25th Mar 2023


Russia needs to confront its past

  • Stalinist insignia in recently renovated Moscow metro station (Photo: Garrett Ziegler)

It is clear that Russia under the current leadership keeps pushing the envelope and it will not stop until stopped.

In the short and medium term, European countries can be protected from Russian incursions, pardon invasions, if only there is political will from the West.

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As certain countries continue to demonstrate, it cannot be considered anything granted. Borrowing from the second president of Estonia, Lennart Meri, there is a danger of "liberte, egalite, port-monnaie".

These European anomalies are compounded with Russia’s emphasis on propaganda or “alternative truths” as the sinister euphemism has it.

Their Sputnik channel, an extension of RT (Russia Today), will in several countries tap even further into a general dissatisfaction and resentment of the status quo in the West.

There are plenty of vulnerabilities in our society that Russia knows how to use and distort. We on the whole know much less about them. This propaganda, which is essentially a perverse abuse of Western openness and press freedom, needs our immediate attention.

Until then, witness eurosceptics and other useful idiots like Putin apologists and RT viewers circulating conspiracy theories of what's "actually" going on with Ebola, CIA, Ukraine and the "1984" that is our modern Western society.

But let us imagine that one day Russia's hysterical nationalism blows over and there is a regime change of sorts. And as it has been said by Gleb Pavlovsky, former advisor to Putin, it will fall in one day. What then?

Someone as mad or worse can well occupy the throne in Russia. A chilling thought. But what if a regime not as invading and threatening would emerge? Europe would then like to mend ties, restore trade, rebuild economic bridges.

This will be preceded, as a matter of fact, by a decision by Russia. It needs to determine the course it wants to go and resolve its on-going identity crisis. Whether it is Eurasia (union or no union), a “genuinely” Russian cultural room between Europe and Asia, or will it be Europe.

Probably its actions will have made the call by that time anyway. It is great to see that even in Western Europe people have started to write that ever embracing Russia in the hope it would transform and adopt European, democratic values, has failed and was doomed to fail.

Of all of the Euro jargon one could have encountered while working in Brussels during recent years, calling Russia a European Strategic Partner must have been one of the most misguided ones.

Nonetheless, Russia is a neighbour, nice or bothersome. At one point in the future, there will be some normalisation in relations. Will then – and until that time – Russia still be considered as a (quasi) European country?

We do not have to make Russia European in a one size fits all sort of way, some would say. It’s different. Of course, the Russian culture is something different and not only because they did not experience Enlightenment or not display a passion for Western values like personal liberty, freedom of speech, tolerance.

Russia’s current actions have gone too far.

Their current standing point can probably only be fixated in retrospect, in comparison with what’s still to come. But it should be easy to establish that their actions have made them now worlds apart from Europe, temporarily or not.

That is why it is necessary to exclude or suspend at the very least Russia from respective institutions and treaties that then (erroneously) hint it is European country (e.g. Council of Europe), as has been suggested.

Nonetheless, this is a European perspective, one of many. If the Russians still feel, today or tomorrow, that they are a proud European nation, it will be up to them to prove it.

This reasoning can provide a good crossing point for thinking what constitutes a European identity, what is the balance of the Byzantine-European balance of Russian society and most practically, what to do when Russia finally gets a leader who is not as bent on restoring the Soviet Union and flying bombers on the Baltic Sea as Putin?

When that time comes and if governments will then say we can finally resume normal relations with a fellow European nation, there will have to be a huge and inevitable change preceding that choice of words.

Europe will need to help Russia reconcile its past and help it to finally overcome the traumas Communism created. Only that will prevent a Putin 2.0. Only that can allow Russia become genuinely European, even if with a Russian twist to it.

In the 1990s and 2000s there was no emphasis put on this. After the collapse of the Soviet Union this malaise was left to linger on in Russia, only for someone like Putin to capitalise on it by restoring the Soviet anthem etc.

So, what’s the problem with Russia, formerly known as the European strategic partner?

Russia has never confronted its Soviet past whereas Western Europe has discussed and analysed the Second World War. The Eastern Europeans have done their best, after finally having had the chance. They have even calculated the economic costs and environmental damage caused by Communism.

Sadly, the Russians never knew how to go about it. With trends like these they probably never will. For instance, this autumn final arrangements began to close Memorial, a respected Russian NGO that openly speaks of Communist crimes and is critical of the regime.

This lack of post-Soviet reconciliation and discussion of identity needs to be addressed as it is one of the very reasons why such hysterical nationalism could ever have emerged in Russia.

Besides other problems Russia continues to wrestle with, be it the economy, vast corruption or xenophobia, the trauma that Communism inflicted on Russian society during the 20th century has to be discussed openly. The Soviet regime - as all Communist regimes without an exception - was a violent one.

They murdered and imprisoned people on an industrial scale.

Old truths?

Well, no. Needless to say, Russia itself needs to recognize this need in order to steer clear of ultranationalist tendencies in the future. And most obviously, this regime and the siloviki will not allow it. One can rightfully ask why the Russian people should do such a thing, even if they could.

Yes, the Soviet Union was on the victors' side. But contrary to what some may fear, no-one would dispute their efforts in defeating the Nazis. It is simply the other side of the medallion that needs some light - the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a basis for Nazi-Soviet alliance 1939-1941; the Nazi and Soviet armies marching together in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, on 22nd September 1939; the tens of millions tortured, deported and shot by Communists.

This reconciliation will have to be both an internal and external process. But until that time it is Europe who needs to acknowledge that Soviet socio-ideological identity and memory will, unless reconciled, continue to be of vital importance in the context of not only Putin's behaviour, but also in the way Russian society continues to be manipulated under this regime or very possibly the next.

A stronger emphasis on helping Russia to reconcile its Communist past and crimes committed against its own people and others can be the only foundation of a better and profound relationship with Russia.

Make no mistake, internal post-war reconciliation has proven just as important as its international counter-part in the post-war epoch.

Take Germany, who has reconciled with its past, acknowledged and apologized for the atrocities committed. Had Russia, the once Nazi ally, done this in the 1990s-2000s, it might have even attained the much yearned for respect from other, Western countries.

Germany’s relations with Poland today are great. It has regained the respect of the international community. Perhaps Germany can start exporting this know-how not only to Asia, as has been suggested, but also Russia?

Whenever the time might even come for it, some would resent this as Western moralism. That is no counter argument, as Germany (and Europe) has a genuine lesson to offer with its Vergangenheitsbewaltigung.

From a historical and societal perspective, given the importance what this has had on the continent's development it can surely be regarded as something that constitutes modern Europe.

This approach is neither too elementary nor is it wishful thinking. Nor is this a new thought in Russia or Europe. But that is beside the point. While the ex-Soviet state of Russia is drunk with nationalism, Europe must act.

Measures to overcome this difficult time in international relations do not only encompass Nato policies and EU sanctions. Make no mistake defending Europe is what those things are about.

There is a feeling that the Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen summed up so well: "Do not betray us again". When one hears Putin apologists taking a “balanced” view towards Russian invasions to Ukraine and Georgia, or is reminded that the sale of Mistrals is still on the table, then a possibility of another Yalta comes to mind, even if only briefly.

Dealing with the past has a clear link with the present and with the future, overcoming the current crisis and helping Russia overcome its Communist past.

Also, as Boris Schumatsky pointed out, this would help us to find new concepts to describe the world today, because postmodern relativism taken to absurd heights - there are no single truths - has been effectively killed by Putin.

Or come to life, if you like. We have to start officially calling Russian lies lies, their understanding of "fascism" a dangerous and cynical fantasy and the word "Russophobia" a pretext similar to "Lebensraum".

Russia is on a collision course. The growing hysterical, anti-Western rhetoric and boiling nationalism indicate that a Russian Vergangenheitsbewaltigung must eventually take place.

Although not the only element, it is one that is absolutely vital in curing the world's biggest country of its illnesses and of its obstacles of one day becoming perhaps one of the greatest countries in the world.

Paertel-Peeter Pere is a foreign affairs and defence advisor in the European Parliament.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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