A column of refugees in the Soviet Union, following the German invasion of Soviet territory on June 22, 1941.
In his recent article in the Daily Telegraph (December 3, 2009) George Feifer suggests that "instead of trying to justify Soviet wrongs all these years later, why doesn't it [Russia] apologize, as Germany has for its 20th-century atrocities?" According to this author, apologies are due above all to the Baltic and East European countries.
As someone who for decades participated in many activities to resist the Soviet regime, standing shoulder to shoulder with people from the "Captive Nations" during their fight for freedom and independence, I believe that Feifer's demands are misdirected, ill-timed and generally worthless, if not harmful.
Sadly, even respected and well-informed authors like Mr. Feifer still choose to confuse such distinct concepts as "Russian" (referring to ethnicity) and "Soviet" (describing a political affiliation or structure). I am sure Feifer is well aware of the difference but for some reason prefers to ignore it, joining the ranks of what is known as the Commentariat -- folks who never miss a chance to bark at Russia, Moscow, or the Kremlin.
In my job as a university professor I am accustomed to repeating the same things over and over again, so I do not mind providing here an abstract of a History 101 course for the benefit of unbiased readers.
The Soviet Union or the USSR was formed in 1922 on the territory of the former Russian Empire after the 1917 Bolshevik coup, funded largely by the German General Staff, and the 1918-1920 Civil War in which the multiethnic Red Guards (whose Latvian riflemen and Chinese units were, by the way, among the most effective) eventually defeated just as ill-assorted White Guards (monarchists, Socialist Revolutionaries, Czech POWs, the Cossacks, and many others).
The Communist state that emerged from the Civil War was a dictatorship that committed many crimes against humanity, the absolute majority of the victims being the country's own people. The USSR was composed of 16 (15 since 1956) republics which should share more or less equally the blame for these atrocities. Russia was just one of these republics or, as they were often called in the West, the "Captive Nations." It was the largest of all 15 and, accordingly, it suffered the most in terms of human and material losses; anyone interested in these matters can easily check the figures.
The USSR's ruling bodies -- the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Politburo, and others -- were truly internationalist, that is, multiethnic, with members from all the republics, not just Russia proper, represented. General Secretary Joseph Stalin (Dzhugashvili), that most brutal and feared of all tyrants who ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 to his death in 1953, came from Georgia. So did Lavrenty Beria, for many years head of the secret police that terrorized the whole people and sent millions to the GULAG labor camps. So did Iosif Ordzhonikidze, Stalin's friend and foe and for many years Politburo member. The universally feared KGB was mostly manned by Georgians absolutely loyal to their compatriots the top bosses. Given these facts, present-day Russia should demand an apology from the Georgian people NOW, according to Feifer's logic. Needless to say this sort of nonsense does not even enter the heads of either the Russian people or the RF government, and Russia still gives jobs and shelter to about a quarter of Georgia's entire population, whose relatives in Georgia make ends meet thanks to remittances from Russia. Those fraternal ties between peoples, so glibly mocked by Feifer, die really hard...
Feifer makes much of the fact that "Germany has admitted, and to a degree atoned for, its behaviour under Hitler," inviting Russia to do the same. That's the trouble with this comic strip school of history: it conveniently leaves out of account so many facts as to lend a kind of Martian aspect to what purports to be history. OK, Germany has apologized -- but how about all those Europeans who joined Germany in its attack on the USSR in June 1941? Weren't there Italian, Slovak, Hungarian, Rumanian, Bulgarian etc. etc. divisions fighting the Red Army on the Nazi side? Wasn't the Nazi war machine relying on the resources and industries of all Europe and even the United States?
And what about those home-grown fascists and collaborationists in many European countries? What about the Waffen SS divisions manned by citizens from the Baltic states, responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the death camps on the territory of those states? It is common knowledge that these SS men are now treated in the Baltic states and Ukraine as national heroes, awarded fat pensions, decorated, and even have statues erected in their honor. Mr. Feifer must be aware of all this, yet he passes it over in complete silence, as if the Nuremberg trials had never taken place and as if the Soviets were the only side guilty of atrocities.
Just like the dominant ultra-nationalists in the Baltic states, Feifer has no other term except "occupation" for the 45 years during which these were part of the Soviet Union -- Soviet Socialist Republics similar to the other twelve. Point one: the Soviets occupied the Baltic states and East European countries with the full blessing of the Western powers given at the Yalta conference of the Allies. And an even more important point: "foreign occupation" is a funny term to describe what actually took place in these states. There were powerful Communist parties (Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian) in all three of the Baltic states, the population was thoroughly Sovietized by purely internal forces, to such an extent that ever so often prominent figures in the National Fronts and nationalist governments nowadays become victims of political scandals over their past association with the local KGB.
Then again, communists from these Baltic states were often highly prominent on the federal level. For example, Arvid Pelshe representing Latvia, was not just a Central Committee and Politburo member of many years standing: he was Chairman of the Committee for Party Control, that is, someone who could -- theoretically -- call to account any member of the Party, up to and including the general secretary. And another Latvian Rep. Boris Pugo, the all-powerful Interior Minister, Politburo alternate member and, most notoriously, one of the top members of the communist junta that led the abortive coup of August 1991.
Russian Federation in the late eighties and early nineties, was instrumental in freeing all Captive Nations on USSR territory and in Eastern Europe. For this reason alone, instead of being forced to apologize and by extension be liable for reparations, it should be praised for the relatively bloodless collapse of communism.
The Soviet regime and its policies have been repeatedly condemned by Russia's current top officials and the media, including government-run TV channels: these are positively filled with devastating documentaries and feature films describing the horrors of the Soviet era. It is interesting to note that 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 bring down the Soviets. Due to his old age he passed this honor to Professor Andrei Zubov, known for his calls for Russia's de-Communization similar to the de-Nazification of postwar Germany. His recently published work has won praises from many well-known scholars, including Richard Pipes and others who can hardly be charged with being Moscow's appeasers or sympathizers.
Now, on the eve of the 65th anniversary of the Victory in the Second World War and 20th anniversary of the collapse of Soviet-style communism, it is time to start a full reset in Russia--West relations. Even the most ardent of Russia's critics admit that never before in its turbulent history has Russia been so free and open to integration with the West. Therefore, instead of fruitless appeals for apologies that can breed nothing but enmity and muddy the waters, we should make every effort to integrate Russia in Western security, economic and financial structures. President Medvedev's call for a new European security architecture is a positive and welcome step in this direction, and it should be seriously considered by all sober minded people in the West. Russia is a European country not only due to its geography but due to its history, religion, and culture. All those who want to limit European space on Russia's boundaries are doing disservice, first of all, to the Western civilization.
Edward Lozansky is president of American University in Moscow.