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Analysis & Opinion
14.07.08 Farewell, And Forgive
Comment by Alexander Arkhangelsky

There’s a popular stock phrase: “the garbage heap of history.” One image that immediately comes to mind upon hearing this phrase is the one evoked by a recent picture from Naples in Italy; garbage that has not been removed rots under the burning sun and expands; in some places it has been set on fire, and the air is filled with bluish-gray ashes. Meanwhile, the Naples garbage heaps have accumulated only because the mafia was in conflict with the authorities and forbade to take the previous day’s waste to the rubbish dumps. If it wasn’t for this ban, such an unsanitary situation would have never happened. Similar things happen in history; without sorting through your national experience, without taking the garbage out to the dumpster, without overcoming the inevitable resistance of political mafia, you are creating a stifling atmosphere for yourself. Not to mention the nausea. And an uncomfortable life. And a stagnant society.

In the last few years, the humanitarian field in our beloved country has been governed by a historical cosa nostra. At first the authorities silently agreed: whatever happened in the 20th century is long forgotten. Let’s not touch or move anything; let everything stay in its place. It will mean less stench. Let’s cover the heap with the red flag, disinfect it with the rewritten anthem, and let’s keep moving. Later it turned out that there’s actually no place to keep moving to; the road to the future is blocked by the past. “Ah!” said our cosa nostra. Let’s sort out the waste then by arranging it in nice little compartments; anyway we won’t have to dispose of it. Here’s a little drawer for Stalin’s things; here’s a special bin for NKVD needs. And we will also write a travel guide of our dear heaps of garbage, to make sure nobody gets lost. This is how the school textbook emerged, under the names of Comrades Filippov and Danilin, with their immortal thesis: Stalin’s regime was cruel, but it was effective management for a speedy modernization. And then, a direct order to television networks was born: never to compare national-socialism with communism and Hitler’s regime in Germany with Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union. Here’s a little map for you, guys: you can go here and here, here’s one turn and here’s another, and this is where you can never go – otherwise, we’ll hurt you.

But the guide did not help either as the heap of scum kept growing incessantly. One kind of historical feces was separated from another, some things were packaged in cellophane, paths between the heaps of garbage were made and arrow road signs were erected. But there was still no way forward – only narrow trails inside a labyrinth, circle after circle. Moreover, they wanted to combine the incompatible: to keep the Communist regime untouched because it’s too horrific; to vindicate the NKVD, because there’s no other way; and to snuggle up to Solzhenitsyn, because he’s a great patriot. But this was not an easy thing to do. In the end, our own cosa nostras got so confused that they decided to completely stop pondering over this dangerous topic – and forbade everyone else from talking about it, even the church.

And now, yesterday, a representative of the Department for the Church’s External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Georgy Ryabykh, made a certain important statement. I am quoting material from the Interfax-Religion agency; with some effort, I was able to find a link to the original source on the Yandex search engine: it was lost in approximate paraphrases with commentary. “The condemnation of communism started in the 1990s, but was left unfinished,” says Father Georgy. Today, it remains a necessity to continue to denounce communism, “to honor the memory of victims of repression and their civil perseverance, to open memorial complexes, to restore the original names of cities and streets, to get rid of Soviet symbolism on governmental buildings, to remove monuments to murderous leaders from central squares of Russia’s towns and cities and the cemetery by the Kremlin wall.”

Let’s stop here for now – and maintain the general pathos which this discussion evokes.

Father Georgy is undoubtedly right. Every historical nation has memories that elevate the soul, as well as shameful eras when it demonstrates the worst of what it possesses within itself. Communism is this black-and-red era in Russia’s life. Naturally, the experience of social repentance that has been accumulated by post-war Germany will not work for us – nobody conquered us, nobody suggested court procedures and rules on morality from the outside. It has been a long time since it was interpreted amongst the public that the name of the metro station “Voykovskaya” in the center of Moscow had some ideological symbol – a vector of historical direction. And yet, this name is inscribed in our subcortex, and this inscription is reproduced from generation to generation: regicide and infanticide are possible in Russia, they are not only not a sin, but a way to the pinnacle of fame. As for the Mausoleum preservation of Lenin’s mummy, a chemical conservation of pseudo-relics of the one who is personally guilty of causing the multi-million catastrophe of Russia’s 20th century, is actually similar to having an open repository for anthrax. And the symbols of Stalin’s greatness, so carefully preserved on governmental buildings. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Father Georgy is an intelligent, respectable, independent man, but he is representing a rather official church structure – the External Relations department. Does his statement mean that the authorities are thinking about daring to clean up the obstructing heaps in historical memory? And have they indicated that they wouldn’t mind if the Russian Orthodox community took on the public initiative? Perhaps. Particularly as it’s impossible to imagine a peaceful de-communization of history without significant participation from the church; who else can bless the purging process and turn it from a political squabble into a problem of national conscience? And if it is to be done, then now is the right time – the fate of “chief cleaner” has passed on to Medvedev. Everything that was not done in the previous eight years – because it would have been unpleasant either for the elites or for the people, and thus would have decreased the popularity of the leader – must be done now. The housing and communal utilities reform. The repayment for the inevitable food crisis (accordingly, the unpopular decisions are still to come). The final and conclusive burial of communism.

Be that as it may, in the renowned business of de-communization (if it is ever started), we are doomed to run against an invisible barrier, a forbidden line drawn beforehand in this direction – and Father Georgy has nothing to do with this. We can take off the symbols of Stalin’s era; it is conceivable that we might even bury Lenin. But who will ever dare to officially speak the unspoken and to call not only the Bolshevik party but also its armed unit, the NKVD, criminal organizations? And thus, to close, once and for all, the topic of succession of the modern special service, to abolish all these “80 years in service” badges and pins. That is, to turn the secret services from a quasi-mystical order of supreme beings into a normal instrument of self-defense for the new Russian state. With limited powers. And a short history – one that starts on August 23, 1991, not earlier.

And what do we do with the neo-Soviet anthem, which also symbolizes a totalitarian state?

And what about the refusal to recognize Katyn as a crime?

Father Georgy wasn’t asked about that, so he didn’t say anything. But he was asked something else: what do we get instead? He replied: a civic cult of Tsar the Passion Bearer, a symbol of legitimate power and authority. And this is where, to be honest, I deeply doubt that Father Georgy is right. For one segment of our society, the last tsar is a saint; for another segment, he is just a failed politician who lost Russia on three occasions; for the third segment, he is a victim of circumstances and commands the deepest human sympathy, but doesn’t need to be worshipped. And this is normal. You can treat Nikolay II any old way you choose. You can even have multiple opinions of him. But there can be only one way to treat Voykov, Lenin and Stalin – as the creators of a criminal regime of impostors. It would be best to stop at this. We cannot do without a cleanup, but we can manage to survive somehow without any civic cults.
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