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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