July 9, 2008
The New Russia may have finally embraced free-market capitalism, but Vladimir Lenin, founder of Soviet communism and one of the great murderers of the twentieth century, still casts a long shadow across the Russian landscape. Indeed, when I journeyed to Russia with my family last summer to research my forthcoming novel, Moscow Rules, it seemed Lenin was our constant companion. His statue still looms over the gates of the city that once bore his name, with its arm heroically extended as if poor Vladimir were forever trying to hail a cab. Streets still bear his name, as do squares, schools, parks, and sports clubs. And he still snoozes peacefully in his little rose-colored mausoleum at the edge of Red Square, a waxen figure in a bottle, well-dressed and neatly groomed.
One cannot enter a tourist bazaar without stumbling across all manner of Lenin paraphernalia, including ubiquitous metallic busts of the great man that peer inscrutably from dusty shelves. Sometimes, the head of his accomplice and successor, Joseph Stalin, stands next to him. In one market on the outskirts of Moscow, I saw a fine little statuette of Lenin seated in a chair, clearly thinking deep thoughts. I wondered what weighty matter was he pondering at the moment the artist conceived this iconic image. The annihilation of a village that would not bend to his will? The murder of a rival? Or perhaps he was thinking about killing a few meddlesome shopkeepers who didn’t quite see the wisdom in submitting themselves to “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Imagine if the scene were Berlin instead of Moscow. Imagine if, near Brandenburg Gate, there stood a hundred-foot-tall statue of Adolph Hitler with his arm raised in a Nazi salute. Imagine if one could buy a bronze-plated bust of Hitler in a flea market in the Tiergarten. Imagine if one could window shop in the Hilter-Strasse or take lunch at an outdoor café in the Hitler-Platz. Or if one could view Hitler’s body—or his ashes, perhaps—in a sacred tomb at the edge of the Alexanderplatz. Editorial pages, interest groups, and political leaders throughout the civilized world would surely howl with indignation and anger. And rightly so.
Fortunately, the idea of a giant Hitler statue standing in the heart of Berlin is laughable. So why is this not the case in modern Russia? Why are there no howls of righteous indignation from Western shapers of opinion over the display and sale of symbols of a murderous, totalitarian system? And why don’t the leaders of the New Russia remove the statues of Lenin, change the names of the streets and squares that still bear his name, and give his poor old carcass a proper burial?
The silence in many quarters of the West is, sadly, easy to understand. During the Cold War, many of the opinion leaders in Western Europe—the academics, the essayists and novelists, the campaigners for peace and human rights—were too often willing to overlook the Soviet Union’s inexhaustible list of crimes against humanity because they were adherents of Marxist-Leninist bilge themselves. Lenin was to be forgiven his sins because, in their eyes, his cause was just. As for Stalin, yes, he was a monster, but he was also a hero, the man who single-handedly fought Nazi Germany to a stalemate until the American and British could join the fight. Many conveniently overlook the fact that, by agreeing to the infamous Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler in 1939, Stalin was the one who made the Second World War possible in the first place.
The answer to the second part of the question is, in my opinion, far more perilous for Russia’s newly free neighbors and the West. Vladimir Putin, the man now running Russia, is a child of the system Lenin and Stalin created. A former KGB officer and Party member, he surely studied their writings, as a seminarian studies the sacred texts. Moreover, an estimated seventy-five percent of the senior members of his regime also came from the KGB and its successor services. Putin and his cabal surely cannot permit a full and honest exploration of the crimes of the Soviet state, because to do so would discredit the system and the organization—i.e., the KGB—that produced them.
Edward Lucas, a reporter for the Economist, argues in a persuasive new book, The New Cold War, that Putin and his cronies are engaged in a carefully orchestrated effort to “sanitize” the more repulsive elements of Soviet history while honoring its achievements, which is to say, its military might and its empire. In 2005, Putin made his feelings abundantly clear when, in his state of the nation speech, he referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” And he even managed to say it with a straight face.
Let us return to Germany for a moment. Let us imagine that Chancellor Angela Merkel was a former officer of the SS rather than a former professor of physical chemistry. And let us imagine she went before her parliament and people and proclaimed the collapse of Nazi-occupied Europe the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Such a remark would have produced a furious response from the German press, the German political opposition, and the German people. Germany’s neighbors would have twitched with anxiety. Ambassadors would have been recalled. Editorial writers would have wondered whether the Nazi beast was reawakening.
And imagine, too, that the SS and the Gestapo, under new, benign-sounding names, were still responsible for internal German security. And that they still worked from their old headquarters buildings. That scenario, as preposterous as it sounds, is exactly the situation in Russia today. The FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, occupies the KGB’s old headquarters building in Lubyanka Square. Many Russians don’t even bother to call the FSB by its new name. They still refer to it as the KGB.
While researching Moscow Rules, my family and I were invited to visit FSB headquarters. A former KGB colonel with an amiable face and glittering eyes gave us a private tour of the building. It ended in a small, private KGB museum, where we spent several hours, carefully reviewing the organization’s remarkable history. It was a surprisingly honest place, though distinctly lacking in any evidence that the Soviet Union had ever tried to spy on the United States. A particularly telling moment occurred when we paused to examine a photo album of all the KGB’s leaders. There was Vladimir Putin, proudly displayed with all the great murderers and oppressors of the past. Our guide flipped through the pages, giving us highly abbreviated biographies of each chief. “He was shot,” he said of one. “He was shot,” he said of the next. “He was shot, too.” Flipping to the next page, he paused and smiled. “Ah, this one was different,” he said. “He was poisoned.”
The overall message of the museum was unmistakable: the course of Soviet history would have proceeded much differently if the KGB had been running the regime instead of serving has its guardian. Now, nearly two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB has finally gotten its wish. Putin and his cabal want their empire back, and they want to be a great power again. And they are using Russia’s newfound oil wealth to achieve those goals. As for taking an honest look into the Russian past, there isn’t time for that. Nor is there any appetite. Lenin once said: “There are no morals in politics; there is only expedience.” Vladimir Putin would surely agree. Perhaps that is why Lenin the murderer still stands at the gates of the city that once bore his name. And why Lenin the murderer still sleeps peacefully in Red Square.