Jewish World Review May 10, 2005/ 1 Iyar, 5765
Lest we forget, trust but verify
The Russians are our friends, but much in the way the Saudis are friends -- we need them enough that we have to put up with them. But Ronald Reagan had the Russians down cold: "Trust, but verify."
Trusting with verification is not really trust at all, as any suspicious wife could tell you. This is what the Gipper was saying with the sly humor that made his public pronouncements sparkle. Smile, but don't turn your back.
George W. Bush gets it, too, and his remarks in Latvia, preceding his visit to Moscow for the celebration of what the Russians regard as the great single-handed Soviet victory in World War II, were plain and to the point.
He called the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe what it was, "one of the greatest wrongs of history," the twin with Nazi Germany as the great evils of the millennium, evil made more sinister, in Winston Churchill's apt phrasing, by the perverted genius of science. The president's remarks in Riga were a rebuke of Vladimir Putin's assertion a week earlier that the crackup of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
Some Russian apologists try to explain that what Mr. Putin really meant was that the crackup was merely earth-shattering, not necessarily something to be regretted. Vladimir Putin knew what he was saying, and we do, too. A man who smothered the independent media, ransacked the judiciary and parliamentary institutions of his country, dealt arms to Iran and Syria, tried to subvert the Ukrainian revolution and soaks his speeches with lugubrious nostalgia for the good old days can't celebrate very much the decline and fall of the most efficiently oppressive regime of the century. Some of the apologists for Mr. Putin who excuse his jibes at "excesses of democracy" sound drearily like the apologists for the excesses of the old Soviet Union.
You don't have to yearn for the return of the Cold War, or despair for the future, to see Russia for what it is, a nation with great promise but uncertain prospects. The Soviet system fell of dead weight, but a substantial number of Russians have never quite given up the idea that they had it right and all the system needed was a tuneup, not an overhaul. We do the Russians no favors by not insisting that they recognize, as the rest of the world does, that the Soviet Union was a criminal syndicate.
The nostalgia for the old days, washing over Mother Russia with this week's celebration of the undoubted courage and resiliency of the Russian people, is dangerous just because there has never been official acknowledgment of the evil of the Soviet system. The KGB informers have not been punished; they have not even been identified. The Supreme Soviet enacted a law in 1992 at the time of the collapse that declared the archives a state secret, off-limits to reformers. Many of the deputies of the Supreme Soviet are thought to have been informers, and the precedent was established that concealing the facts (if not necessarily the truth) has had serious consequences. The archives are still sealed.
Stalin was thrown onto the ash heap of history along with Hitler and Caligula and Attila the Hun, but respectable Russians are working hard to rehabilitate him. Gennady Zyuganov, a leader of the Communist Party that did not die, insists that Russia "should once again render honor to Stalin for his role in building socialism and saving human civilization from the Nazi plague." (We only imagined that Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt had something to do with it.) Certain towns and villages are talking of putting back the statues to the man who presided over the killing of millions of his own, dwarfing the numbers if not the evil of der fuehrer.
Rewriting history can be tempting, and it's not just the Russians. Tony Blair yesterday entered a remarkable public rebuke of an extraordinary outburst by the German ambassador to London, who portrayed the Germans as among the victims of World War II, and admonished Europe to "get over it."
"It is right that Germany honors the memory of those who were expelled from Eastern Europe," the prime minister told the German newspaper Bild. "But that does not mean that a victim culture should be cultivated. Germany was responsible for the outbreak of World War II. We must all live with the consequences." The Russians, too, must deal with the consequences of what they did to the rest of the world in the wake of that war.
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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.
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