Still not sorry for Soviet crimes

  • 2005-03-23
  • By Vladimir Kovalyev
For the last couple of months, I have been wondering what is wrong with the Russian political elite. Its members are behaving like obstinate donkeys and stupidly dragging their heels on any reconciliation with the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have one simple request: that Russia recognize that Josef Stalin committed crimes against their citizens. In other words, they are asking the Kremlin to do exactly what Germany did decades ago in relation to Adolf Hitler.

I was surprised by the government's reluctance. Many members of the Russian political elite, including President Vladimir Putin, were born in the 1950s and 1960s, which means that their formative years came during the era of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev. Every more or less educated person in the Soviet Union understood that the way the Soviet rulers ran the country was wrong, and in the case of Stalin extremely wrong.

In the 1970s, Soviet citizens started getting the picture that their state was going nowhere. Sitting in their kitchens on weekday nights, they privately told jokes about Brezhnev and his incompetent senility. Young people who were lucky enough to live in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, would head to Tallinn for weekends to see a city that seemed "almost" the West.

Even then, it was obvious to anyone who had eyes to see that Estonia and the other Baltic states did not belong to the Soviet Union in spirit, let alone in their cultures, which were clearly and strongly influenced by Western and Central European traditions. The Soviet Union's culture was not.

Putin must have felt this striking difference in his youth when he traveled to the Baltics. He likely wouldn't have gotten so excited about Germany if he hadn't.

This is why I was long baffled by the Kremlin's failure to understand the Baltic states' request. But recently, I suddenly got an answer to the riddle and figured out why Russia refused. Apparently, many people in Russia, likely including some of the political elite, have yet to learn from the mistakes of Stalinism.

The answer came in the form of a survey conducted this month by the state-controlled VTsIOM polling agency. Pollsters asked Russians if they thought that their country needed a ruler similar to Stalin. Almost half of all respondents, 42 percent, answered yes. In the age group that most of the political elite belong to 's 45 to 59-years-old 's 52 percent favored Stalinist-style leadership. But most worrying was that 45 percent of young Russians 's 18 to 24 years 'swere also positive about the tyrant.

These figures filled me with despair. I simply cannot imagine going into a club or bar in some European city and discovering that half the people there thought Hitler was great.

But something akin to this nightmare scenario would be completely possible in any hotspot in any Russian city, if we believe the survey. Every second person would have positive thoughts about a ruler who killed tens of millions of Soviet citizens and who executed or sent to concentration camps millions of foreigners.

Yet his young admirers look up to him and have the encouragement of a significant portion of the older generation. They seemed to have missed the point in the 1970s and then later at the end of the 1980s when the truth about the crimes committed by the Soviet regime came out.

With attitudes like this, the Baltic states should not hold their breath or expect any apologies any time soon. The national political elite is stuck in a time warp and dragging the young generation behind it.

I fully support the decisions made by Estonia and Lithuania's leaders not to come to Moscow on May 9. Their refusal has at least initiated a wide discussion in Russia and a heated debate on both sides about the crimes committed by the Soviet regime. Maybe if Russians talk about it more often, the percent of Stalin supporters will decline.

This article first appeared in The St. Petersburg Times, where Vladimir Kovalyev is a staff writer.