Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Riding on Ideological Retreads

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The centerpiece of the All-Russia Exhibition Center is the Friendship of Nations fountain. It features gilded statues of 15 buxom women dressed in folk costumes that represent the once-fraternal republics of the Soviet Union.

If the Kremlin wanted to keep track of the growing list of disputes with its former dependencies, it could start moving the fountain's statues to the sculpture garden at the New Tretyakov Gallery on Ulitsa Krymsky Val. There, under the stern gaze of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, a large collection of statues would have already accumulated, including Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and, most recently, Estonia.

Many people around the world may sympathize with Russia's complaints about Estonia's decision to move a Soviet war memorial from central Tallinn to a military cemetery. This is just the latest in a long series of spats, however, and in each case Russia has resorted to the expulsion of foreign nationals, import bans and energy blackmail.

Needless to say, none of these responses has yielded positive results for Russian diplomacy. On the contrary, in many cases the foreign leaders Russia has tried to unseat or discredit have emerged stronger than ever, and Moscow merely bolstered its reputation as the regional bully.

The upshot seems to be that Putin's foreign policy team is either incompetent or, like all Russian bureaucrats, it is too busy appropriating and spending petrodollars to focus on the job at hand.

Russia's preoccupation with World War II, highlighted in the quarrel with Estonia, is very significant. In the West, victory in Europe, which occurred 62 years ago last week, is celebrated with diminishing fanfare, and not only because the number of surviving veterans decreases each year.

While Hitler and Nazism have not been in any way exonerated, the war itself is now viewed by many historians as part of a longer, complex European conflict that started in 1918 and didn't end until 1989. Even though victory in World War II is still seen as a major achievement, it is no longer the same unqualified event it was in the early postwar decades. Ambiguity has been introduced in particular by the tragic history of Central and Eastern Europe, which has been told in detail since the collapse of communism in the region.

Russia, which has ostensibly repudiated its Stalinist past, should be aware of this. To celebrate the Great Patriotic War as though it were a battle between good and evil is too naive for ordinary Russians and too disingenuous for the Russian government.

I own a rare document. It is a record of Leonid Brezhnev's 1981 visit to Kiev to inaugurate the 62-meter Rodina Mat statue on a high bank of the Dnepr River honoring the city's heroic role in World War II. The thin, illustrated book contains speeches by workers, generals, milkmaids and, of course, the thanatoid leader himself, all mouthing the same formulation: As time passes, the historical significance of the Soviet triumph in the war becomes ever clearer.

By then, the party's ideology had been hollowed out, and the cynical Soviet people were no longer moved by Lenin, the Bolsheviks and other staples of Soviet propaganda. The Great Patriotic War was the only thing that still stirred at least some positive feeling, and this formulation was designed to make it relevant again.

In the 1990s, victory celebrations were muted -- another thing for which Boris Yeltsin is now faulted. The current revival of patriotic pieties is damning, however. It shows that the government has failed to come up with any sort of national ideology other than the old prescriptions cooked up in the early 1980s at party ideologist Mikhail Suslov's Marxism-Leninism Institute.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.