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Vorkutlag. Vorkuta, Komi Republic, 1945.

‘We live in a closet stuffed with skeletons’ Maxim Trudolyubov on how Russians’ inability to condemn the crimes of the past has led them to war

Source: Meduza
Vorkutlag. Vorkuta, Komi Republic, 1945.
Vorkutlag. Vorkuta, Komi Republic, 1945.
Laski Diffusion / Getty Images

Nearly six weeks ago, on February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. From that moment, the history of the Russian state’s past crimes ceased to be history, argues Meduza’s Ideas editor, Maxim Trudolyubov. Russia’s shared present once again includes a fight against the country’s own population, the trials of “enemies of the people,” deportations, occupations of neighboring countries, and “cleansing operations” in countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc. In the war against Ukraine, all of the Russian state’s worst facets in its Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet guises have coalesced. This war is a living indictment that brings together all the things Russian society can no longer ignore.

The Kremlin’s attitude toward the problem of history was made clear in the persecution of Memorial — the human rights group that once formed the backbone of civil society in the new Russia and facilitated Russian society’s first attempts to overcome the burdens of the past. As one of the prosecutors in the case remarked, “In speculating about the topic of political repression, Memorial creates a false image of the Soviet Union as a terrorist state. Why should we — the descendants of the victors — repent instead of being proud of the country that defeated fascism?”

Time does not heal old wounds

The important thing to note in the prosecutor’s statement is not the typical distortion of facts (Memorial’s objective was not one of repentance, but of providing a legal account of past crimes) but of “winner’s syndrome” — of seeing oneself as a victor in a war that one had nothing to do with personally. In the imagination of the Russian leadership, World War II — in which, incidentally, Russians fought alongside Ukrainians and other peoples — somehow erases the other terrible stories of the past and provides the Russian state and Russian society with moral standing.

It is not only the Russian government that has sought to distance itself from the past. A significant part of Russian society has wanted to do the same thing. 

In discussions of history among public intellectuals, the question of the statute of limitations for past crimes has continued to pop up. It may be formulated in different ways, but the intention has always been to tone down the intensity of the debate. Yes, it’s true that there was never a grand, final trial of the Communist Party and its security services — or rather, there was an attempt at a trial, but it was unsuccessful. But look at how much time has passed! Why should we divide the public even more when they are already exhausted by the struggle for daily existence? The USSR doesn’t exist anymore. We have another country that needs to be built. We need to look toward the future and not toward the past. Plus, we already have plenty of monuments to the victims of terror in Russia. They are commemorated in churches. Books are published about them and films are made. We even have a state museum dedicated to the history of the Gulag and an official “Wall of Grief.”

This kind of thinking no longer makes any sense. As it turns out, time does not heal old wounds. We need to overcome not only the “winner’s syndrome” within the Kremlin, but also all sorts of attitudes outside the Kremlin that have prevented us from confronting our past in all its severity. We live in an enormous closet stuffed with skeletons.

Crimes with no statute of limitations

Before February 24, 2022, one could have made the case that a victory in a just war — the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is known in Russia) — was one of the foundations of our collective identity. In a country where traditions and connections between generations and different groups of society have been repeatedly severed, the memory of World War II provided a binding and unifying myth. 

In the public imagination, the history of the war outweighs the cruelty and cynicism of other pages of Russian history. There is nothing unique in any of this. People want to remember the good and not the bad, especially politicians. In the politics of memory, most countries seek to highlight their victories and shift attention away from their defeats. But every country has defeats and shameful episodes in their histories. And every nation and society deals with the pain of history in its own way. Russian society has coped with shame thanks to the memory of the victory in World War II. 

For many years, the memory of victory prevented us from directly confronting our history. The nightmare of what is happening now, however, should encourage us to do so. 

In our past and present, there is a tendency to view neighboring countries as buffer zones that have no legitimate claims to sovereignty. In our past and present, there is a willingness to use violence against entire peoples who appear disloyal to Moscow. We have followed a policy of colonialization in neighboring countries — and with our own people. In our past and present, people — whether citizens of other countries or of Russia — are seen as expendable in the eyes of the authorities. The Russian (and especially the Soviet) state has never limited itself in its methods.

In our past and present, the state has arrogated to itself extraordinary authority, unlimited by laws and institutions. Although the Russian Empire might have had jury trials and an independent bar, the Soviet state labelled these legal institutions as bourgeois artefacts. The Soviet system’s approach to the “rule of law” — first revolutionary and later socialist — was to provide legitimacy to any action that was expedient from the point of view of building communism. The system, of course, had nothing to do with protecting the rights of people or with providing justice. In our past and present, expediency is valued more than human life. 

The means that the Soviet authorities used are well known, including repressions, summary executions, arrests, forced labor, and the requisitioning of food and property leading to starvation and death. And let’s not forget about military aggression against neighboring countries, attacks on civilians, hostage-taking, torture, persecution of peoples based on their ethnicity, and the deportation of entire national groups. 

These methods were used inside the Soviet Union as well as during the seizure of Eastern and Central Europe at the beginning of World War II and immediately after the war. They were used in the two Chechen wars, as well as in Georgia, eastern Ukraine, and Syria — wherever Russia has decided to use force. Much of what was done in these places qualifies as crimes against humanity — which have no statute of limitations. (You can verify this by reviewing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the most comprehensive document in international law on this issue.)

In war-torn Ukraine, as well as in Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Finland, Czechia, and other countries that at one time or another have had to confront Russia, people talk about the past crimes of the Russian state as if they were being committed today. Most of these countries are taking in refugees from Ukraine. No matter how the fighting ends, this will not be forgotten. 

Means without ends 

Russian citizens, and people who consider themselves ethnically Russian, can no longer pretend that the past is merely an issue for academic discussion or journalistic debate. The past is now being reproduced in Ukraine. The current war has been made possible by the fact that the Russian state’s historical crimes have never been put on trial and that the perpetrators have never faced a day in court. It has been made possible by the impunity of the Russian leadership. 

Those who are now making decisions on behalf of Russia have no great ends, no knowledge of absolute truth, no ideological or divine legitimacy — although they do their best to pretend. The only thing that they have managed to replace the long-absent “great idea” (both imperialist and communist) with is lies. The organizers of the war against Ukraine have decided that performances and fiction are all that is needed to legitimize the war. 

It is possible that Putin believed his own propaganda and began to act based on the pseudo-reality invented by spin doctors on his order. However, whether he believes in something is not really that important. It is enough for us to see Russian officials and the Russian military continue to justify their actions with the help of crude disinformation campaigns that tells us that women dying in labor are actresses, that nationalists are holed up in hospitals, that Nazis are in control of Ukraine. 

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As a political entity, Russia today has only the lies and methods inherited from KGB agents and Stalin. The methods are the same, but they are now deprived of the window dressing of ideological excuses. The Russian state has become zombified — it is a soulless body that crushes everything in its path without understanding why. 

Judgement, not pardons

Varlam Shalamov wrote, “Is the destruction of human beings with the help of the state not the main issue of our time, of our morality?”. Yes, it is. And the more Russian citizens and people who consider themselves Russian realize this, the sooner we will have a trial over the crimes of the Russian state. Without such legal proceedings, Russia will neither be able to become a full-fledged home for its citizens, nor a political entity in which trust and dialogue is possible. If “Russia” as a national and cultural project would like be part of the global community again, then the first new institution established in the country after the war should be a court empowered to investigate the crimes of the Russian state in all its guises, past and present. 

The logic of the statute of limitations — the logic that there are no perpetrators or witnesses among us or that there is no one left to judge — is no longer valid. Such people are certainly around, including those who made the decision to attack Ukraine. The court must be independent of the state, otherwise the process will accomplish nothing. Thirty years ago, the trial of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union failed because the judges serving on the Constitutional Court were recently party members, and the Court was not sufficiently independent from the state. 

If, in the aftermath of the war, Russian society manages — for the first time in its history — to establish a truly independent court, then it will demonstrate to itself and to others that a society exists in Russia. Indeed, the main sign of its existence will be agency, which allows for a legal evaluation of the actions of the state and its leaders. If this can be done, then perhaps Russian citizens will be able to keep building other institutions.

Most likely, institution-building will need to begin with those institutions that protect people (both Russians and others) from state violence. We must ensure that anyone who espouses the notions of “one people,” “common destiny,” “great history,” or other grandiose generalizations never be allowed to come to power. And, obviously, our future politicians should not be able to take military action based upon nothing but their fantasies. Their hands should be tied. 

This will be extremely difficult to accomplish in a country where institutions, laws, and even the education system have always acted in the interests of central authorities and not the people — in a country where the main purpose of the social order has always been to justify violence. The success of this complicated endeavor is by no means guaranteed, but Russia will have no future if it cannot be done.  

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Essay by Maxim Trudolyubov

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