William Faulkner, a keen observer of the Jim Crow South, long ago summarized what is happening in America today: “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.”
When I first came to the US in the mid-1970s, I was impressed by the monuments to Confederate generals and politicians that dotted cityscapes, and not just in the former rebel states, but in the nation’s capital, as well.
Coming from the Soviet Union, where all opponents of Lenin’s Bolsheviks continued to be maligned many decades after the end of Russia’s own civil war, I saw these statues as a model of reconciliation after a fratricidal conflict. But what I didn’t realize was that the reconciliation with the white South was achieved on the backs of those same slaves whom the North had set out to liberate. The monuments, rather than symbolizing the history of the Civil War, were in fact monuments to racial segregation.
The federal government abolished Jim Crow laws in 1965, and signs barring “the colored” from hotels, restaurants, pools, and drinking fountains came down. But the monuments remained standing. Until now.
The revolution we are now witnessing in the US is not aiming to abolish history. It is an effort to acknowledge the country’s racist legacy and confine it to the shameful part of its history. It could be seen to be a process not unlike denazification in West Germany after World War II, or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa.
It is remarkable, meanwhile, that many Russians, both inside the country and in Russian-speaking emigre communities, have taken up the cause of defending American “history” from the “vandals.” The reasons for this are varied. President Vladimir Putin never tires of pointing out that his rule means stability. Relishing social unrest in the West, such as gilets jaunes in France, he condemns all social turmoil, fearing it may spread to Russia. Russian-speaking emigres, meanwhile, justify their knee-jerk disapproval of any protest movement by claiming that “we’ve seen it all before” – i.e., all anti-government actions have as their aim a Bolshevik revolution, naturally leading to the Gulag and food shortages.
There is also a strong element of racism. In my fourth detective novel, The Samovar Murders, I have a character, an African student at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, who is arrested for murder. While his motive is unclear, Soviet militsia officers express an opinion that was common in Russia in my youth and persists to this day: Africans are savages who don’t act rationally, i.e. like white people.
Even more to the point, the fact that America – both black and white – is reckoning with its past must be galling to Russians – because it is something Russia has never been able to bring itself to do.
Since 1917, when the Revolution violently severed ties to Russia’s imperial past and started from a clean slate, Russia has not been able to construct a continuity of past, present and future. In Russia, all three exist simultaneously. A meme making the rounds on social media states: “When I was a young Pioneer, I was told that I will be happy in the future. Now that I’m living in that future, I’m told that I was happy when I was a young Pioneer.”
Every Russian leader starts by attacking his predecessors and revamping the past. Stalin wrote The History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): the Short Course, laying down how the country must think about the Soviet history. Brezhnev rewrote the history of the Great Patriotic War, giving himself a prominent role, and now Putin has penned an article to “set the history profession straight” as to the origins and lessons of World War II. History in Russia is being forever bowdlerized, reassessing at will everyone from Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great to more recent leaders.
Russians once tried to do what Americans are doing when they removed the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky (founder of the Cheka, predecessor of the KGB) from the square in front of the secret police headquarters in Moscow. But it remained an isolated action. In the absence of destalinization and decommunization, it is no surprise that the Soviet Union is now the object of nostalgia, that Stalin is revered once more, and that the bronze Felix is awaiting a return to his old place of honor.
Russians were incensed when Estonians moved the statue of the Red Army soldier, Czechs took down the statue of Marshal Konev in Prague, and Ukrainians got rid of a bunch of Lenin monuments. None of this had to do with race, only with reckoning with history.
In Moscow, meanwhile, at least a dozen different monuments to Lenin, along with big ones to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, endure three decades after the end of communism. New monuments to Stalin are popping up around the country.
Meanwhile, Putin has repeatedly stated that the victory over the Germans 75 years ago remains the most important achievement in all of Russian history. Many Russians dress in World War II uniforms to mark Victory Day. The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces has steps cast of the metal recycled from captured German tanks.
At the same time, rarely is mention made of how the Soviets trained and equipped German forces, how the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not just appeasement of, but collusion with the Nazis, or of how Russia’s participation in the war was not without atrocities and shame.
To paraphrase George Santayana’s famous aphorism, those who do not come to terms with their past are condemned to be stuck in it.
So I guess one cannot blame Americans for wanting to cast off the past and live in the present. And Russians may start by learning from them, rather than bemoaning “the destruction of history in the name of political correctness.”
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