HISTORY, MEMORIALS & MONUMENTS: PUTIN’S SOLUTION

In my last blog I discussed the current disruption going on in America ostensibly provoked by the presence of statues of individuals which many now regard as unacceptable. The usual charge is racism. It seems to me the deeper issue is the inability of the country to come to terms with its history and persons of historical significance. Unfortunately, there is no real debate. Debate, at least as I understand it, means presenting ideas and interpretations of facts in a logical manner and being open to taking a serious look at the different interpretations of those same facts by others. As far as I can see groups are simply trying to overpower the views of others with ad hominem attacks and violent protests. Then the media corporations, which have a very loose relationships with the old “just the facts” approach to spreading news, have been “enlisted” to aid the cause. While those removing statues, changing memorials and road names seem more culturally powerful, I am unconvinced they speak for anything close to a majority of Americans. They have the power of the media and what some term “Hollywood culture” on their side. The question remains as to how America will handle its great and flawed history.

Russia has a history that is longer and, in some ways, more fragmented. Up until a hundred years ago the Romanov monarchy ruled the expansive land. It was not even a Constitutional Monarchy: they held the power. Then in 1917 there were two revolutions. The February Revolution ended with Nicholas II abdicating the throne in March. More significant was the October Revolution (Julian Calendar) which would usher in the rule of Communism and the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic. That lasted until 1991, when the USSR disbanded quite abruptly. The Republics became nations. Russia was no longer the largest Republic; it was The Russian Federation. As I indicated in my last blog Boris Yeltsin became President. At the end of that decade he had, at best, a 10% approval rating. In August 1999 he had appointed a somewhat unknown Vladimir Putin as acting Prime Minister. Putin had had a career in the KGB, stationed in Germany, but resigned in protest after the failed coup attempt when Gorbachev was General Secretary. (Most Western press reports omit the fact he resigned from the KGB in a quiet and personal protest.) When Yeltsin resigned in disgrace, he appointed Putin as his successor, and Putin was elected President about three months later.

I have met folks in Russia who still speak with Romantic nostalgia of the Romanov reign. Orthodox Christianity was the religion and faith of the country. Leadership of the vast land was unquestioned. The pictures, the mansions, the clothes—they are impressive! Who could not admire Peter the First (the Great)! Yet others, like my friend and physician, still speak (in hushed tones) of the clarity and friendship of the Communist days. (One caveat, Russians don’t talk to me in a positive way about Communism until they get to know I’m here to learn—not condemn.) In his memory it was a day when the youth respected the elders, everyone had equal access to medicine and health care, and folks formed deep and lasting friendships. On the other hand, there are those who feel very strongly about the injustice of the Soviet system and especially Stalin’s purges.

Now, at the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, how does Putin handle Russia’s relationship to its history, given these vast differences of perspective. Putin’s approval rating in the last Levada poll was 83%. By comparison, Trump does not get half that. That is not to say that all 83% fully approve of Putin’s leadership in my opinion. I know several folks who basically think he’s done a good job, but they believe Russia could do better under different leadership. Russians, at least the ones I talk to, do not jump to the “all or nothing” evaluations of leaders or people in general. We humans are usually a “mixed bag” of virtues and vices—the percentages of each vary from person to person. What I want to discuss is how Putin is leading the country in dealing with its history.

A lot of my information comes from Stephen Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University and New York University. I have mentioned him on several occasions because he has spent years living in the USSR and has made frequent trips to Russia since then. His career was and is knowing Russia. He now has a strong relationship with various leaders of this country—although he was kicked out of the USSR for a few years over things he said and wrote. Cohen recently returned to the States from Russia and, after listening to his podcast on his trip (and also finishing his book on the Soviet Union this summer), I decided to reproduce and enlarge upon his reflections on his trip to Russia in light of the recent events in America and coming events in Russia.

One thing Putin has done is open up Russia’s historical archives to professional historians. While some (e.g., New York Times) have suggested this is not true, Cohen himself speaks from personal experience. With his credentials he was allowed to view all historical documents he needed to see for extensive research. The significant historical documents are available for study now which were kept secret both in the Romanov and Communist period. Khruschev attempted to have at least some released, but he was never successful. Putin, over the years, has released them for professionals, even from America, to study. His only directive, according to Cohen, was that they had to be academic and professional and not engage in nasty polemic with each other.

Cohen was also able to meet with the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation while he was here. (He did not say who, but I assume he meant either Gennady Zyuganov or Ivan Melnikov.) Since this is the centennial of the Revolution, the leaders of the party went to Putin and told him they wanted to have very public celebrations and commemorations of the Revolution in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin consented and said they would be granted official permission, asking only that they keep things peaceful.

The feelings run very deep about these events here. The focus is often on Stalin, as I said. On the one hand, some view him as the one responsible for the great victory over the Nazi invaders. He was the leader and in times of war leaders get the credit or the blame. Many credit Stalin with the victory. They also believe Khruschev inflated the horrors done by Stalin. Stalin has been “rehabilitated” in the eyes of many here. Others believe that had he not gotten rid of so many great military leaders before the Nazis began their invasion, the USSR would have been much better able to defend itself. There are also quite a number of people who had relatives who were sent to the Gulags or were murdered during the “purges” and still harbor great animosity.

Thus, in 2004, after Putin had held several meetings with Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, The State Museum of the Gulag was opened in Moscow. It provides graphic glimpses of what life was like for those political prisoners. It has been enlarged several times and was moved to its current location in 2015. Unlike in America,where there has never been a museum that deals directly with slavery in America, Russia does face the horrors of its past head on, even if there are strong disagreements over what really happened and why.

Further, some time ago Putin began accepting bids and proposed plans for a monument to the victims of Stalin’s purges. Thus, this year on October 30, The Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Oppression, the monument will be unveiled by Vladimir Putin himself. So those who wish to celebrate the memory of the positive changes they believe were brought by Communism in general and, yes, Josef Stalin in particular, will have the freedom to celebrate and observe with memorials to him or any leaders they so choose. At the same time, the President will be present with those who wish to memorialize victims who suffered much under this government. Of course, there have been articles in the U.S. press trying to portray Putin as a Stalinist. He clearly is not, but it does fit the impression of him the West seems to need.

My point here is not to say Putin or his “solution” is perfect. I don’t know in such cases if there is a “perfect solution.” And I do not know enough to render an ultimate “verdict” on his presidency. I am not a Russian, and I am not a professional historian or politician. I do, however, want my American readers to see a different, and I hope fuller, view of what goes on here. While I’m not an expert and my views are somewhat limited, I do take the trouble to educate myself as best I can in reading “real” scholars and having discussions with people of different perspectives. Criticisms of Putin from America are usually simplistic and ill-informed and intended to tear down this country. The purpose of attacking Putin is usually to put down Russia itself. My Russian friends who disagree with Putin do so because they want the country stronger and more caring. Russians are quite capable of looking at their own history, drawing their own conclusions about their history and their politicians, and then allowing that their fellow Russians may come to very different conclusions. When did America lose this capacity?

What I like about the discussions here is that they are civil, usually based on the facts and how they should be interpreted, and are ultimately about what is best for the country. What I find quite bothersome about the processes going on in America is that in the name of tolerance we are becoming, well, completely intolerant. Further, I don’t get the impression the multiple “sides” or the media groups reporting the events are really out for what is best for the country. I’ve seen more clearly living here that many news outlets have no intention of researching and reporting truth. What I find most baffling is how it got like it is, because I still do not believe the majority of Americans are like the people I see “leading” the crowds there. In my part of that world, I worked with people of different races, perspectives, political backgrounds, and yet we worked together, worshipped together, ate together and, yes, disagreed on some things, but in the end we got along. Those motivating the antagonism and violence and those reporting on the antagonism and violence must be forced to tell the truth for better days to be ahead.

Now, will Putin’s solution work out perfectly with the Stalinists and the descendants of the victims coming together in a “kum-ba-ya” moment? I don’t know about that, but I am impressed by the confidence Putin seems to have in the culture here. He believes granting different sides freedom to express their historical loyalties is a good thing. I am hopeful that America will again reach the point where they can appreciate the complexity of history—our “histories” come to us from from folks who were fallible and virtuous.

Yesterday someone posted pics of a few old TV series from years ago. I saw one of the Friday night program from decades ago, “Dallas.” The main character, as all of us old enough to recall the program know, was the despicable J.R. Ewing. J.R. was the worst when it came to cheating, lying, dividing and conquering in the mythical Oil Man’s world of Dallas. In one episode wherein he sunk to a new low of lying and cheating even for J.R., I think it may have been his brother Bobby who in exasperation asked him how it was possible even for HIM to stoop to such despicable and dishonest behavior. In what is probably his most memorable line, he smiled back and explained, “Once you lose your integrity, the rest is easy.” Until the political leaders who have some control over events and the media that control the spread of information about the events and perspectives recover their integrity, I fear the multitudes of Americans with higher values and a stronger sense of unity will suffer even more from the loss.

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CATHERINE, LENIN AND ROBERT E. LEE

     We are approaching the end of our second summer back in Russia. Life seems pretty normal here compared to the news we hear from back in the States. I have not been able to keep up with all the events of Charlottesville, so I am not informed enough to offer any in-depth insights. I have only picked up fragmented reports. I thought America seemed so divided when we left last summer. The political race was heating up; it seemed like it was a different campaign from what I had ever observed in that there was a deeper bitterness dividing the “sides.” I vaguely recall past elections when the former adversaries would come together for a hand shake, or congratulations would be sent to the victor and usually there was an assurance by both sides on the need for all to work together for the good of the country. It seemed this time the election was barely over before the cries of Russian hacking and Russian collusion started. I still thought that, while it was taking longer, eventually the healing would begin. Clearly I was wrong. The divisions now seem deeper than just political differences given the brutality of the last week of news. The nation seems more fragmented than simply divided. I really do not know how to explain these things to my Russian friends, because I do not understand what is going on in America myself.

In Russia life goes on at the same pace. This past weekend was the celebration called “Day of the City” in Luga. Many cities in Russia have a day set aside around the anniversary of their founding to celebrate the good things about the city. In the weeks prior to it the workers clean up, repaint and “spruce things up.” Luga was founded in 1777 by Catherine the Great. So this year there was an unveiling of a monument to her. It is a very nice statue. My understanding is that the violence in Charlottesville began in protest over the removal of the statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Then it devolved into other issues of rights and free speech over which there was no agreement. Russia went through its own days of violent disagreement especially after the fall of Communism. In the 90s Boris Yeltsin was essentially selling off the resources of the nation to the highest bidders. He was widely disdained here but supported by the West, especially America. Statues were destroyed, buildings vandalized, and crime soared. It is quite different in Luga now. There is a statue across the street from our apartment of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution and the first clear leader of the change to Communism. Go down the road and there is the new statue of Catherine the Great who was empress of Russia 1762-96. A recent history I just finished calls her reign “The Golden Age.” Some people here still revere Lenin; others loathe the violent and atheistic regime they believe he led. Others have great admiration for the Romanov dynasty, while some point to the lavish and hypocritical life many believe she lived. Somehow folks in Luga have learned to accept their history, and most would agree both leaders had their flaws. No one seems to think a statue in their honor indicates moral and political perfection. Both, the Romanov dynasty and the Bolsheviks, have their place in Russian and Lugan history.

The celebration is about food for adults and games for the children for the most part. We enjoyed walking around and seeing folks. There were huge agricultural and military vehicles and machines on the street outside our apartment, as well as some small arms for kids to see and feel what a real Kalashnikov is like. The agricultural machines represent the work to be done in peace, and the military vehicles represent the protection of the people. They were quite impressive.

I don’t recall cities of this size in America celebrating their anniversaries like here. Why bring in the huge vehicles and arms to the celebration? Russian history is very different from American history, as I have discussed before. After church on Sundays we often go to the little cafe across the courtyard from our apartment for lunch. We all five can get a pretty good meal and ice cream for dessert for a little more than twelve dollars! The first time we went there I saw a picture on the wall in the dining room of downtown Luga from many years ago. It was one with the old cars from back in the forties on the street. I thought if you switched out the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the picture and photo shopped in a First Baptist, it could have been of a small town in South Carolina in the forties! But then something caught my eye: the street sign. It was forbidding parking in the street as best I could read. Nothing strange there, but the sign was written in German. It was taken when the Nazis had taken over the city. I thought what would it be like to see an old photo of the town in which I was born back in Pickens, S.C. if the street signs were not in English. How would I feel if my grandparents had shared stories with me of when the Nazis ran their lives and made them learn their language? When I was growing up I heard folks talk of men (and some women) who “went off to war.” That was always the phrase. All my ancestors in the last hundred years went off to fight wars in other lands. In Luga, one fought for your own city. Luga was granted the status of “Hero City” by the Russian government. They eventually were overrun by the far more numerous Nazis, but they held them off long enough for St. Petersburg to get prepared to some degree for the coming seige. They also maintained a militia which pestered the Germans who beseiged St. Petersburg with what was essentially guerilla warfare. War is awful. The older I get the more I hate it. But I think it is different when you know you are fighting for your land, your family, the land of your friends and extended family. You are fighting for your life and the kind of life you passionately want preserved. The ancestors of Luga didn’t “go off” to war; they fought for their farms on those very farms. Celebrations of present freedoms mean a lot more, I think, when that is your history. It’s games and food, but at a deeper level it is more than that. I shudder to think it could take war on our own land to make Americans more appreciative of the freedoms we now have. Maybe freedom of speech would be exercised with more discretion if we saw first hand the alternative of speaking a foreign tongue in our own land.

On a personal level we continue to adjust. I still do my walks around town, practice my Russian as much as possible and enjoy family time. We finally found a church where we belong. I have mentioned in a few blogs that our church was an important part of our life in America, and we have not been able to find a Russian Orthodox church that seemed, well, a good fit. But a taxi driver recommended that we go to one in a small village about 15 minutes from here called Tolmachёvo. Our first Sunday there we were surprised to see a relatively new and very attractive Orthodox building. We learned the old church, which was built in 1899, burned down in 1999. The new one was completed in 2007. The priest conducted the Liturgy in a way that made us feel, well, more at home. The singing was beautiful, as it has been in every Orthodox Church I’ve attended. After the Liturgy the priest was presented flowers by the congregation for his birthday (which was the day before). A lady spoke on behalf of the whole group. He has been there fourteen years. He came there when he was 29 years old. She told him they appreciated the way he had walked with all the families through some very difficult years. She added very sincerely, “You have taught us to be kinder to each other, to be more patient with others. We are better people because of you, and we thank you for that.” You could see her words were sincere, and the congregation kept nodding in agreement.

After people dispersed we were waiting for a taxi to come pick us up, and that gave us an opportunity to talk to Father Nikolay with no one around for a few minutes. Oksana explained we had moved to Luga after eight years in America, that I was American and while I speak some Russian I am not (yet!) fluent. He leaned over and focused his gaze on me, as if for a clearer look and said, “Did you play Santa Claus in the Christmas play at Erudite school?” I confessed that I was in fact Santa. Unbeknownst to us his younger daughter attends the school where we teach. He then explained that the Church has an “American connection.” It was founded by General Zherbin, who was from a well-to-do family back in the late 1800s. After the revolution about half the family was able to leave Russia for America. They settled in Seattle and became very successful there. One lady became a prominent member of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Another member of that family worked for NASA and was, in fact, the supervisor of the Space Station project when America and Russia worked on it together. It is my understanding that all the American members of the family have passed on, but they kept in touch with the church throughout their lives. I told him I was shocked that an Orthodox Church in this small village had such a connection with America. He added that the Reader (the young gentleman who had read the Gospels and other readings during the Liturgy) had lived in America for three years and spoke fluently in English. (We have since joined with him and his wife for a few meals and have formed a quick and meaningful friendship.)

Eight days from our first visit the church had reserved a bus to go to St. Petersburg to venerate the relics of the original St. Nicholas. We thought it would be a good chance perhaps to meet folks in the church and get to know the priest better. We showed up Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. and were in line by 8:30. We had plenty of time to chat! It was five hours later when we exited the Cathedral after quickly viewing and venerating the relics! Thousands and thousands of people were there—on a Monday morning! But we did get a chance to chat more with the priest. We did feel like we got the chance to know Father Nicolas very well. He even asked Oksana to consider teaching in the children’s Sunday School. We were very pleased to feel a part of this rather small congregation with the “American connection.” Somehow we sensed this was a place for our family.

All of us on Facebook see the various “memes” that pop up from time to time. Some funny, some thoughtful. I saw one on a page from a friend about my age the other day that made me laugh—and think. It said, “If I could sum up my life in one sentence it would be: ‘Now that didn’t go as planned.’” My life certainly has not gone as planned. I was born in a small Southern town during the Cold War. Robert E. Lee was much revered in my part of the country. But at 18 years old I joined the Marines as a loyal American and was ready to go fight Communists in Vietnam—or anywhere. Thankfully, I never was sent. Not only did I not plan on living in Russia one day, the thought would have seemed pathetically laughable to my young self. But here I am. One of my sons in America turned thirty-five this month, and my little daughter here in Russia turns three next month. I’m still trying to weave the strands together from the different stages of my life, but the tapestry still needs a lot of work. As my blog indicates, living here has made me think more about history—personal and national. It has made me think more deeply about the ways in which the two “worlds” of my life differ and the values they share. I guess it is natural that the differences attract most of the attention, and the differences between Russia and America are quite real. Nevertheless, after spending a typical day reading the news from America, then studying Russian grammar and history, then walking to the local market with the family, I still think my friends and acquaintances from my two worlds are more alike than different. I also believe both can learn from the flaws and strengths of the other. Maybe the blog can help with that, but I may be aiming too high.