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Proxy Peace

The Russian government is using "reconciliation" to avoid real discussion of the past.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has walked a fine line on Russia’s 20th century history, praising Soviet Russia’s achievements while glossing over its excesses. By “reconciling” the schisms opened by the 1917 revolution, he is taking one more step to resolve the country’s history – without getting into particulars.

© REUTERS/Alexander Nemenov/Pool

A grand, traditionally designed new cathedral has just opened in Moscow’s historic center. Dozens of new churches are under construction in Russia’s cities, but this one is special: President Vladimir Putin, who was present at the consecration ceremony, dedicated the occasion to reconciliation of the divisions caused by the 1917 Russian revolution.

This is not the first time that the tragedy of the totalitarian past has been addressed by creating a devotional venue – a church was built a few years ago at a mass execution ground in the village of Kommunarka in southern Moscow, and there is a church in Yekaterinburg built on the site of the murder of Czar Nicholas II – but this is the first time a commemorative church has been erected so close to the headquarters of the Soviet mass terror campaigns. The neighborhood where the Church of the Resurrection of Christ and New Martyrs is located used to house a number of prisons and Stalin-era execution grounds. There was even a shooting range inside the Sretensky monastery, which the new building is to be part of. The monastery, disbanded by Bolsheviks in the 1920s and reopened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has a Lubyanka postal address (19 Bolshaya Lubyanka street); to the Russian mind, the very name is synonymous with the feared secret police.

But the policy line that the Kremlin is pursuing when it comes to Stalinism is muddled. The Lubyanka neighborhood itself is an immediate case in point: Most of the area is still occupied by the numerous offices of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB and its earlier incarnations. Some of the most notorious execution grounds are off-limits to researchers. Today’s FSB and other parts the state security apparatus are vast, increasingly well-funded, opaque, and unaccountable to the public – hardly a fundamental shift from the KGB past.

The Kremlin recognizes the basic established facts about Soviet history, but works hard to make sure no political act that has to do with the communist past becomes “divisive.” “We have to remember the bright pages of our history, but also not forget the tragic ones,” Putin said last year. “The lessons of history should not divide us but unite and help us protect civic peace.”

This does sound like a wise policy approach, but gets complicated in practice. This policy highlights the victims, while casting a shadow of ambiguity over the perpetrators. Officially, there is no disputing the facts of the murders and deportations, but perpetrators are out of the picture. And while the facts remain largely undisputed, there is a lot of pro-Stalin punditry, sponsored in large part by the same state-run media that hail the commemoration of the martyrs of the Soviet regime. Numerous commentators seek to counterbalance the crimes with those “bright pages of our history.”

Here is a characteristic example of such a balancing act: “There would be no modern Russia if it were not for the feats of the previous generations. They were not just working their land, but created modern industry, science, and defense capability. One should not question the achievements of a leader who stood at the origins of a rebirth and modernization of our country, even if that leader placed himself on record with evil deeds (отличился злодействами).” The leader in question is Stalin – and the speaker, amazingly, is His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, who said this last year at the opening ceremony of an historical exhibition in Moscow

Generally, the Kremlin encourages the Russian Orthodox Church to mourn the victims of the Soviet system. High-ranking officials, including the president himself, might join these ceremonies from time to time, but they make a point of merely attending such events rather than organizing them; it provides for a comfortable distance. The crimes of the past thus become a subject of devout reflection, not a juridical assessment with legal consequences. This is how the church plays an important structural role in the Kremlin’s politics of history.

The descendants of those who fought in the White movement in the early 1920s or emigrated to escape the Soviet regime also play a role in the process. Both president Putin and patriarch Kirill said that commemorating the victims of the Soviet regime 100 years after the Russian Revolution meant a reconciliation. They both underscored the importance of the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, a splinter church created by Russians in exile in the 1920s. Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, the abbot of the Sretensky Monastery, hailed the peace “with the so-called ‘White Russian’ Church,” that took place 10 years ago and was reconfirmed during the consecration as the “right kind of reconciliation.”

The problem with this is that when one says “reconciliation” in Russia, neither the Red-White divide nor the rift between people of faith and atheists comes to mind. Many of the White Russians survived, and left both the country and the national consciousness. The Orthodox believers were also alone in being targeted by Stalin’s totalitarian state: the millions who fell victim to the state over the years were a cross section of Russian society that included peasants and workers, ethic Russians and ethnic Tatars, liberals and conservatives, writers and engineers, believers of all faiths as well as non-believers.

Very little unites those who were murdered at the Lubyanka shooting grounds, those who were deprived of their land and put on trains to cold, uninhabitable parts of the country, and those who were evicted from their houses and sent to far-flung camps. Those people were not a homogeneous group constituting a principled opposition to communism. Most of the traumas that permeate Russian society were caused by an unannounced war between the arbitrary state and the individual who happened to stand in the state’s way. The real conflict that is in need of reconciliation has not been defined, and talk of the divide caused by the 1917 revolution is meant to distract from the national conversation needed to perform this task.