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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Voice From the Past

Richard Lourie
Returning to Russia to run for president after years in Britain, Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky immediately began causing interesting trouble. If elected, he promised to investigate "all the crimes of the Soviet regime and its heirs."

Would Russia have benefited from a process of de-Sovietization like the de-Nazification program that has apparently worked so well in Germany? Why didn't that happen? Is it too late?

A lot of ink has been spilled to demonstrate the similarities between Nazism and communism, but the differences matter too. For one thing, Nazism was over quickly, the 1,000-year Reich lasted less than 15. At war's end, the Nazi criminals were still young and their crimes fresh. An executioner who was 30 at the apex of the Stalin's terror in 1937 was in his 80s during the Gorbachev years and would be 100 today.

The worst crimes of the Soviet era were committed in the 36 years between the 1917 Revolution and Stalin's death in 1953. But the Soviet Union had another 38 to go, some of them benign (Khrushchev, Gorbachev), some nondescript (Andropov, Chernenko) and even the worst of Brezhnev's long reign was small potatoes. There was only one Nazism -- Hitler's -- but there were many varieties of Soviet communism.

The short duration of the Nazi era made its evil more intense. Though it is difficult to measure degrees of evil past a certain point, Stalin's mass murders were probably not as bad as Hitler's premeditated genocide, which included the deaths of 1.5 million Jewish children.

Hitler's path led to suicide -- for himself and for Germany. In it for the long haul, the Soviet Union always played it more conservative. Stalin had the A-bomb for four years without rattling that saber.

Finally, the Soviet Union was on the right side in World War II, which was also the winning side. The crimes of victors are forgiven.

Some might argue that Russia did, in fact, undergo a sort of double de-Sovietization -- the de-Stalinization that occurred under Khrushchev and the mass of revelations that surfaced in the glasnost years, including all of the horrors from the murder of the royal family to the use of psychiatric institutions to punish dissidents like Bukovsky. They'd say that there's a monument to the victims of the secret police on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, a gulag museum in downtown Moscow and readily available books and videos on the subject of Communist crimes. De-Sovietization may have been done in slipshod style, but it was done, and in any case, it's too late to do much more about it.

Another group, maybe as much as a quarter of the population, would point out that the collapse of the Soviet Union was de-Sovietization enough and that the problem with today's Russia is that it isn't Soviet enough. If anything, they'd be in favor of a little re-Sovietization.

The crimes of the Soviet era were ordered by the Communist Party and executed by its sword and shield -- the KGB. The Communists lost power, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and when the dust cleared, the KGB were in power. As some of its members are fond of explaining, this is, in fact, a good thing because the security services were the only group organized enough to save the country from the abyss of chaos. Not only that, the KGB had done much that was good in the Soviet era (stealing the plans for the atomic bomb), and it was itself the victim of Stalin's crimes; recall how many officers, not to mention KGB heads, perished in the purges.

But the past is rarely over and done with. Turkey's fierce reaction to the U.S. Congress classifying the World War I-era slaughter of Armenians as genocide shows quite clearly what happens when ghosts are not laid to rest. And Russia is still a haunted land.

Richard Lourie is the author of "Sakharov: A Biography" and "A Hatred For Tulips."