March 5, 2005
I truly and deeply thank you all for the privilege of addressing this august gathering of the Joint Baltic American National Committee, for you are champions of liberty throughout our world. Moreover, I am especially
grateful for the opportunity to address you now, due to the troubling portents emanating from the east.
My friends, as citizens of a relatively young Republic, where our children play in fertile fields unsullied by the boots of totalitarian troops, it is understandable, if inexcusable, how Americans too oft forget history may be a candle or a curse.
For example, a recent survey revealed nearly half of young Americans didn’t know who the United States fought against on D-Day, let alone why we fought against them. This epic triumph over the enemies of humanity occurred little over 60 years ago, and yet Americans begin to forget; and history’s candle flickers, and its curse creeps ever closer.
You see, when fully recollected and comprehended, history constitutes a candle, which illumes and informs our intuited path toward peace. But if eclipsed by apathy and ignorance, history’s candle dims and dies, and we blindly descend into a tragic recrudescence of history’s horrors.
It is against this tenebrous advance of a-history we must fight to ignite the candle of knowledge, in order to understand – and, perhaps to dispel, or if compelled, to extinguish – the smoldering symptoms of Russian re-Stalinization.
In this daunting duty, the Baltic nations and their American relations must
remain steadfast amongst the vanguard of liberty. For nowhere have the lessons of history been more painfully ingrained than amidst the Baltic peoples, who were decimated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s commencement of a second World War – a World War which did not end for these Captive Nations with the Axis powers’ surrenders in 1945 but, in bitter truth, only ended when the final Russian soldiers on their soil exited in 1993; and nowhere more than in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, has the world witnessed a
greater transcendence through decades of Communist occupation, exploitation, deportations, and executions to emerge, triumphant, amidst the exalted echelons of free nations.
Thus is the reason I stand with you today, and urge the Baltic nations and
their American relations to fully, freely, and firmly demand the Russian government recognize and apologize for the crimes of communism, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the occupation of the once Captive Nations.
In making this request, I must stress that posing this question constitutes no mere academic matter, or mere exercise in – or exorcism of – history. No. The posing of this question by the victims of communism compels a Russian reply; and, in so doing, sparks history’s candle to enlighten the world as to the Russians’ future aims and actions, be they a benevolent advancement of democracy inside their Republic and amongst their neighbors, or be they a benighted ambition to restore despotic rule inside their Republic and upon their neighbors.
Now more than ever it is a question needing to be asked and answered, because a hibernating bear awakens hungry; and Europe’s decade dormant bear is astir.
Doubtless, this is no revelation to any of us assembled here today; however, we let us be mindful of how many observers are confounded by this disturbing development (assuming, of course, they admit it at all.) Still, let us be charitable and record such reactions as human, given how the implosion of the Soviet Union and the abolition of European communism sorely tempted so many in the west to believe civilization had reached “the end of history.”
But history resists such callow dismissal; and in the Cold War’s victorious afterglow, as the west dreamt, some visionaries arose and asked if, indeed, democracy had domesticated the bear. Perhaps none did so more poignantly than Boris Grebenshikov, “the Russian Bob Dylan,” who, despite having spent a life-time dreaming of freedom, was not lulled to sleep by its sudden realization, as was evidenced in his Yeltsin-era ballad “Mother,” in which he sings: “I am your child mother, crying to be consoled, now that I know
you, do you recognize me?”
But a decade of Russian democracy didn’t avail him of an answer, as the spree of free market reforms failed to fulfill the people’s aspirations for material prosperity; and the rush of free, representative institutions failed to facilitate the people’s acclimation to political pro-activity (and, inherently, personal responsibility). In consequence, Russia’s initial transformational change to democracy was unaccompanied by a palpable transactional improvement in people’s lives. Thus, these paired pillars of disillusionment led to the Russian people’s present disaffection or outright disdain for democracy; and primed the people for an invidious reconciliation with Russia’s mail-fisted past.
Of course, this is not the first time these people have been so enticed. History records how, just as a tsar preceded a Duma, the Duma preceded a Dictator; and, thus, history further informs us how the birth of freedom is not an end of history, but the beginning of a democracy – a precious, precarious, sacred endeavor in self-government invariably most imperiled in its infancy.
As it is today in Russia, where the evidence asserts the Putin administration has commenced a campaign to choke the breath of freedom from its nascent democratic institutions and resurrect the cult of the vozhd – the great father-protector of the people who cemented security and stability at home, and exuded strength, inspired awe, and extended an empire abroad.
Historically, the vozhd’s role in Russian life did not start with Stalin, who exploited and expanded it; rather, it has been ubiquitous and embraced throughout the country’s existence by a people accustomed to and accepting of autocratic rule. Thus it was in 1917, when Nicholas II’s autocratic regime was overthrown by the Communist’s totalitarian regime; and the Tsar’s role as the vozhd was usurped first by Lenin, and then Stalin. Only in the brief of period of de-Stalinization was the vozhd archetype abandoned of necessity by Khrushchev, who attempted to supplant the vozhd with the cult of “collective party leadership,” and the “cult of Lenin.” But, despite de-Stalinization, throughout the final years of the Soviet Union the vozhd concept wouldn’t die, even if it was temporarily housed in the embalmed body of Lenin, whose posthumous personality cult was both cceptable and advantageous to the collective cum rival party leaders. Nor has the vozhd archetype died with the birth of democracy, for as recent Russian surveys show, the people still hold both Lenin and Stalin – and by implication the vozhd archetype – in nauseatingly high esteem.
Thusly do the wise inquire anew, if this view, too, is shared by President Putin.
Early in his ascent to power, preliminary concerns over President Putin, a former Colonel in the KGB stationed in East Germany, were largely muted upon
his assumption of the Russian Presidency and his subsequent actions during his first term of office. His second term, however, has been a decidedly different matter, one which raises the withering specter of a Russian re-Stalinization.
Since his overwhelming re-election, Putin’s administration has ended the election of provincial Governors; curtailed free speech and the free press; centralized and increased the power of the internal security apparatus; arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, and bankrupted political opponents, as in
the Yukos affair; demanded the oligarchs provide “philanthropic” assistance to fund the President’s agenda upon his direction; elevated former KGB and other security and intelligence officials, known as the siloviki into the most prominent, powerful and, yes, lucrative positions in his government; and he has maintained a stony silence as extremist members of parliament seek to outlaw Jewish organizations. Increasingly these actions bespeak a deliberate design to provide the internal political security and stability
expected of the vozhd.
In foreign affairs, too, the Putin administration’s pursuit of ill-defined “spheres of influence” in its self-delineated “near and far abroad” equally evokes the role of the vozhd.
Obviously, the most notable among Russia’s unsettling international initiatives was President Putin’s blatant political machinations, including personal electioneering, in the Ukrainian Presidential elections. Yet it must not be wrongly viewed as an isolated misstep, but rather as a tactical maneuver in the larger struggle to reassert Russia’s international primacy. For example, Russia’s utilization of its burgeoning cash reserves derived from its oil and gas cartels is being used to acquire other nations’ energy concerns. This is likely not merely a financial transaction undertaken to increase Russian profits. More likely, it is an instance of its oligarchs being compelled to practice “philanthropy on behalf of the state”, because such acquisitions serve to increase Eastern European dependence upon Russian energy and, proportionately, increase Russia’s “sphere of influence” within these countries. Also when viewed within the larger strategic context,
Russia’s cursorily inscrutable recalcitrance to honor its international agreements or apologize for the crimes of communism (which, without a hint of irony, they admit occurred under a former regime) crystallizes into an underpinning of a revanchist foreign policy. Moreover, it also evidences the motivation of Russia’s President: indeed, while trying to awe his “abroad”, what vozhd would allow Russia’s international embarrassment by admitting a mistake, let alone apologizing for it?
Agonizingly, the conclusion appears ineluctable: in both domestic and international affairs, this Russian administration’s pursuit of “managed democracy” and “spheres of influence” in their “near and far abroad” are crafted to recall the vozhd’s domestic and international duties; appeal to its people’s latent comfort with autocracy; and, ultimately, reincarnate the vozhd principle in the person of President Putin.
And most disheartening of all, it seems the majority of Russians aren’t outraged.they’re relieved.
Still, even when faced with these facts, are we premature to wrestle with the prospect of Russian re-Stalinization?
The answer is an emphatic “No!”
Because at this crossroads of Russian history, her people’s past and present once more collide over the corpse of Comrade Stalin.
Like his communist predecessor Khrushchev, former communist KGB colonel Putin confronts the choice of whether to exorcise or embrace Stalin’s ghost; and his choice will determine whether or not Russia’s history proves a candle or a curse.
To the eye unawares, it would appear an easy choice for President Putin: he should decry the crimes of communism, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; the occupation of the Baltics and every nation subjugated to the Soviet yoke; and the ubiquitous human misery imposed upon every free human being by this diabolical ideology.
But to the knowing eye, steeped in the history of the tormented Russian people, Putin’s decision is less optimistically awaited. After all, wasn’t the father of de-Stalinization, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, himself ultimately ejected from office by his fellow travelers who were more sympathetic to Stalin and his soulless legacy? And given the aforementioned warmth with which many Russians still desperately embrace the nostalgia-sanitized Stalin, will President Putin trust in the truth; and recognize and apologize for the crimes of Soviet communism perpetrated by ideologically desensitized savages such as Stalin? Can he even dare dream to do so, knowing full well if he does, he will risk his reign ending as
ignobly as did comrade Khrushchev’s?
But we need not speculate. For by all objective accounts, Vladimir Putin
has made his decision. And he is re-habilitating Marshall Stalin.
This re-habilitation has been straight-forward, if stealthy. At root, to claim the role of modern vozhd, Putin must meld Russia’s present War on Terror with its epic Triumph over Fascism in World War II. The logic is elementary: Russians needed a vozhd to defeat the fascists, so Russians need a vozhd to defeat the terrorists. The problem with this plan is that the vozhd during Triumph over Fascism was the homicidal Stalin who, in a brief respite from show trials, purges, and mass liquidations of kulaks, made the time to enter into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the genocidal Hitler.
But in a Russia where over the decades thousands of non-persons have disappeared and/or reappeared from the “memory hole,” a touch of international obduracy and a bit of domestic theatrics can facilitate the transformation of a deceased serial killer into a cultural icon. The script reads roughly thus:
When the world asks Russia, “What of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact?”,
Russia must reply, “Stalin never signed it, and it was only signed ‘on a much lower level.to protect (our) interests and security on (our) western borders.'”
When the world asks Russia, “What of the crimes of communism?”,Russia must reply, “Why keep “‘a balance sheet of who apologized how many times?'”
When the Russian people ask, “What is the legacy of Comrade Stalin?”
Russia must unveil the chiseled visage of the Soviet tyrant and quintessential vozhd – Joseph Stalin – during the commemoration of the country’s Victory over Fascism under his inspired leadership.
On that day in May, Stalin will be one step closer to rehabilitation; and Russia will be one step closer to re-Stalinization.
But while we sense the incipient danger, Russia’s international apologists rally to its defense – or rather to the defense of their own poor stewardship of Russia’s abortive lurch to democracy.
>From those apologists still hopeful of preserving democracy in Russia comes the argument that President Putin is mirroring not Joseph Stalin, but America’s own Theodore Roosevelt. After all, during America’s progressive era, the “Republican Roosevelt” dismantled monopolistic trusts to promote the well being of his people. True enough, but he did so in the cause of decentralizing wealth and expanding democracy (after all, the Progressive era witnessed the attainment of women’s suffrage and the direct election of U.S. Senators). Conversely, President Putin has merely deposed one oligarch in order to tame those who remain and to shift some spoils to his succored siloviki; and, regarding Russian democracy, under Putin it has not expanded but contracted: for instance, the formerly elected regional governors are now appointed by Moscow, and the national parliament serves as a hollow shell sheathing a rubber stamp.
A second school of apologists who are less concerned for democracy argue
President Putin’s consolidation of power is requisite to establishing a stable, prosperous Russia which then and only then may be enabled to institute a democratic government. Such “sophisticated” reasoning must be summarily rejected. Make no mistake: to the historically trained ear, Putin’s “managed democracy” rings as ominously false as Lenin’s “democratic centralism.”
A third school of apologists are the pragmatists, who are prepared to look askance at the Russian democracy’s demise, so long as the country remains our ally in the War on Terror. This is a simplistic and errant proposition. Locked in a war with Chechnya which has brought terror’s horror to the doorsteps of Russians, the Putin administration knows the defeat of terrorism is an imperative for itself and all nations. They have no recourse but to help end this modern evil, and they will do so out of self-interest, if not altruism.
Finally, there are those who are willing to agree Russian democracy is being systematically extinguished; however, these apologists remain unconvinced this process will result in a re-Stalinization of Russia, because they believe it is precluded by the privatization and property rights “reforms” which have occurred in post-Soviet Russia. But this argument is premised upon the de jure creation of personal property rights; not the de facto reality of how even the richest man in Russia can have his private property confiscated and his person confined upon the whim of the Chief Executive Officer. Really, does it make a whit of difference to the average Russian
if the tyrant who oppresses him is a communist or a Cossack; is a Joseph Stalin or an Ivan the Terrible?
The answer is obvious, because all free people know that, regardless of its hollow odes to individual rights, autocracy remains autocracy – evil,
insatiable, and lethal.
But, in the final analysis, the only answer to the apologists and ourselves can come from one man, President Putin, and to him the question must be put.
On our part, under the stout leadership of Representative John Shimkus and with the sage counsel of JBANC, members of Congress are preparing a resolution that will call upon President Putin and the Russian government to recognize and apologize for the crimes of communism.
Further more, we here must implore the free Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, to refuse the bear’s blandishments of border recognitions (which, in law and fact, have already been recognized by the European Union), and steadfastly insist President Putin and the Russian government recognize and apologize for the crimes of communism before these countries consider or consent to sending any representatives to the May
commemoration in Moscow.
These joint actions are imperative and urgent, if we are to compel President Putin to answer our question and reveal his intentions. A favorable response will belie our bewilderment, and we will rest easily with our error, secure in the Russians’ renunciation of the vozhd archetype as being antithetical to democracy. But if he refuses, or responds with complicit
silence, we will be forewarned and forearmed against a newly emboldened bear bent on reclaiming his mythologized prowess.
Yet again I stress the days grow short. And, if by some twist of circumstance and fate, we prove unable to properly and timely pose the question to President Putin, and we are left to wonder if the impending past is a candle or a curse, I have an indulgent request for all those who nevertheless attend the Stalin statue’s debut:
As you find yourself edgily encircled by the Muscovites’ merry din during the dying light of day, when the candles’ gloaming dances dull against the butcher’s steely skin, pause a heartbeat and you’ll hear, Evtushenko’s warning clear:
“Double and triple the soldiers on guard by this slab, lest Stalin rise again, and with Stalin the past.”
Thank you, JBANC, for all you’ve done – and all you’ll do – to elevate and emancipate every caged soul in our world.
BAFL: Representative Thaddeus G. McCotter (R) represents Michingan’s 11th Congressional District. He serves on the House International Relations Subcommittee on Europe, the Budget Committee and the Small Business Commitee. Website: mccotter.house.gov