As part of its 2015 Commemoration, the Victims of Communism Friday hosted an academic panel discussion in the Library of Congress to discuss “The Soviet Sphere in Reality and Memory.” The panel, led by VOC chairman Dr. Lee Edwards, explored the ways in which history has been used and abused in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union—a conversation as relevant as ever in these days of a resurgent Russia re-assembling the pieces of the former Soviet space.
The panel discussion was introduced by remarks from Florida’s Congressman Dennis Ross and Illinois Representative John Shimkus, both men who have proven valuable leaders on a variety of human rights issues during their years in Congress. Rep. Ross reminded those present about the need for organizations like VOC, in order to remember the crimes committed by communist regimes. Drawing attention to the need to provide leadership in Europe to counter new age propaganda, Congressman Shimkus recounted the fate of the Baltic states under the yoke of communism.
After brief remarks by VOC Board Member Don Ritter, the panelists had a chance to present brief arguments about the state of memory in the former Soviet space. David Kramer, currently Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute, drew attention to the revisionist approach that Russia is currently taking to the history of the region, using dishonest history as a tool for political expansionism. He explained that the Kremlin’s spreading of false information is “polluting Russian minds with this terrible propaganda.” Kramer, the former president of Freedom House, noted that “Russia has never come to grips with its Soviet communist past, and under Putin it never will.” Professor Alonzo Hamby, distinguished professor of history emeritus at Ohio University and author of a widely regarded study of President Harry Truman, pointed out how Russian influence in East Asia is often overlooked by the West and whitewashed by the Kremlin, a strategy dating back even to the time of Stalin.
Veteran Sovietologist Paul A. Goble commented on the Western failure to understand the nature of communism and how this has opened the way to what is going on today in the world, in places such as Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, and Hungary. “Victims of communism are very much alive,” said Goble, “the victory of communism is not final, we are still fighting for it…. we need to understand that the victims of communism are becoming more numerous and not fewer.” “The first thing we should do is tell the truth,” Goble said, “We are not willing to admit that 1991 was not as complete as we wanted it to be…. There are no final victories over communism, it’s a constant struggle. Secondly, we should isolate Putin and arm Ukraine… in order to promote democracy and freedom.”
The panel also included 2015 Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom recipient Alexander Podrabinek, a Russian journalist and longtime human-rights activist who suffered as a prisoner of conscience during the Soviet era. Podrabinek discussed how memory and history have been systematically co-opted by the Putin regime—a maneuver on full display during the ostentatious May 9th Victory Parade, which proudly featured the Soviet hammer and sickle and grand military marches not seen since the days of Stalin. Speaking through an interpreter, Podrabinek said that “Russia is an example of a country that never learns its lessons from history, and it is allowing itself to repeat the past. The authoritarian regime is in resurrection… and is repeating its experience of the Stalin Era.” The Russian dissident explained how it is “only from inside [that] it is clear that [modern Russia] is just old despotism a bit modified and in a new disguise.” Podrabinek, who saw firsthand how psychiatry was twisted for political purposes by the Soviets, is uniquely positioned to understand how now history is falling prey to the same sort of politicization.
The panel clearly brought home one point: that the toxic legacy of communism lives on in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union and that until that legacy is honestly and adequately addressed true healing will never occur. Not just for the sake of political development but for the full moral reckoning, those responsible for the traumatic communist past must accept responsibility and history must be made to reflect the true record of communist crimes.