The Victory Day celebration in Moscow this week generated stunning news photos. The event was also a history professor's dream. What a teachable moment.
The sight of an American president on the reviewing stand that was used by Joseph Stalin and a string of Communist leaders was only one element of the historical irony. There also were the leaders of the nations that were vanquished in World War II, Gerhard Schroeder of Germany and Junichiro Koizumi of Japan.
As if that were not enough, President George W. Bush followed the day with an exhortation to Russia's satellite republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and a trip to the republic of Georgia.
I took the seven-day trip to Russia in 1976. Joining a tour group that had come from New York, I spent three days in Moscow, three in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and one day in between. Upon my return to Portland, friends asked how it was. I responded that seeing Russia was a little like adolescence: You learn a lot, but I wouldn't want to do it again.
The literature on the foreigness of Russia is vast. Winston Churchill captured the strangeness of the place in a 1939 speech: "(Russia) is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma...."
Writing in The Wall Street Journal on May 6, in an article titled, "What Gulag?," David Satter argued that President Bush's presence in Moscow gave credence to a fraudulent regime. Even though Communism is supposedly dead, the Soviet Union has never been repudiated by its successor government. In other words,
No wonder there is so little enthusiasm for George Bush's military adventureRussian President Vladimir Putin is a linear descendant of Joseph Stalin.
Television commentators breathlessly noted that Bush was standing where Stalin and Lenin had stood. But that comment begged for a giant footnote about the wanton domestic slaughter of those regimes.
Edward Crankshaw makes a point similar to Satter's in Shadow of the Winter Palace. Crankshaw's thesis is that the Russian Revolution ushered in new national political leadership, but certain Russian traits of obsessive secrecy, official deceit, fear of outsiders and a penchant for despots were just as strong. There was a change in the nameplate and the symbolism, but czarist Russia and Soviet Russia weren't that different. Satter says neither is Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The Russian death toll in World War II was breathtaking. One doesn't grasp the enormity of that sacrifice until one sees the World War II monuments outside the city that was known as Stalingrad and then became Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg. Our tour group went to the monument outside Leningrad, which marked the place where Nazi troops were stopped in their tracks. By Washington Monument standards, it is enormous, and all the more so because it sits atop a rise.
Our group also visited the memorial and eternal flame near Red Square where all the flowers were laid last week. There is a tradition that Muscovite brides go to that shrine and leave their wedding bouquet in respect to the dead of World War II.
It is an element of America's naivete about so many things that we barely comprehend this sacrifice. How could we? The continental U.S. was barely touched by the war. Our death toll was tiny compared to Russia's. In fact, an American cannot fully grasp European cynicism until he visits and understands emotionally that Europe was the playing field for two world wars. No wonder there is so little European enthusiasm for George Bush's military adventure in Iraq.
Satter suggests that the teachable moment in last week's event was about Stalin. And that is not a tale that's easily reduced to a 30-minute television show with commercial breaks. Just as awesome as the World War II Russian death toll was the body count from Stalin's purges. With access to Kremlin archives, the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore has documented Stalin's blood lust in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. It is an epic tale of craven, unspeakably sadistic, amoral behavior. Montefiore's telling is all the more graphic, because he's seen the paper trail of Stalin's base criminality.
In other words, you can take your pick. There's Hitler's bestiality and there's Stalin's. One was snuffed out by the war he started; the other continued to kill his own.