Building a New Nation — and Dealing With the Past

September 24, 2002 • Commentary
This article was published in National Review Online, September 24, 2002.

LUBYANKA SQUARE, MOSCOW — A half‐​dozen teenagers, shirtless and in shorts, are practicing their moves. Their temporary skating ramp sits next to a colorful circular garden.

The scene is unexceptional but for the building behind them — until a decade ago the headquarters of the KGB. No one skateboarded in front of the KGB.

There were no flowers either; until pulled down by a mob in August 1991 a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the original Cheka, dominated the square. A small bush now sits in the garden’s center.

Across the street is the memorial to the victims of totalitarianism. It consists of a stone slab from a Siberian labor camp on the Solovetsky Islands, one of the endless portals of the Gulag through which millions passed.

The Polish‐​born Dzerzhinsky was as cruel and hard as Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and the other early revolutionaries, and helped initiate decades of terror. The secret police force, from Cheka to KGB, was the most feared institution in the Soviet Union. It arrested, tortured, imprisoned, and murdered tens of millions.

The victims first were royalist opponents and liberal critics, but soon included the party elite, decimated by Joseph Stalin during his famed purges. After Stalin’s death in 1953 worried Politburo members secretly arrested and executed Lavrenty Beria, head of what was then called the NKVD, lest he seize power. They then created the KGB, under firmer party control.

Today the Federal Security Service, formally stripped of any foreign spying function, is headquartered here. The hulking structure retains an air of menace, however, with two levels of gray stone topped by eight stories of faded yellow bricks with reddish trim. Columns imbedded in the facade add a neoclassical touch, while a clock incongruously tops the front.

Around back is a large double metal door, through which KGB victims passed into the dungeons below. Small KGB coats of arms circle the building; a large hammer and sickle sits atop a globe above front and back doors.

I circled the building snapping photos and taking notes without interference. But at the front door a guard peered at me through small windows while one outside indicated his displeasure when I attempted to take a picture.

Yet ordinary apartments sit across the street in back. While I sat there contemplating Lubyanka’s hideous history a middle‐​aged Russian pulled up in a Volkswagon Golf, parked, set his car alarm, and scurried into a shop around the corner. Like a normal driver in a normal city.

Russia “has changed,” says Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation. But of course, what is most important is “what has changed behind Lubyanka’s walls,” he adds, and there the record is more mixed.

A dozen years ago the Communist corpse was barely clinging to life. Mikhail Gorbachev had dismantled the USSR’s worst totalitarian features, but had not fully embraced economic or political freedom. Few people were going to jail for speaking their minds, yet no one could be certain of the extent or permanence of their new civil freedoms.

The city remained an oppressive gray, filled with Communist symbols, socialist realist art, and Stalinist architecture. There was criticism — part of Glasnost and Perestroika — but not opposition. Even harmless matryoshka, or nesting dolls, featuring Gorbachev and his Communist predecessors were sometimes seized for allegedly being disrespectful.

Yet foreigners were largely left alone. Private Russian attacks on the system were scathing.

And the demand for dollars was intense: You could always find a Gorbachev doll if you looked closely enough. A couple of bucks and a pack or two of Marlboros could get you a cab for half a day. The pervasive fear of the state was gone.

Indeed, the system seemed to be slipping into chaos. So in August 1991 all of the traditional power centers, the military, Communist Party, and KGB, joined to create the “Committee for the State of Emergency in the USSR” in a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, then vacationing in the Crimea.

A few decades before Gorbachev would have been carted off to Lubyanka. A few years before he would have been pensioned off in obscurity.

But when crowds backed up Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, soldiers refused to fire and the plot collapsed. A crowd aided by five cranes pulled down Dzerzhinsky’s statue. Four months later the Soviet Union itself dissolved, with the Soviet flag lowered from over the Kremlin on Christmas Day. Gorbachev was unemployed and Communism was dead. (Today he is feted in the U.S. but ignored in Russia.)

Alas, the attempt to jump from totalitarian Communism to democratic capitalism turned out to be far harder than originally expected. Botched privatization, insufficient liberalization, rampant corruption, political authoritarianism, and organized crime led to widespread anger and economic hardship. During the mid‐​1990s a Communist revival seemed imminent.

Now, at last, “there are some encouraging signs. President Putin has brought a certain degree of stability,” says Volk. Viewed from a historical perspective, he adds, “the progress made is significant.” Representing a more nonpolitical view, tour guide Valeria Novikova says that “Moscow in Soviet times was very different.”

Privatization has been proceeding, though “not as fast as it should,” in Volk’s view, and about 80 percent of the economy is in private hands. Although the currency collapsed four years ago, the economy has finally turned positive — more due to rising oil revenues than policy reforms, worries Volk — and Vladimir Putin has aligned his country with the West.

Regular, and reasonably free, elections are now held. Yevgeny Volk and similar activists work to influence executive and legislature. Independent journalists challenge the authorities. Classical liberal scholars reach from private institutes to Putin’s inner circle.

Religious freedom has been restored for the Orthodox Church, though not always for other faiths. In 1995 Moscow began rebuilding the beautiful Church of Christ the Savior, down the Moscow River from the Kremlin, which Joseph Stalin had blown up in 1931. Services are even held within the Kremlin’s half‐​dozen churches on special occasions.

New buildings are rising. Old, dismal Soviet hotels are being refurbished and staff are being retrained.

Private firms are expanding and now account for about 80 percent of the economy. Some Russian money that fled in the 1990s is returning, “a positive sign of confidence,” notes Volk.

Bright Western ads adorn billboards and buildings. American franchises, from McDonald’s to Subway to Sbarro line the streets. The famed GUM department store, on Red Square across from Lenin’s tomb and the Kremlin, has abandoned dowdy Soviet goods for fine Western fashions.

American, French, German, and Japanese autos now compete with inexpensive Russian Ladas for road space, creating enormous traffic jams. Even the state airline Aeroflot has learned to provide passable, if not great, service.

Still, warns Volk, “Russian society is suffering from the legacy of its totalitarian past, of Communism.” For instance, the bureaucracy is excessive, he says, yet President Putin “has to rely on it.” Official arbitrariness is everywhere. Red Square was intermittently closed without reason or explanation: No one seemed to know why or for how long.

Russia’s economy desperately requires further, systematic reform. “Red tape is the biggest obstacle to the development of a market economy,” says Volk, who works with the parliament and government ministries to promote reform.

Legislation creating a flat income tax and allowing property sales are “positive signs,” he adds, but such reforms only come in “fits and starts.” And even after reforms have been enacted, bureaucrats attempt “to change the rules of the game.” Industries desperately need to be restructured and modernized — the military‐​industrial sector is “producing things that no one needs,” agriculture “is lagging behind,” and there’s virtually no high‐​tech industry, says Volk. Foreign investors remain wary, since they “don’t believe that their investment will be safe.”

Executive power is enormous, elections are manipulated, and press freedoms remain tenuous. “There is no transparency, no accountability” in a Western sense for either the government or parliament. And while there’s no “open assault on the media,” reports Volk, there are other ways to exercise control, using financial pressure to encourage self‐​censorship, for example.

The problem is not only political institutions, but the “social mentality.” People “still expect the state to take care of them, to pay them for doing nothing,” says Volk. Building support for political reform has not been easy. The middle class has only slowly recovered from the 1998 collapse; smaller entrepreneurs don’t yet “feel that they should play a more active political role, so the forces that represent them aren’t so strong,” explains Volk.

Moreover, old Communist elites have lost their privileges, while one‐​third of the population is below the poverty line, “mostly older people,” which “offers a good field for the communists,” says Volk. A handful of dispirited pensioners were demonstrating in front of the Kremlin when I strolled by; one lady held a small poster with Stalin’s picture.

Yet virtually no one else wants to return to the old times. Especially the fashionably dressed young professionals with cell phones on their belts who increasingly stride the streets.

Lenin’s tomb is rarely open and draws only sparse crowds. His waxy visage no longer inspires.

The old Soviet flag is no more, replaced by the traditional Russian tricolor. Symbols of the czarist years have proliferated.

About the only Communist images remaining are architectural features and a few famous memorials. “Lenin statues, there are not many left,” observes Novikova. One once sat near the Communist general secretary’s office within the Kremlin. That spot now hosts a flower garden.

Still, Bolshevik ghosts are never far away. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov wants to reinstate Dzerzhinsky’s statue — because it is an “excellent monument,” he says, and not as “a return to the past.” Human‐​rights groups are appalled and the Kremlin has indicated its opposition. Putin aide Vladislav Surkov explained: “This is not so much an issue of architecture or ideology as an ethical issue.”

For now, at least, flowers decorate the spot where the Soviet state long celebrated the first murderer to run the first murderous secret policy agency, and nearby teens perform acrobatics on their skateboards. Even if the statue returns, the old Soviet Humpty Dumpty won’t be put back together. “A more open system is needed,” says Volk, and Russia has far to go to become a true liberal capitalist democracy. But it has moved a lifetime in the last dozen years.

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