The building at 23 Nikolskaya Street in the capital, where 35,000 people were sentenced to death, will soon become part of an entertainment complex.
“The feeling of revulsion or horror at the actions of the regime is largely absent today,” the author says, adding that “the sites of mass killings are either noted in a haphazard way or not at all.”
“As I mention in the book, if you walk down Bolshaya Dzerzhinskaya Street, past the building on the corner of Varsonofevsky Lane, you see a kind of unwashed, three-story building [with] no indication that there were mass executions carried out there,” Satter says. “And there are many other such examples.”
‘Ship Of Death’
That building, called the “ship of death” by the Muscovites who know its story, lies just steps away from a restaurant called The Shield and Sword, an establishment that celebrates the dreaded security services. Satter recalls a conversation with the restaurant’s manager that captured the forgiving attitude of many Russians.
A city bus is decorated with a portrait of Josef Stalin on a street in St. Petersburg. (file photo)
”If you entered the restaurant, the first thing you saw was a white bust of [former KGB chief and Communist Party General Secretary Yury] Andropov festooned with flowers and then statues and portraits of all of the former leaders of the state security, including the most bloodthirsty and the most criminal — [chiefs of the Soviet secret police Lavrenty] Beria, [and Nikolai] Yezhov,” Satter says.
“I went there and I talked to the manager and I asked him if he had any qualms about putting up these portraits, and he gave a reply that’s actually quite typical of a certain segment of Russian opinion. He said, ‘You can’t judge what happened by the standards of today. It was a different historical situation [and] different requirements.'”
The wave of anticommunist sentiment that followed the fall of the Soviet Union was essentially squashed in 2005, Satter argues, when then-President Vladimir Putin infamously declared that the breakup was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Weight Of The Past
Satter says the failure of Russians to judge the communist era in moral terms fits well into Putin’s designs.
Memorializing these crimes has been discouraged and the celebration of the past has been promoted, he says. Former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzkhov famously advocated returning a statue of the first Soviet secret police director, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, to central Moscow, where it had stood until the 1991 coup. In recent years, the city of Orel has approved rehabilitating statues of Stalin.
As time passes, Russians will find it even harder to feel the weight of their past, Satter says.
“If there’s little incentive now to go to the trouble of marking the burial sites, of commemorating the victims, of in fact passing judgment on the persecutors, how much less interest will there be in five, 10, 15 years, where the rush of events will have put it even further in the past?” he asks.
“It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway” will be published in the United States on December 13. Russian and Ukrainian versions are also being planned.