The Russian government has established a presidential commission charged with countering “attempts to harm Russian interests by falsifying history.” The history it refers to is that of the 20th century, in which domestic and international crimes committed by the former Soviet Union played a salient and notorious role. The Kremlin insists that the sacrifices made by the Soviet Union during World War II have been insufficiently appreciated by her former allies in that conflict. “Human-rights advocates” will surely contend that President Medvedev is attempting to rewrite history by whitewashing it. Since the fall of the Third Reich, one German government after another has abased its people by ventriloquistic self-professions of guilt, while subjecting them to a profusion of legislation criminalizing free speech, and even free thought. No doubt the former Soviets could profit by collective acts of mea culpa in respect of their own unsavory history. Only they have never done so, because such has never been demanded of them. Which perhaps is one reason why the Russian state has been behaving as it has since Vladimir Putin came to power.
Anticommunists have argued for better than six decades that, heinous as Hitler’s crimes were, Stalin’s were as great—or worse, if one judges such matters on a quantitative scale. Certainly, Stalin killed millions more human beings in the course of his career than his satanic rival managed to eliminate. But the international left would hear none of it. In the leftist cosmology, the Third Reich reinvented evil by raising to it a dimension that had never before been attained by man. As the wickedness of Nazi Germany was wholly unprecedented, so is it unrealizable in the future. The carnage the Nazis accomplished was unquantifiable because it amounted to a metaphysical deed, an act of pure evil, demoniacally planned and executed. Stalin, by contrast, began his work with the best of intentions. His Soviet workers’ paradise was corrupted and finally destroyed by historical accident and historical obstinacy, abetted by the machinations of international capitalists and, in the end, the perfidious Beast of the Apocalypse in Berlin. No decent human being could tolerate a comparison between Hitler and Stalin, or the German and the Soviet people they led. Suspecting perhaps that vigor and tenacity might not always be equal to the job, leftists have made a point of supplementing those qualities with an unrelenting and deftly coordinated campaign of political bullying and cultural intimidation, sustained over a period of better than half a century, to prevent such a comparison from ever being made, or to ensure its total rout before the deafening derision of the enlightened classes. Liberals cannot condemn communism without placing themselves in the uncomfortable intellectual and political position of having to explain how liberalism differs from the communism represented by Marx and Lenin and Stalin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev and Gorbachev and Putin (a former head of the KGB)—how Alger Hiss, that is, differed from Joseph Stalin—and so most liberals refuse to do so.
One might be forgiven for supposing that, with the relegation of the Soviet Union to history, and such iconic figures of the Cold War debate as Hiss and William F. Buckley, Jr., dead and buried, the decades-long campaign by the left to save the reputation of the Soviet Union from a fatal coupling with the memory of the Third Reich has neither moral or historical significance, nor political relevance. And yet, it is not so. The newspaper headlines, day after day, prove that it is not.
The Soviet Union has gotten away with mass murder. No Russian government since 1991 has apologized for its Soviet predecessors’ actions in the 20th century or suggested that the Soviet Union was anything other than the primary victim of World War II and the Cold War. The West has adopted a deliberate policy of never insisting that the Russians grovel before their past, as the Germans have done before theirs, and are still doing. And so today they feel unconstrained in behaving like aggressive ghetto adolescents, running in gangs at home and threatening their neighbors in the more or less peaceable republics adjacent to their homeland, while carefully challenging the nations of Europe, and the United States.
But the newly revived Mother Russia is not a communist state, though she remains an authoritarian one. Russia’s thoroughly corrupt, plutocratic society contains no trace element of anything that could possibly be described as progressive idealism. The left no longer has any reason to defend and indulge Russia, while the Kremlin’s drive for regional hegemony and its resistance to NATO and the European Union give the neoconservative right precisely the sort of opening toward aggression for which it is always searching. Accordingly, President George W. Bush was encouraged to indulge the temptation to overplay his hand in his dealings with the Kremlin in the present circumstances, which amount to a new Cold War conducted at reduced levels of hostility and in which the traditional nationalist rivalries that partly drove the old Cold War have moved front and center in the absence of the old ideological differences.
Putin’s Russia presents a delicate and highly complex diplomatic challenge to the United States and Europe. But delicate and complex diplomatic instincts did not distinguish President Bush and his foreign-policy advisors, just as sledgehammers and crowbars do not identify a praying mantis. The Russians have never been more than a half-civilized people, and the American people are rapidly declining toward that level. Bush’s Russia policy, including his withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2001, his scheme to plant nuclear missiles in the Czech Republic, the expansion of NATO to include former Soviet republics, Washington’s troublemaking in Russia’s Near Abroad, and the President’s military and diplomatic support for President Saakashvili of Georgia, was hopelessly crass, at once insulting and threatening to Russian interests and Russian pride. Yet the blame is scarcely all on the American side. Medvedev’s and Putin’s manipulation of the gas flow to Europe and their aggressive behavior toward the Central Asian republics are equally threatening and irresponsible, and recent comments directed toward the former Soviet states in Eastern Europe even more so.
The continuing antagonism between Russia and the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union makes two things very clear. The first is that the Cold War was never about communism versus capitalism solely, perhaps not even chiefly. The second is that a change of government on the part of an adversary nation is not necessarily sufficient to transform its relationship with an historical enemy. Whether or not it is an exaggeration to say that Americans still hate Russians, and Russians continue to hate Americans, Washington persists in despising the Kremlin, and the Kremlin in loathing Washington. The explanation for the extended hostility is partly institutional. The present Russian government is heavily composed of men who doubtless still believe in the communist system and the Soviet Empire and regard the collapse of both as a personal, as well as an ideological, humiliation. Their secret desire is for revenge. And George W. Bush gave them their opening here. He did it by rashly and arrogantly launching two wars of aggression in the teeth of opposed international opinion; by suggesting that he had no respect for the other nations of the world; finally, by failing to win those wars, which have become placards of the decline of American power and influence. Naturally, the Kremlin, smelling the blood of the Last Remaining Superpower, has been emboldened to challenge the United States on several fronts, exploiting her failures and probing her weakness. For the present, it hardly matters that Russia is unlikely ever to rise to the level of superpower again—that her plummeting population, her endemic social and historic political dysfunction, her economic contradictions, and the vulnerability of her southeastern border to demographic invasion from China appear to condemn her to the status of a third-rate nation in the not-so-distant future. Today, she remains the second most powerful nation in the world in terms of her nuclear capacity, and that is sufficient. For the foreseeable future, the United States should continue to treat Russia as her most long-standing diplomatic challenge and her most dangerous rival abroad. The question for the Obama administration is, How ought the United States to confront Russia in the short run, and where?
Not in the Near Abroad, where American military and political self-insertion is comparable to the Kremlin agitating Mexico, Central America, and Cuba against Washington. Time will tell whether President Obama will keep military advisors in Georgia and whether his administration will continue otherwise to meddle in Russia’s backyard. But there is no hope for his plan to expand the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, from which we will eventually be compelled to stage a humiliating withdrawal. Iraq will collapse in bloody chaos as soon as the President completes the promised military withdrawal there, even if he leaves behind 50,000 troops, as he is now promising to do. The deteriorating situation in Pakistan is likewise unwinnable, undeterminable, and uncontrollable by Washington, which is certain to see its most critical hopes dashed in yet another Third World catastrophe. While Obama is forced to bend to military disaster and the fiscal reality of a bankrupt treasury, Russia will be watching—with a Cheshire grin across its wide collective face. Its Near Abroad will at last be safe from the Yankee soldiers, on the run from Asia, where they will eventually be as rare as the Bengal tiger.
Eastern Europe is another story. NATO now counts among its members Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, and several other countries that once were part of the Soviet Union. Admitting them was a colossal blunder on the part of NATO’s Western signatories, but what’s done is done. These new NATO countries must now be defended by their allies in a crisis. The Kremlin has alarmed them with vague threats aimed at its Western Near Abroad. An Anschluss is improbable and unlikely, almost unthinkable, yet the Russians need to be discouraged from this sort of behavior.
A campaign to counter Medvedev’s revisionist historical project might be one answer. The Western world has been overeducated these past 60 years in the atrocities perpetrated by one of the two principal villains of the 20th century. Of the heinous deeds committed by the other of them, they have been taught all too little. If Mr. Medvedev believes the history of his country has been “falsified,” then it is up to the West to insist that, on the contrary, it has been grossly underemphasized by Russia’s former allies as well as by herself. Those Eastern European states that were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union have very immediate memories of what it was like to live under a Soviet regime that was no less brutal and inhuman than the Nazi one. They have every reason to tremble when Moscow casts a red eye their way again. It is the duty, as well as in the interest, of Western Europe and the United States to make the Soviet record as plain to the world as the Nazi one has long been.