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In Stalin's Shadow

This spring, for the first time in half a century, Moscow will be draped with official portraits of Joseph Stalin. Three-by-five feet images of the dictator will be on display near the Bolshoi Theater, by the entrance to Gorky Park, and in other prominent places around the capital. According to the authorities, the 65th anniversary of victory in World War II would be incomplete without posters of the “commander-in-chief.” The plan will go ahead despite protests by prominent cultural figures, opposition leaders, and human rights activists who describe it as an insult to the memory of millions killed by the communist regime.

Within months of becoming president, Vladimir Putin reinstated the melody of Stalin’s “Anthem of the Bolshevik Party” as the national anthem of Russia. In 2002, he decreed that past employment in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union should be equated to Russian government service. The bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet terror machine, was returned to Moscow police headquarters, and monuments to KGB chairman Yuri Andropov were installed in Rybinsk and Petrozavodsk. New textbooks teach Russian children that Stalin’s mass purges were “adequate to the task of modernization.” A recent OSCE resolution that stated the obvious by condemning “two major totalitarian regimes, Nazi and Stalinist, which brought genocide, violations of human rights and freedoms, war crimes and crimes against humanity” was passionately denounced by the Kremlin as a “distortion of history.”

It is hardly surprising that a former KGB officer who famously referred to the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” should be nostalgic for totalitarian symbols. What is unforgivable, in retrospect, is the misplaced magnanimity of the victors of Russia’s democratic revolution, who in the early 1990s decided against full-scale decommunization that was pursued in other states of Eastern and Central Europe. Soviet rule was condemned by the highest judicial authority: In its ordinance #9-P, dated November 30, 1992, the Russian Constitutional Court declared that “governing structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were initiators…of the policies of repression directed at millions.” Yet there were no lustrations for former regime officials, no Nuremberg-style trial of the Leninist-Stalinist ideology, no designation of the KGB as a criminal entity. The leaders of democratic Russia, wary of perceived “witch hunts,” ignored prophetic warnings from Galina Starovoitova and Vladimir Bukovsky that “witches”, if not dealt with, will return—and begin a “hunt” of their own.

No one will ever know how many people were killed by the Soviet regime in the 20th century. Russia’s Memorial Society puts the number at 12 million. The U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation estimates it to be 20 million. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote of 55 million. Peasants, priests, poets, scientists, military officers, deported nations, and anyone who fit the dictatorship’s definition of “enemies of the people”—from the first victims of the Red Terror in 1918 to the young men crushed by tanks in Moscow in 1991—were destroyed by the ruthless system.

For a future democratic Russia, to honor their memory is a moral imperative, and to prevent another return to the past—a practical necessity. Those who will guide Russia to restoration of democracy must never forget the hard-learned lessons of the 1990s.

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