“[H]alf a century after the end of World War II, the Germans still conduct regular public disputes about victims’ compensation, about memorials, about new interpretations of Nazi history, even about whether a younger generation of Germans ought to go on shouldering the burden of guilt about the crimes of the Nazis. Half a century after Stalin’s death, there were no equivalent arguments taking place in Russia because the memory of the past was not a living part of the public discourse.
Years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, the country that has inherited the Soviet Union’s diplomatic and foreign policies, its embassies, its debts, and its seat at the United Nations, continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union’s history. Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression. Nor does Russia have a national place of mourning, a monument which officially recognizes the suffering of victims and their families.
But there are reasons for the profound silence. Many Russians experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union as a profound blow to their personal pride. Perhaps the old system was bad, they now feel — but at least we were powerful. And now that we are not powerful, we do not want to hear that it was bad…
Tragically, Russia’s lack of interest in its past has deprived the Russians of heroes, as well as victims. The names of those who secretly opposed Stalin, however ineffectively — the students like Susanna Pechora, Viktor Bulgakov, and Anatoly Zhigulin; the leaders of the Gulag rebellions and uprisings; the dissidents, from Sakharov to Bukovsky to Orlov — ought to be as widely known in Russia as are, in Germany, the names of the participants in the plot to kill Hitler. The incredibly rich body of Russian survivors’ literature — tales of people whose humanity triumphed over the horrifying conditions of the Soviet concentration camps — should be better read, better known, more frequently quoted. If schoolchildren knew these heroes and their stories better, they would find something to be proud of even in Russia’s Soviet past, aside from imperial and military triumphs.
But in the end, the foreign policy consequences are not the most important. For if we forget the Gulag, sooner or later we will find it hard to understand our own history too. Why did we fight the Cold War, after all? Was it because crazed right-wing politicians, in cahoots with the military-industrial complex and the CIA, invented the whole thing and forced two generations of Americans and West Europeans to go along with it? Or was there something more important happening? Confusion is already rife. In 2002, an article in the conservative British Spectator magazine opined that the Cold War was “one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time.” The American writer Gore Vidal has also described the battles of the Cold War as “forty years of mindless wars which created a debt of $5 trillion.”
Thus we are forgetting what it was that mobilized us, what inspired us, what held the civilization of “the West” together for so long; we are forgetting what it was that we were fighting against. If we do not try harder to remember the history of the other half of the European continent, the history of the other twentieth-century totalitarian regime, in the end it is we in the West who will not understand our past, we who will not know how our world came to be the way it is…
Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people. Destruction of the ‘objective enemy,’ as Hannah Arendt once put it, remains a fundamental object of many dictatorships. We need to know why — and each story, each memoir, each document in the history of the Gulag is a piece of the puzzle, a part of the explanation. Without them, we will wake up one day and realize that we do not know who we are.”
Excerpted from Anne Applebaum’s powerful, seminal work Gulag: A History.
These reflections, pulled from the book’s final chapter, clearly have broad political implications right now, 12 years after Gulag was first published. During last year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, I was struck by how little reference was made to the Soviet Union in general and its cultural history in particular, as well as by how much of that scant attention was mere metaphor — an animated hammer and sickle or War and Peace reference whizzing by on the jumbotron.
There was during the closing ceremony a tribute to Russia’s writers, a lineup, perhaps the strongest of any modern country, which was paraded out as if each had been lionized by the state all along. Thirteen total were honored, including Dostoevsky (censored; forced into hard labor in Siberia), Pushkin (exiled), Gogol (exiled), Turgenev (exiled), Vladimir Mayakovsky (repression; suicide), Anna Akhmatova (censored), Marina Tsvetaeva (exiled; suicide), Joseph Brodsky (exiled), Mikhail Bulgakov (censored), and Solzhenitsyn (Gulag). Only two of them — Tolstoy and Chekhov — were able to live in their home country and use a pen without state retribution.
Go deeper into Russia:
- Applebaum reveals the sentence Putin said that horrified her
- How nice of a father was Stalin? (hint: not very)
- Go inside Vladimir Lenin’s surreal last days