October 31, 2014

Idols and Anniversaries


Idols and Anniversaries

Twenty-five years ago, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, it was a time of hope and relief. Since the 1940s we had held our breath, limping from crisis to crisis, hoping that Dr. Strangelove was not hiding in a dark corner, waiting to make his play.

In November 1989 we could breathe again. Eastern Europe was unshackled. One after another, communist icons and idols teetered and fell: one-party rule, the planned economy, forced labor camps. Suddenly there was freedom of travel, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience.

The euphoria was heady. Yet the hangover soon followed. In August 1991, the forces of reaction made an attempt to regain power, promising stability, security, and a return to the coddled past. Thankfully, they were rebuffed, and crowds descended on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. There, with the help of a crane, they toppled the massive statue of Iron Felix.

With this act, it seemed as if Russian society had crossed a Rubicon. By tearing down that fearsome sentinel before the KGB building, it was signaling a turn toward the Right, away from terror, sovietism and Big Brother. Within months, the republics of the Soviet Union, six or more decades after being press-ganged into the USSR, were loosed to create their own futures.

But seven decades of warped economic and political theories could not be remedied quickly or without significant pain and suffering.

A decade of economic crises, wars and social strife followed. Russians became disillusioned. Democracy and capitalism were promising aspirations, but you can’t eat free speech. The newly-enfranchised, disorganized masses were powerless to stop the machinations of elites bent on stealing the nation’s wealth. Yet somehow, the country endured and, by the early 2000s, even began to prosper, thanks to rising oil prices.

Yet one important thing has been missing. At no time during its 25 years of transformation has Russia seriously reckoned with its past. There was no Truth and Reconciliation process to grapple with the excesses of Soviet rule. Sure, there were occasional movies, documentaries, books and even monuments (including one to Gulag victims on Lubyanka Square). Yet thousands of statues to one of the twentieth century’s worst mass murderers, Vladimir Lenin, still stand at the heart of thousands of Russian cities and towns, and his mummified body continues to lie in Red Square. Stalin is still revered. Talk of Gulags, informants, the Ukrainian famine, or collaboration with Hitler are discomforting and thus considered inappropriate. And, as late as December of last year, according to a VTsIOM poll, 45 percent of Russians favored the restoration of Iron Felix to Lubyanka Square. Only 25 percent were firmly opposed.

Then, as this issue was going to press, we learned that the Russian Ministry of Justice was petitioning the Russian Supreme Court to “liquidate” the Memorial social organization on a legal technicality. Amongst hundreds of very disturbing neo-Soviet moves we have seen by the Powers That Be in Moscow since 2012, this ranks very near the top. For Memorial is the singular organization in Russia making a concerted effort to remember and memorialize the victims and horrors of the Soviet past. And, as we know from hard-won experience, if a society cannot come to terms with its past, it endangers its future.


This editorial appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Russian Life.

You Might Also Like

The Walls Came Tumbling Down!
  • December 18, 1999

The Walls Came Tumbling Down!

Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of Russia's transformation to democracy.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
Tolstoy Bilingual

Tolstoy Bilingual

This compact, yet surprisingly broad look at the life and work of Tolstoy spans from one of his earliest stories to one of his last, looking at works that made him famous and others that made him notorious. 
Chekhov Bilingual

Chekhov Bilingual

Some of Chekhov's most beloved stories, with English and accented Russian on facing pages throughout. 
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955