National Delusions

This weekend on the culture blog, journalist Jedd Beaudoin has published an impressive review of the book “It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway” by my friend David Satter. Beaudoin gets right to the heart of the matter concerning Russia’s troubled experience with historical revisionism, and the impact these official policies have had upon remembering the victims and violence of Stalinism, creating a self-reinforcing series of attitudes that continue to damage human rights today:

Whether Shugaev or the countless other Russians who have died under either mysterious or wholly unnecessary circumstances, there are tragedies in great abundance among the Russian people. Satter recalls the November 1917 coup d’état in which Bolsheviks unleashed a terror that the author views as “the attempt of political actors… to liquidate truth”. This was not the beginning of the cruelty, but it was one of the more remarkable measures. Later, Satter notes, Stalin would call for a quota on executions and arrests during the Great Terror. In one short year well over a half million people had been shot, while a nearly equal number had been shipped to labor camps where they met their demise.

In all, he notes, the Russian desire to remember these events or grapple with the magnitude of their cruelty, has not been a major Russian concern. In forests all over the former Soviet Union there are a multitude of ghosts, some of them known, some unknown, and to begin to meet them all would only be an invitation, it seems, to a lifetime of remembering and mourning, mourning and remembering––or, perhaps worse, attempting to reconcile these events with a nation that is often stubbornly––and detrimentally––proud. (…)

These factors, along with many others chronicled in the pages of Satter’s book, highlight the confusion and tragedy that loom large in Russia’s present and future. Still, the author closes the work on a somewhat hopeful note, suggesting that Russians can, through action, dictate some portion of their future. Still, Satter writes, many Russian’s prefer “national delusions” over critical thinking and that a fear of breaking from the past and thereby breaking with tradition may be one of the overarching reasons why Russians remain stubbornly fused to this dark past.