In the last few months I have been musing about Russia and the many problems her people and the rest of us face. Partly this is connected to other work I have been doing but, inevitably, events in Ukraine have set many of us thinking or renewed previous thoughts. My plan is to write several general musings on the subject and that includes something that is of particular interest to me, the weird attitude Westerners and, particularly, many British writers and analysts (often self-appointed with little knowledge) take to the country and its political rulers.
With no other country is there a widespread assumption that attacking or criticizing its government or the ruling regime is tantamount to criticizing the people and the country as a whole. One gets this from Russians but also from people who maintain that they like or love Russia and Russians yet cannot see that supporting those who oppress the latter is not a sign of those feelings. One can criticize David Cameron without being labelled anti-British, President Obama without being labelled anti-American except by the Obama-bots and even they are more interested in the "Saviour-like nature" of their hero than in the country as a whole, or President Hollande without being called a Francophobe. Yet the slightest mention of the possibility that Vladimir Putin and his entourage are not the wisest and most liberal and humanitarian rulers in the world brings down an avalanche of accusations of Russophobia. Russians imprisoned for demonstrating against the government? You are a Russophobe to say so. Russian economy being destroyed by the corruption of the ruling elite and its hangers on? What a Russophobic thing to say. The infrastructure is so bad that hundreds of thousands of people are left without power for weeks in the coldest weeks of winter in the Moscow region? Russophobe, Russophobe, Russophobe.
I shall enlarge on these various subjects in future postings but, first, let me recommend a book called It Was A Long Time Ago, And It Never Happened Anyway, subtitled Russia and the Communist Past by the journalist and historian David Satter who has, recently, been banned from Russia. (Full disclosure: David Satter is a friend.)
As the title indicates the main theme of the book is Russian refusal to know, understand or come to terms with the horrors of the Soviet period. Far from being "humiliated" by the West, as we are so often told, not least by Western apologists for Russian authoritarianism, Russia, even more than the other post-Soviet republics was allowed to ignore and fudge the truth about the twentieth century. Not so long ago I (and a few others) had a frank and open discussion with a Russian lady who maintained that she knew all about the years leading up to the Second World War, having studied with some of the best historians in Russia and read all there was to read thus being very well aware that the Soviet Union had shown no aggression in the early years of the war or the years leading up to it. It would appear she was unaware of such events as the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939 or the Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November, 1939. At least, there was an implication in her comments that she might have been aware of Soviet aggression at the end of the war but I did not ask too many questions.
One rather peculiar outcome of this refusal to face up to the truth is the duality of attitude that many Russians display. When one talks about the horrors of the Soviet Union, not only these are often brushed aside as being rather less important than people sometimes make it out but there is a firm assertion that it was not just the Russians who were guilty either directly or indirectly. That, of course, is true. Also, it is added sometimes, as the Russians were the victims (among others but that is often glossed over) it does not count as real political horror. On the other hand, according to the same people quite often, only Russians fought and suffered during the Second World War; others were either absent or collaborated.
In his introduction David Satter says:
Russia as a country has not been willing to face the full truth about Communism. Some people insist that the scale of the crimes has been exaggerated or that they were a product of necessity in a unique historical situation. Some say that there were comparable crimes in the West. Many argue that the Soviet system had redeeming features, that it brought literacy to millions of people and modernised the country. In fact, the failure to condemn Communism unreservedly - as Nazism was condemned in Germany - is now taken for granted in Russia.We know what happens to people who point to the "redeeming features" of the Nazi system in Germany or the Fascist system in Italy.
In his Notes to the Introduction Satter wades into the discussion about the numbers of victims with all the necessary provisos:
The scale of murder in the Soviet Union was so immense that estimating the number of victims with any degree of accuracy is difficult if not impossible. Figures cited in recently available archival material are often in conflict with demographic data which places death tolls considerably higher.
In this book, I accept 20 million as the number of direct victims of the Soviet regime. This figure includes only those put to death by the regime or who died as a direct result of the regime's policies. It does not include the millions who died in wars, epidemics, and famines that were predictable consequences of Bolshevik policies but not entirely the result of them.
The figure of 20 million includes a minimum of 200,000 victims of the Red Terror (1918 - 1922); 11 million victims of famine and dekulakization in the 1930s; 700,000 persons who were executed between 1929 and 1953; 1.6 million persons who died in forced population transfers; and a minimum of 2.7 million persons who died in Gulag camps, labour colonies, and special settlements.
To the resulting figure of 16.6 million should be added persons who died in prisons, 975,000 Gulag prisoners released during the war to punitive battalions, where they faced almost certain death, the victims of partisan warfare in Ukraine and the Baltic republics after the war, and Gulag prisoners freed so that their deaths would not count in the mortality totals for the labour camps as well as other categories of victims across the length and breadth of a vast country.It is easy to understand why such colossal figures (and that does not include the effect this would have had on the families of the victims, the low birth rate and the early deaths of many who had gone through the horrors of the prisons and the camps) are ignored or dismissed as being unimportant of merely the sign of the West being jealous, wanting to destroy Russia or to prevent her from becoming great again.