On Thursday, Oct. 30, the Russian human rights group Memorial held a ceremony in front of the former KGB offices on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad to commemorate the Day of Victims of Political Repressions, reading off a list of about 30,000 victims of Joseph Stalin’s purges (this number only represents victims from Moscow in just 1938). Just a day earlier, the Canadian government stripped Helmut Oberlander of his citizenship, preparing to deport the 84-year-old alleged Nazi war criminal for his participation in mobile death squads. Last week, the intrepid Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon announced an investigation into the murders of more than 100,000 people by the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Throughout the month of October at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, a historic war crimes trial against the Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga stopped and started in fits and now hangs in limbo. Earlier, on Oct. 13, a deeply painful national political furor erupted in the Czech Republic after the magazine Respekt published an article identifying the famous author Milan Kundera as an informer for the brutal Communist secret police (the StB), whose collaboration in 1950 sent the spy Miroslav Dvoracek into torture and prison for 14 years. The common thread uniting these diverse cases, as well as many others, is the ongoing public need in society to adjudicate its own history, with an honest reckoning and acknowledgment of crimes committed by past governments – no matter how distant or fresh in memory. In many countries, especially young democracies, history carries a very heavy burden on the national conscience, and its discussion and interpretation can often become highly politically charged, which is made more difficult in societies where the remnants of the past regime remain active and visible in the current government.
Russia is certainly no exception to this trend, and while there are lively public debates over some periods of the country’s past (the restoration of the Romanovs is a particularly interesting example), the most important issues of the Soviet regime remain nearly entirely unearthed, as demonstrated by the fact that Joseph Stalin is being voted as one of the greatest Russians in history by internet polls and the infamous rewriting of school textbooks.When the Milan Kundera episode broke in Prague, we were reintroduced to a seemingly abandoned debate in the post-Soviet world over the one legal tool which can help play a role in breaking through the historical whitewash to bring some accountability from the past into present politics: lustration law.Lustration, derived from the Latin lustrum, meaning purifying sacrifice, refers to a series of laws enacted in the Czech Republic, Poland, and other countries in varying degress in the early 1990s allowing for the investigation and removal from certain public offices of former Communist party officials, members of the former secret police, and informers. Every once in a while, we see the lustration debate come back to the forefront in cases such as Milan Kundera’s or the recent outing of Polish Archbishop Henryk Muszynski as a collaborator. The Poles are especially fond of accusing each other (sometimes without grounds) of having acted as spies for the Soviet Union, while similar exchanges occur daily across the CIS.It is not difficult to understand why discussions of lustration are so contentious and polemical. There is certainly a strong argument coming from diverse sectors that following a revolution leading to a state’s independence, or the experience of the Cold War grinding to a sudden halt, priorities should focus on national cohesion to consolidate a successful democratic state, rather than emphasizing bitter social divisions and endlessly dragging more and more skeletons from the closet.But the fact remains that lustration laws were motivated from the sound reasoning that the presence of former secret police officers or informers within the structures of a new government could have a destabilizing influence, and bring about a revival of authoritarian practices. Furthermore, in the earlier days of Czech and Polish independence, it was believed that the Russians could place “trojan horses” inside these new governments to subvert the young democracy.Of course with regard to Russia, we are speaking with 20/20 hindsight. Why was lustration never implemented in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union? What impact might this have had on the formation of the state and the consolidation of democratic institutions? Will it be possible and advisable for Russia to reconsider lustration law?To get some more information on this subject, last week I had a interesting discussion with the very knowledgeable Fredo Arias-King, founder of the academic quarterly Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization.Arias-King gave me a thorough background of the lustration debate in the Czech Republic, Russia and elsewhere, explaining that in many quarters the process was significantly misunderstood and demonized, which eventually led to its disappearance from the transitions to democracy literature (an excellent summary of lustration law can be read here). When the Czechs stopped the burning of the police files, and formed its lustration committee headed by Jaroslav Basta to evaluate and design the laws, the result was an exceptionally mild administrative and fair process – it was not a judicial witch hunt as portrayed by many opponents (The New York Times and the PACE both criticized it).The actual implementation of lustration in the Czech Republic was also very mild. Arias-King points me to the academic Kieran Williams, who has actually run the numbers on all the people lustrated, and found that as a result of this administrative process, only a handful of the former collaborators were fired or sanctioned – most were able to get jobs in other areas of government.In the case of Russia, there were three specific moments in which the new authorities flirted with the idea of implementing something similar to a lustration law, says Arias-King, but for various reasons, this never happened. The first opportunity occurred during a series of conferences organized in Moscow in 1992, entitled “The KGB: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” which was the first time in history that the KGB was discussed in such a public forum in Russia, featuring roundtables of experts sharing opinions about what exactly should be done with this organization in the new government. At the conclusion of the conference, the attendees adopted a rather prescient resolution stating: “We believe that the development of a democratic process in the country is impossible while state security services continue to perform functions of state management.”This conference led to an opening of sorts, involving several subsequent conferences, books, articles, and frequent public debate about dissolving the KGB structures and ensuring that its members would not be involved in politics (given credible doubts that these same individuals could be trusted to uphold democratic ideals after spending most of their career attacking these values).With this favorable momentum already achieved, conditions were politically ripe for Boris Yeltsin to take action to purge former KGB officers from his government and move toward lustration. In those confusing days on late 1992, Arias-King tells me that it seemed like Yeltsin was very close to doing something very brave and wise by firing none other than Viktor Cherkesov, one of the nastier, more brutal remnants of the KGB from St. Petersburg (this is the guy who arrested Andrei Sakharov). But then, Yeltsin apparently hesitated, and drew back from this decision, keeping Cherkesov and many other former security officers within the Interior Ministry. He thought they could be useful at some point to his political career.The second opportunity came Russia’s queen of democracy, Galina Starovoitova, drafted a lustration law in December of 1992 that she intended to push through the Duma, though it seemed like there was extraordinary hostility and opposition against her proposal. However the opposition proved to be exaggerated. It is absolutely incredible to think that if the Duma had been in full session the day that Starovoitova unexpectedly presented her lustration law, it would have likely passed and been enacted into law. Arias-King writes the following in his tribute to Starovoitova:
She did not introduce her bill, but her intent caused anxiety and commotion and made her a target of unbridled slander. What surprised Galina was the following incident, which she told me in detail: In a 1997 Duma debate, the Communist chairman Seleznyev illegally attempted to reintroduce a Communist drafted bill that already had failed twice. He made his move when most of the reform-minded deputies, those aligned with Russia’s Democratic Choice and Yabloko, had gone home for the night. Most of the remaining deputies were from the Communist, Agrarian, Liberal-Democrat, and Our Home Is Russia parties. After trying in vain to stop Seleznyev from breaking the rules, Galina decided to introduce her lustration bill, “just to upset them.” She thought hers would be the only favorable vote. To her surprise more than fifty delegates voted with her, mostly those from Our Home Is Russia and Zhirinovsky’s party. “It was a shock to the Communists; they were humbled by that experience. Nobody thought they were in such a vulnerable position—even after the radical democrats had gone home for the night.” Perhaps her bill should be considered again with a full quorum in the Duma.
Galina, of course, was tragically murdered before she could see her lustration project come to life. The third and final missed opportunity for lustration was also unexpected, coming from an improvisational decree written by Yeltsin that seems to have come out of thin air, which sought to purge former KGB officers from certain offices of government, and move their archives to the offices of the Russian Federation. The siloviki completely flipped out when they heard about the decree and immediately pressured Yeltsin to drop it, says Arias-King. Once again the beleaguered president hesitated, and withdrew the initiative, which was practically the last we heard of lustration in Russia.Since Yeltsin’s last surprise decree, things have actually moved backwards with regard to openness over the KGB past. Mark Ellis writes:
The Russian parliament did adopt several laws making it a criminal offense to identify KGB collaborators. One law bans the exposure of KGB agents. Another protects the status of individuals who collaborated with the KGB. Perhaps the most interesting law was one that classified information about persons “confidentially cooperating” with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service as a “state secret.”
So why all the interest in some failed legislative attempts from the early 1990s to keep former spies and their informers out of certain government positions? I happen to believe that lustration would be an important and essential first step in a historical reckoning for Russia to confront its past, without outside intervention or judgment, in order to leave communism and the Soviet regime behind and continue forward in building a modern, prosperous, rule of law society. We have already seen the damage caused to Russia’s democratic institutions and its judiciary by the arbitrary rule of officials from the past regime. It would be a pity not to honor the brave efforts of people like Galina Starovoitova, who foresaw exactly the same risks and abuses that Russia is currently experiencing by having a state almost entirely run by the siloviki.Now more than ever, it is time for Russia to reconsider lustration, no matter how difficult and complicated the politics of memory. I am aware that given today’s circumstances in the Kremlin, that it may seem outright ridiculous for anyone to even bring this topic up, but the truth is that someone, at the very least, should be talking about it.