Living with the big lie was a way of life for citizens of the Soviet Union and its satellite empire. And it was the unraveling of just one of those lies — the truth about who murdered thousands of Poles in what became known as the Katyn forest massacre — that’s pinpointed as the beginning of the end of the evil empire in “Lenin’s Tomb,” David Remnick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Soviet implosion.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1990 confession that the Soviets were responsible for the slaughter of Polish reservists captured by the Red Army in 1939, the cream of that country’s youth, led to the unearthing of many other pieces of history long suppressed by the communist state, according to Remnick. The Soviets long blamed these crimes on the Nazis. But Josef Stalin ordered the killings as a necessary first step toward the enslavement of Poland. The terrible truth was known to many, including some Western leaders, but to everyone’s shame, the lies were never challenged until the coming of perestroika and glasnost.
History, like everything else in the Soviet superstate, had to be suppressed, controlled and managed for the sake of the revolution. The pressures released by even a tiny truth blew the regime apart. If ever events demonstrated the power of the truth to set man free, these did.
We therefore read with alarm one recent wire service story suggesting that Russia, under former KGB man Vladimir Putin, is again getting involved in the management and suppression of history. A favorite text for Russian high school seniors, “History of Russia and the World in the 20th Century,” bathes Soviet history in a warm and favorable light, according to the story, skipping lightly over, or ignoring, the monstrous crimes and misdeeds.
The book “is virtually mute on the deportation of ethnic groups under Josef Stalin that left hundreds of thousands dead and sowed the resentment that exploded in Chechnya a half-century later,” according to the story. “The Gulag labor camp system gets scant attention and anti-Semitism the barest of mentions.”
A study conducted by the Andrei Sakharov Museum reports that other Russian textbooks also gloss over the country’s dark past. “In the majority of textbooks, this period and the aspect of violence as the main method of implementing Soviet ideals is either addressed extremely briefly, or even if in greater detail — it is completely void of any historical, political, and ethical judgment,” according to the museum’s director. One history textbook that dealt honestly with Soviet crimes was pulled from schools last year, stripped of its Education Ministry license as part of what some see as Putin’s campaign to pump up the country’s sagging self-esteem.
National pride is something worth nurturing. But as the Soviet case shows, any nation that bases its credibility and self-image on lies and distortions is not only doomed to fail, but sure to leave its duped citizens feeling betrayed, deflated and bitter when the truth is finally told. Owning up to the misdeeds of the past is the critical first step toward ensuring they don’t repeat themselves.
“Textbooks should provide historical facts, and they must cultivate a sense of pride among youth in their history and country,” Putin said, in justifying the Russian government’s increased involvement in vetting history text books. But it’s potentially troubling, even dangerous, when the state’s mandate to cultivate public pride leads to the suppression of historical fact.