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Analysis & Opinion
16.07.10 How Can Russia Disclaim Responsibility For The Soviet Past?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Bruce Bean, Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Edward Lozansky, Igor Torbakov, Srdja Trifkovich

Russia is about to adopt a universal doctrine to disclaim once and for all any moral, legal or financial responsibility for the policies and actions of the Soviet authorities on the territory of the former Soviet republics and the states of Eastern Europe. Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev, a leading United Russia voice on foreign affairs, has published a summary of this doctrinal document in his blog on the Echo of Moscow radio station??™s Web site. Will adopting such a universal historical doctrine help solve Russia??™s problems with claims raised throughout the former Soviet block? Is it good for Russia??™s image? How would the West view such a policy?

Writing days after a controversial decree by the acting President of Moldova Mihai Guimpu, which proclaimed June 28 as the ???Day of Soviet occupation of Moldova,??? with claims for possible financial damages from Russia, Kosachev called for adopting a sort of ???historical doctrine??? for Russia that would spare Moscow the indignity of having to respond individually to such petty provocations from the neighboring states.

Indeed, Russia has been inundated lately with claims to assume responsibility for crimes committed under the Soviet regime on behalf of Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and now Moldova. Each time Moscow has had to improvise and threaten retaliation on an individual basis, while having no universal position to treat such claims in the future.

Kosachev??™s proposal goes to plug this hole. His basic idea is simple and tough: Russia fulfills all international obligations of the Soviet Union ??“ international treaties and agreements, as well as public and private debt ??“ as the successor state to the Soviet Union. However, Russia does not recognize its moral responsibility or any legal obligations for the actions and crimes committed by the Soviet authorities on the territories of former Soviet states and Eastern Europe. Russia does not accept any political, legal or financial claims against it for violations by Soviet authorities of international or domestic laws in force during the Soviet period.

So far this is the clearest formulation of such a position by any high-level Russian official. Despite the unofficial way it has been made public, it undoubtedly has the Kremlin??™s backing, as Kosachev is believed to be a close confidant of Sergei Prikhodko, an assistant to President Dmitry Medvedev on foreign affairs.

Will adopting such a universal historical doctrine help solve Russia??™s problems with claims raised throughout the former Soviet block? Is it good for Russia??™s image? Would it allow Moscow to avoid confrontational gestures with a shrug of the shoulders and a referral to the doctrine, were new claims like that to be levied against Russia? How would such a stance by Russia be viewed in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet states? Would it help normalize their relations with Russia? How would the West view such a policy? And what impact would it have on Russia??™s internal debate about its complicated and violent past?

Srdja Trifkovich, Ph.D., Director, Center for International Affairs, The Rockford Institute, Rockford, IL:

Kosachev??™s ???basic idea??? is simple, but not nearly tough enough. The distinction between Russia??™s legal inheritance and its alleged moral responsibility needs to be reinforced by a reminder that the agents of Soviet oppression were primarily focused on destroying Russia??™s faith, tradition, culture, and ??“ above all ??“ the millions of Russian people deemed ???objectively guilty??? (as per Martin Latsis).

Another reminder is that the chief perpetrators of Soviet terror ??“ starting in 1917 to 18 with the Bolshevik Central Committee, with the Red Latvian Riflemen, and the illustrious ???Iron Feliks??? ??“ were not only non-Russian, but explicitly anti-Russian.

Of course the second argument is a potential political minefield, and a blunt tool that has to be handled with tact and care. Nevertheless, it needs to be wielded in order to disarm once and for all those who want to burden today??™s Russians with the bogus burden of moral responsibility for what Joseph Stalin, Lavrenty Beria, Nikolai Yezhov et al. had done to their grandparents ??“ and everyone else??™s grandparents.

The slogan for the ???historical doctrine??? should be ???The Russian People: the Chief Victim of Soviet Oppression.??? It is worthy of note that the persecution of Russian Orthodox Christians under Bolshevism is by far the greatest crime, in numbers and time-frame, in all of recorded history.

The subsidiary slogan should be ???We Were All Losers!??? The conciliatory implication should be that each community has had its share of suffering, and each carries a collective trauma which it knows best. On the other hand, blaming today??™s Russia for the Soviet terror is as morally and legally absurd as blaming Georgia for Stalin and Beria, Poland for Felix Dzerzhinsky or Latvia for Latsis. While Russia clearly has no such claim against any of its neighbors, it is equally adamant in that it rejects any such claim from any of them.

An option to consider could be ???We Were All Martyrs!??? It evokes the words of Pope John Paul II at the Commemoration of 20th Century Witnesses of the Faith at the Coliseum in May of 2000: the blood of Christ??™s martyred witnesses, the Pope said, is ???the precious heritage that these courageous witnesses have passed down to us as a patrimony shared by all the Churches and ecclesial communities.??? As an example he singled out Metropolitan Benjamin of Saint Petersburg, martyred in 1922, whose final words at his farcical trial were: ???No matter what you decide, life or death, I will lift up my eyes reverently to God, cross myself and affirm: Glory to Thee, my Lord, glory to Thee for everything.???

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, University of Wollongong, Australia:

Statutes of limitations are legal mechanisms that reduce the time periods during which persons can be held liable for their past actions. The concept exists in both civil and criminal law. There are certain crimes, however, for which persons justifiably remain liable for their entire lifetimes. In domestic law, this is generally reserved for crimes such as murder. Internationally, both genocide and ???crimes against humanity??? do not allow a person??™s culpability to lapse with the passage of time, thereby facilitating their escaping punishment.

It would appear that when Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev stated that Russia has no ???moral, legal or financial responsibility for the policies and actions of the Soviet authorities on the territory of the former Soviet republics and states of Eastern Europe,??? he had in mind actions where the alleged perpetrators are deceased. No sovereign country (including Russia) will surrender its right to punish those who have successfully escaped trial for alleged crimes.

On an aggregate level, his pronouncement might be understood as meaning that ???might makes right.??? In the course of human history, the issue of when it is appropriate to impose a statute of limitations is complex. Is it fair to hold the contemporary Turkish state responsible for the crimes committed by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenian people? If one were to determine that it is appropriate, how should recompense be made? Usually, reparations are paid for events in the recent past. This occurs even when the government that perpetrated the crime no longer holds power (and frequently when those responsible for the relevant crimes are deceased).

Today, the world is full of people who are beneficiaries of their ancestors??™ crimes and acts of aggression. It is hard to think of a large country where this is not the case. While it is usually not possible to correct the wrongs of the past, it is feasible and proper to expect that the perpetrators??™ descendents be required to study the past wrongs committed by their ancestors or countries. This notably occurred in Germany, but not in Austria, which has been largely successful in perpetuating the myth that it was Hitler??™s first victim. While some of the Austrian population did not support the Anschluss, it is almost certainly not true for the majority.

When the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in 1991, Russia was quick to assert its status as the country??™s successor state in different spheres. Russia assumed the Soviet Union??™s assets (e.g. diplomatic property, bank accounts, and accounts payable, though a large share could not be collected from the debtors, both states and private entities) as well as the Soviet Union??™s contractual and financial liabilities.

In addition, Russia became the beneficial owner of various interests in legal entities established in foreign countries, many of which had been established by the KGB. It also assumed most of the Soviet Union's treaty obligations. Most importantly, Russia obtained the Soviet Union??™s permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Clearly, Russia as a state has benefited from the actions of the Soviet Union.

It is significant that Kosachev does not discuss what should be done to rectify transgressions that occurred on Russian soil or to Russian citizens. The proper approach to take has legal, philosophical and political elements. Even the Bible is not consistent in outlining how to address this matter. For example, one finds in Deuteronomy 24:16 the passage: "Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin." Similarly, Ezekiel 18:20 reads: "The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father??™s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son??™s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself."

On the other hand, in Deuteronomy 5:9 as well as Exodus 20:5 and 34:6-7, it is written that even the third and fourth generations of persons who do not serve God may be punished (a concept that might be equated with committing a crime against humanity). So what should be done? Should Kaliningrad be renamed Konigsberg and populated with ethnic Germans, or are the German people today collectively paying the price for their ancestors??™ past crimes? I doubt it.
With a few exceptions, very few former Soviet officials were punished for violating the civil and human rights of their fellow citizens. While that may not have been desirable, the alternative could have been far worse. My sense is that Soviet-era archives should be kept open both to help educate future generations and to have those who committed the most unforgivable acts live out their remaining days with the knowledge that they may not escape some public form of punishment, provided it is done in accordance with contemporary notions of due process and consistent with international law.

Professor Bruce W. Bean, Lecturer in Global Corporate Law, Director, MSU LL M Program, Michigan State University College of Law:

Chairman Kosachev's proposal for a ???doctrine" which seeks to set forth Russia??™s position on claims for "reparations" from former Soviet bloc nations merits serious consideration. It is not true that Russia owes anyone damages, apologies or even an explanation for what happened in the nation prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But this trial balloon provides an excellent opportunity to eliminate some popular misconceptions about the Soviet Union and Russia.

To be clear, I am no fellow traveler or ???Putinista.??? I am pleased to receive a monthly check from the American taxpayer for long service as a true-believing Cold Warrior. But I have recently lived in Moscow for eight years and have allowed myself to learn a few things.

For decades the terms "Soviet" and "Russian" were conflated by headline writers and U.S. and other politicians who used these terms interchangeably. For a media example, recall Slim Pickens as Major Kong in Stanley Kubrick??™s 1964 Cold War classic, ???Dr. Strangelove,??? describing all-out nuclear war as ???toe to toe combat with the Russkies.??? The facts belie this ???terminological inexactitude??? (as Winston Churchill might have said).

Today??™s Russian Federation and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics should not be confused. The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic was the largest and most important constituent republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Moscow served as the capital of both the RSFSR and the Soviet Union. There were, however, 14 other republics in the Soviet Union.

Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia generously agreed to accede to the treaties and conventions to which the Soviet Union was party. Let??™s not be confused ??“ the new Russia was under no legal obligation to do this. Indeed, six billion people on the planet should be ever grateful that Russia did so, since the critical issue on December 25, 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, was responsibility for the massive nuclear arsenal the Soviet Union had built up during the Cold War.

The privations and suffering under the Soviet regime cannot to be denied. But the victims included the many millions of Russians, and those responsible for the very worst reported crimes were not exclusively Russian. We have as the two leading examples, the Georgian Joseph Stalin and Poland??™s Felix Dzerzhinsky.

The myriad of positive contributions of the Soviet Union must also be acknowledged. Soviet citizens suffered like no others in what we refer to as World War II. Twenty-six million dead is the widely accepted total number of casualties in the Soviet Union between June 21, 1941 and May 9, 1945. This amounts to more than one death per minute for every minute of every day for the duration of that war. To put it in this century's terms, the Soviet Union??™s losses in their Great Patriotic War were equivalent to six September 11 tragedies every day for 1418 days.

Chairman Kosachev is a prudent, well-advised leader. If he brings a carefully crafted version of this proposal to the Duma, it will help clarify that Russians too suffered under the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, each of the former Soviet republics had a new flag, a new country and new opportunities. This is just as true for the Russian people as for others who might contemplate making claims for damages.

Today??™s Russian Federation has precisely no responsibility to the other constituent republics of the Soviet Union, to the "Warsaw Pact" nations or to anyone else for abuses committed by those who led the Soviet Union.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow:

Finally, they are talking. I mean if the Chairman of the Duma??™s Foreign Relations Committee Konstantin Kosachev is saying things like that, it means something. Whether he consulted with the Kremlin before making such a bold and courageous statement or not is an open question, but when a man of his statue says that "our society is to no lesser extent the victim of the erstwhile regime, was no less articulate in condemning the crimes of Stalin's totalitarianism, and acted on its own, without external intervention and democratically, to remove the communist ideology from power," it tells you a lot.

Let us be fair. It is not easy for the country??™s leaders while the Communist Party still gets around 15 percent of the votes to say publicly that the Soviet system were a criminal one. And most likely the main reason why Lenin??™s tomb is still sitting on the Red Square is that no one wants KPRF to increase its ratings by getting their people on the streets to defend their beloved corpse.

In September 2005 I wrote a letter to President Vladimir Putin repeating the same question I printed earlier in the Russian daily Izvestia. I asked him why he doesn??™t admit that Russia was enslaved by communism together with 14 other Soviet republics and the countries of Eastern Europe. Moreover, in the absolute numbers of victims it was Russia that suffered the most and it was Russia that liberated itself, all the captive nations, and for that matter, the world, from Soviet-style communism.

I did not get a direct answer from Putin but my Russian visa was not revoked, and I started to receive invitations to appear on many television and radio talk-shows repeating more or less the same lines. Only a couple of weeks ago I said on one of the main Russian television channels that it is time to admit that although the Red Army made the most crucial contribution to defeat the Nazis, it was the same Red Army that occupied the Baltics, Western Ukraine and Eastern Europe for almost 50 years. Since this show was pre-taped these lines could have been easily deleted, but they were not.
My weak voice, of course, is obviously not the only one. The work to deal with the Soviet legacy is being done slowly, but surely. This regime and its policies have been repeatedly condemned by Russia??™s current top officials and the media, including government-run television channels: these are constantly filled with devastating documentaries and feature films describing the horrors of the Soviet era. Most recently both Medvedev and Putin denounced Stalin??™s terror in connection with the Katyn massacre, and we have heard them denouncing communist policies and dogmas many times since and before.

The job of writing a comprehensive multi-volume modern Russian history was offered by the Kremlin to no one else but Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the person who, through his writings and public activities, has done more than any other man to destroy the communist ideology. Due to his old age he passed this honor to the Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO) ??“ one of the most prestigious schools for future Russian diplomats -- Professor Andrei Zubov, known for his calls for Russia??™s de-communization similar to the de-Nazification of postwar Germany. History books rarely become bestsellers, but this one surely did. It has won praise from many well-known scholars, including Richard Pipes and others who can hardly be charged with being Moscow??™s appeasers or sympathizers.

It would be highly advisable for U.S. Congress to complement Kosachev??™s words with the editing or at least with starting the discussion on the text of the ???Captive Nations Resolution??? on July 17, 1959. The time to act is now, as Barack Obama is getting ready to make this proclamation next week.

That law, contrary to historic facts, uses such expressions like ???Russian communism??? and ???communist Russia.??? These should be replaced by ???Soviet communism??? and ???Soviet Union.??? In addition, Russia should be added to the list of 30 or so captive nations listed in this resolution.

Believe me, this is not just a linguistic exercise, but a long overdue symbolic gesture, which will have a huge positive impact on the ???reset??? in U.S.-Russian relations.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

A Russian doctrine of the kind described by Frolov is necessary and appropriate. There have been many official statements by Medvedev and Putin clearly transmitting their repudiation of Soviet crimes. A doctrinal declaration should establish an appropriate jurisdictional framework for Russia??™s position on the topic.

It should be evident that the theme of Russia??™s responsibility for the crimes of the Soviet government is cultivated in only a handful of societies, mostly in Eastern Europe, and also in other locales, by people who actively work for the resumption of the Cold War. One can readily see that in many ??“ perhaps in most ??“ instances, the motive for demands on Russia is pecuniary: in times of economic stress, micro-states whose sovereign existence is not economically viable and which see less money from their patrons, aggressively seek out other sources of money on the side.

Of course, demands for reparations are a two-way street, of which the putative claimants seem to be unaware. For example, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Russian Federation assumed responsibility for the entire sovereign debt of the Soviet Union, although the population of Russia was less than 50 percent of the population of the Soviet Union. This act was the consequence of gross malpractice by then-Russian negotiators, who still remain unpunished for their negligence. Russia paid off that indebtedness ??“ and how would Moldova, Estonia, Latvia et al. now like to pay back to Russia their pro-rata share of that Soviet foreign debt?

There is another aspect or moral responsibility for crimes against humanity, again affecting many former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe. It has to do with Nazi collaboration and participation in Nazi genocidal crimes, including the Holocaust. Given the small population of the republics in question, the per-capita ratio of Nazi collaborators, members of Waffen-SS and active participants in the Holocaust was higher than even in Germany. Therefore, today there is a higher mathematical probability to meet family relatives of Nazi criminals among the autochthonous inhabitants of the Baltic members of NATO than in Berlin, for example. One has not heard much of a call in the area to atone and pay reparations for such guilt. Rather the opposite: still living members of collaborationist organizations are often permitted to make a public display of their curious esprit de corps and tacit allegiance to a criminal past.

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Will a Russian repudiating doctrine stop all attacks on modern Russia, who itself is emerging from decades-long entrapment by Marxist totalitarianism? Probably not. The reason is that this bugaboo is frequently trotted out for specific propaganda purposes. It is like the frequent reference to Putin??™s former profession (which he resigned from over 20 years ago; similar comments are almost never addressed at George Bush Senior, who at one time held the very exalted position of director of the CIA). Attribution to Russia of moral responsibility for Soviet crimes is also used to maintain the ???oh so convenient??? mythology of collective victimhood, cultivated in the referenced former Soviet republics. Collective victimhood mythology is attractive because it creates a basis for self-absolution for very concrete, factually provable collective guilt. Please note that we are discussing mythology here, not the proven suffering of genuine targets of genocide.

This victimhood mythology is an insult to the history of genuine suffering, because it dilutes the real horror experienced by real victims, with allegations of pseudo-suffering by political scammers. Those who demand Russian atonement for hypothetical responsibility and even for mythical suffering ??“ for pecuniary or black propaganda purposes ??“ deal in very shameful matters indeed.

Igor Torbakov, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki:

One has to understand that Konstantin Kosachev??™s proposal didn??™t emerge out of the thin air. His idea should be placed into the broader context of Russia??™s attempts at crafting and pursuing the robust ???politics of history.??? Like other members of the country??™s ruling elite, Kosachev appears to perceive memory and history as an important ideological and political battleground: Russia??™s detractors ??“ both foreign and domestic ??“ allegedly seek to spread interpretations of past events that are detrimental to Russia??™s interests, and there is an urgent need to resolutely counter these unfriendly moves. Several elements of such politics of history have already been introduced in Russia: a set of officially sponsored and centrally-approved textbooks with the highly pronounced statist interpretation of 20th-century Russian history; attempts to establish the ???regime of truth??? using legislative means; and the creation of a bureaucratic institution to fight the ???falsification of history.???

Yet all these measures have failed to produce any tangible result ??“ as the continuing avalanche of claims and accusations coming from Russia??™s East European neighbors seems to demonstrate. Kosachev appears to believe that at the heart of Russia??™s problem is the lack of a systemic approach. Hence his suggestion to elaborate what he calls Russia??™s comprehensive ???historical doctrine.???

Remarkably, Kosachev has correctly defined the core reason behind Russia??™s current predicament: it lies, he notes, in the simple fact that present-day Russia is a legal successor to the Soviet Union. He also notes, again correctly, that this legal continuity involves both positive and negative implications. But then, when he spells out the key points of his ???historical doctrine,??? he takes on a markedly contradictory stance. Russia, Kosachev suggests, can carry on as the Soviet Union??™s successor state, but is not responsible ??“ politically, morally, financially or otherwise ??“ for any criminal acts committed by the Soviet regime.

But this stance is untenable. As some leading scholars (such as, for instance, Andrei Zubov) have long pointed out, the issue of legal continuity is the crux of the matter, and this is exactly what differentiates Russia from all other countries of Eastern Europe. While in 1991 Russia chose to become, in legal terms, the continuation of the Soviet Union, all ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe opted to reestablish historical continuity with their pre-communist state entities. Thus if today??™s Russia is a direct successor of the Soviet state ??“ the fact all Russian ruling bodies willingly accept ??“ then it bears full responsibility for the actions and crimes committed by the Soviet regime against both its own people and foreign citizens throughout that regime??™s entire history. The unwillingness to do this ??“ which the Kosachev??™s proposal unambiguously declares ??“ will only raise suspicions among Russia??™s neighbors.

But even more important, of course, is the issue of Russia??™s own identity. Back in 1991, Russia, too, had two options: to reestablish legal continuity with the 1917 pre-revolutionary Russia or choose to become a legal successor to the Soviet Union. Interestingly, Boris Yeltsin appeared to have understood the difference between the options and the possible implications. In his memoirs, having explained the reasons for the actual choice that the Russian leadership made at the time, he then mused about what might have happened had the Russian Federation chosen to become a successor to the pre-revolutionary Russia.

Russia, he suggested, would have become a different country, living according to different set of laws that would give priority to personality and not to the state. ???The outside world would have treated us differently too,??? he added, tellingly.
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