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Russia Has Trouble Escaping the Past
Posted on Jun 8, 2010
By Ivo Mijnssen and Philipp Casula
At the same time, today’s Russian government tries hard to depict the country as democratic. Open adoration for Stalin is thus out of the question. The solution offered by the Putin-Medvedev government could be dubbed—if the process continues—a conservative destalinization. By distinguishing between the crimes of the leader and the virtue of the people, Victory can continue to serve as a keystone of national identity.
With regards to the Katyn massacre, a similar strategy is applied. The Russian leaders admit a certain degree of responsibility, but no guilt, since the Russian people they represent were as much victims of the Stalinist regime as the Poles. This is certainly an important first step. Critics argue, however, that it is not enough. Arseny Roginsky, the head of the Russian human rights group Memorial, states in an interview with the daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung that Russians need to confront “the evil” in their past and take responsibility for it. Roginsky demands that those who were guilty of crimes against humanity be named and tried. “We have to open all archives to the public without exception. We have to rehabilitate all victims.” This kind of action is still far off, as the Russian authorities have restricted access to the archives of the secret services in recent years.
The reluctance of the Russian authorities to promote open and self-critical debate on the USSR’s role in World War II and the cost at which the country won the war has an additional dimension. The idealized Victory is used to present the USSR as a member of the club of advanced nations that ostensibly got the world to where it is today. In the broadest terms, World War II was an instance where the country fought on the right side of history, together with Western powers, defeating fascism and helping negotiate a new, peaceful world order. The tensions of the Cold War are ignored in this narrative. The present-day Russian state hence uses Victory to bolster its demand to be treated as an equal partner in world affairs by other great powers—the United States foremost. This quest for recognition has been a leitmotif of Russian foreign policy since the late 1990s, under Yevgeny Primakov, who was both foreign minister and prime minister, and even more so during Putin’s tenure.
In this context, the “restart” in the Russian-American relationship offered by President Barack Obama during his summer 2009 Moscow visit was well received. His speech at the renowned New Economic School started with references to Russia’s “timeless heritage” and its contributions to world culture. Obama went on to recognize that Americans and Soviets had been “allies in the greatest struggle of the last century” and that “Soviet soldiers from places like Kazan and Kiev endured unimaginable hardships to repel an invasion, and turn the tide in the east.” His speech culminated in proposing a global partnership that “will be stronger if Russia occupies its rightful place as a great power.”
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The Russian self-image in domestic and international politics is still today closely intertwined with a past that is far from pristine. In a positive sense, Russia’s past can be interpreted so as to position the country as a constructive partner in international relations. In a negative sense, World War II as a point of reference for issues between nations can lead to an exaggerated sense of threat and a recourse to nationalist rhetoric and reflexes. Ultimately, the continuation of Russia’s pragmatic foreign policy—for example toward Poland—will to a large extent depend on whether it achieves the desired results.
Exactly what Russia desires, however, is not so clear. Russia remains ambivalent about its place in the world: The century-long question of whether Russia is a Western or Eastern power and the flaws in the country’s democratic institutions continue to prevent it from pursuing a coherent domestic and foreign policy. One might add, however, that the frequent lack of a coherent Western policy toward Russia has not helped it find its place either.
Philipp Casula is a research fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Basel, Switzerland. He studied sociology in Munich, Rome and Berlin and further specialized in Russian affairs and political theory. Among his latest publications are “Identities and Politics during the Putin Presidency” (co-edited with Jeronim Perovic, Ibidem, 2009) and “Political and National Identity in Russian Political Discourse” (with Olga Malinova, published in Lecours/Moreno: Nationalism and Democracy, Routledge 2010).
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