Moscow: Even if it was all for effect, Vladimir Putin did a very important and momentous thing October 30, traveling to a 3 decade NKVD killing field in southern Moscow- Butovo, where maybe 50,000 people were shot for no particular reason, except that the nation’s leader was a fanatic… and finally acknowledging the madness of the monsters. Before he had appeared to excuse them: “it was terrible”, yes, but “in other countries even worse things happen”. In the burgeoning nationalism he's sponsored, the past is a heroic rose colored time and the only enemy the Nazis. As an ex- KGB man who belonged to the predator organization and has rolled back political rights and liberties, there were multiple layers of irony and outrage competing by the Church of the Resurrection and New Martyrs.
Gulag victims- Butovo Church memorial
When I first arrived here exactly 16 years ago, I stayed with Galina, a fearsome babushka, the indefatigable women who ran the Soviet Union. She would work from 6am-10pm in the market, screaming commands and comments at 120 decibels to her supplicants (shoppers), come home and get up at 1-2am to cook som ething for me in 2” of warm grease, then do it again next morning. She was a powerful machine, but when I returned late, the door would open a crack on the chain, and this small fearful beady-eyed face would peer out. “Are they coming for me”, the quivering face asked, “to be removed and never heard from again.” Such was the damage wrought by the Communist killers of the KGB-NKVD-OGPU-Cheka, that this terror was burned into her being 37 years after such nighttime raids nearly ceased.
One shouldn’t have to recite the litany of terror, but in Russia, one does. The Communists were estimated to have killed through murder, camps, starvation, deportations- at least 20 million people over 36 years (72 total). Yes, the number bandied around now is 12.5 million, but that acknowledges millions more. Most of this lies at the feet of the greatest monster in history*, Joseph Stalin, a filthy psychotic who killed his family, friends, colleagues, and significant portion of his nation… along with a piece of Galina’s soul. He didn’t “save the country” in WW2, he was responsible for 10-14 million of the 28 million deaths by ignoring Hitler’s threat even after he invaded, slaughtering the entire officer corps in response to a hideously successful German misinformation plan, and expending humans like farm animals. Even the Battle of Berlin was set up as a race between Zhukov and Rokossovsky for Stalin’s amusement, rather than a coordinated attack. Industrializing Russia did not require the mass execution of kulaks, “rich” peasants who had a cow or hired hand, or the forced starvation of Ukraine, or the deportation of entire peoples, or the shipment of victorious Red Army trains straight to the Gulag because the soldiers had seen the West.
At Butovo Putin said, “Such tragedies have occurred more than once in the history of mankind. And they happened when ideals, ideals that were attractive at first glance but proved empty in the end, were placed higher than fundamental values – the values of human life, human rights and freedoms. Those who were executed, sent to camps, shot and tortured number in the thousands and millions of people… These were people with their own opinions… who were not afraid to speak their mind…. the most capable people… It seems incredible, madness.”
Dealing with genocides has always been almost impossible for afflicted nations: even the victor-imposed Nuremberg trials involved only 209 defendants of a country that had caused the deaths of 50 million people- about 2000 people were tried in all. In Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Russia, the killers return to live with their victims with near complete immunity. That’s because genocide creates something more awful than terror… respect. Respect for these godlike creatures who held the power of life and death, and a lingering conviction that they could still use it. So despite the rage and nightmares; the scars and sorrow, the killers often ascend to powerful positions in commerce or government- they have the connections, experience, and ruthlessness. They are resented, despised, feared… but respected.
But only Russia loves them, even worships them; and the more powerful and fiendish they grow, the greater the adoration. 35% now would vote for Stalin as leader, a poll says, informed by a 40 part TV series dramatizing his "good side". This is the most incomprehensible thing about Russia to any foreigner: the blind obedience that deifies tyrants, instead of destroying them. 2 centuries of Mongol domination may have had a lasting effect. “We are an Asio-European people, not Euro-Asian” says Olga, a Moscow historical archeologist whose priest great-grandfather was killed at Butovo. “It is the mentality of our people,” says Boris Shumov, director of the Gulag Museum in Moscow. “The old ones want a firm and strong leader.” First the bully-leader becomes a father figure, and then is gradually elevated to godlike status; a belief in divine determinism that also propped up the czars.
This explains some of Putin’s astronomical popularity, which he has shrewdly managed in his persona as ruthless political operative, who has crushed the nascent democracy and concentrated all power into the Kremlin. In another persona, as KGB agent, he doesn’t mention a word about his agency’s culpability in the atrocities at Butovo (and uses phantom xenophobic threats to unify the people): the entire performance seems perfectly stage-managed to appease the West. Look, Putin gets it. But in his third persona, as a relatively competent technocrat ruler who values ability and results (after abject loyalty), his words sound sincere- what decent human couldn’t be appalled at the staggering waste of life, the destruction of so much- perhaps 100 million erased potential citizens of Russia/FSU 3-4 generations later?
There have been no trials, not even the hint of the possibility, in Russia for the worst depredations in history- it was accepted that guilt under the mandatory religion of Communism was so endemic that it was impossible to assign, a common story when the murderers co-opt and contaminate every level of society.
“They are the pride of the nation,” the President said of the disappeared. “We still remember this tragedy. We need to do a great deal to ensure that this is never forgotten.”
Yes, we do. Build a big central memorial to them, this lost nation of ghosts. Dig up Stalin and bury him in an unknown pauper’s grave. Crush the Stalin cult of rehabilitation- run endless documentaries about the truth of the Gulag. Bury Lenin- this macabre waxwork founding father of a deadly experiment. And let’s have some trials, finally, after all these years. Slay some monsters for the victims, Mr. Putin- you know better than anyone who they are.
The true enemies of Russia aren’t America or England, Estonia or Georgia, Ukraine or Poland. Russia isn’t the backward nation of yesteryear- it is a military, financial, and resource superpower. Though Russia has suffered horribly from invaders, equally bad have been the enemies from within, and until it learns to resist their enticements, it is condemned to repeat the past.
*Mao may have caused more deaths- the Great Leap Forward was estimated to kill 30 million in 58-60, but not as cold-blooded executions. Hitler’s crimes were predominantly not against his own people. The Mongols were the original genocidal maniacs, but again not against their own people and only till they attained control.
Michael Hammerschlag (HAMMERNEWS) has spent 2½ years in Russia. His articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Honolulu Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel, Scoop; and Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, and Times.