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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Worthy of a True, Old-Time Soviet Polemicist

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I was bewildered, upset and vexed by President Vladimir Putin's recent speech at a meeting with teachers in the humanities who were attending a conference in Moscow. As he discussed recent history and how it should be understood -- as well as how it should be taught -- Putin said the following:

"Concerning some problematic pages in our history -- yes, they exist, as they do in the histories of all states. We have less than some countries. And ours are not as terrible as those of some others.

"Yes, some pages in our history were horrible: We can think of the events beginning in 1937, and we should not forget them. But it wasn't better in other countries -- in fact, it was far more horrible."

He then rattled off a list of U.S. offenses from history, running from the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities in World War II, the blanketing of thousands of kilometers of Vietnam with Agent Orange in the war there, and the dropping of seven times more bombs on the country than fell during all of World War II.

"We don't have other black pages in our history, like fascism," he added.

The president is right: We didn't have fascism. But we had Bolshevism, which I'm convinced was no better. In fact, there were an enormous number of "black pages" in 20th-century Russian history, and every one of them was terrible. For example:

• The "Red Terror" unleashed by the Bolsheviks soon after they took power in 1917, against both political opponents and innocent civilians, which took up to a million lives;

• Collectivization, which forced 3 million to 4.5 million peasants to flee their villages and caused, in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, another 6 million to 7 million to die of hunger;

• The "Great Purges" from 1937 to 1938, which claimed 1.3 million to 1.7 million victims. About 800,000 of them were executed without investigation or trial, including Stalin's political opponents as well as politicians, bureaucrats, military men and citizens who were completely loyal to him.

There was also the mass deportation of ethnic groups to Siberia, Central Asia and Kazakhstan during World War II: Almost a million Germans were resettled as a preventive measure, along with another 1.5 million Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks and others -- supposedly because their elders collaborated with the Germans during the occupation of their regions. Immediately after the victory over fascism, Soviet soldiers who had been liberated from Hitler's prison camps were marched across the country and straight into the gulag, along with the civilians who had been taken to Germany and forced to work. That was nearly another million people.

And then there was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which allowed Germany to begin World War II (with the Soviet attack on Poland following just two weeks later). And Katyn, where 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed in 1940. We also put down popular uprisings in East Germany in 1953, invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. In Afghanistan, we conducted an unnecessary, senseless and shameful war for almost 10 years -- almost as long as the United States fought in Vietnam. How many states can boast of such a "list of honor" in the 20th century?

Putin is being modest -- and deceptive -- when he talks about the importance of 1937. This was the date when Stalin's secret police, the NKVD, unleashed massive purges across the entire country after purging the highest military leaders under Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. But the state has never done anything significant to mark this tragic date in a fitting way. True, it would be strange to expect this from a government led by a former officer of the KGB -- the descendant of the NKVD -- with a ruling elite in which at least half of the members trace their roots back to the same organization.

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko decreed that the memory of the victims of the Great Purges should be honored with great ceremony, and even instituted a special annual day of remembrance. Russia has a day of remembrance of the victims of political repression, but Kiev is unlikely to have much success in getting senior politicians in Moscow to mark it in any significant way.

When Putin begins pointing to the United States as a country with a worse record than Russia and the Soviet Union, citing the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the loads of bombs dropped on Vietnam and the vast jungle destroyed by chemical defoliants, he sounds like a caricature of the Soviet polemicists. When they'd run out of arguments, they'd pull an ace out of their sleeves, charging, "But you lynch blacks!"

Indeed they did, prompting the "March on Washington" in 1963, where a crowd estimated at 200,000 to 500,000 gathered on the Mall to protest the lack of civil rights for African Americans. When eight people in Red Square tried to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, they were assaulted by police and seven were arrested.

What the United States did in Vietnam was wrong. And you can question (especially given the current situation in Iraq) whether the country truly condemns or even regrets that military operation.

But there is no question that the experience was examined by some of the United States' greatest thinkers: writers, scholars, and artists. Masterpieces like Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter," Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Oliver Stone's "Platoon" were also acts of repentance.

In the center of Washington there is a magnificent memorial where the names of the over 58,000 men and women killed in Vietnam are carved in stone. This extraordinarily powerful memorial is the most visited site in the U.S. capital. In Moscow there is nothing like it commemorating those who died in Afghanistan or Chechnya.

I don't know if Putin has figures on how many bombs we dropped in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but my guess is we didn't scrimp on ammunition. In fact, I'm not guessing -- I know, since I served there for two years . We used both high explosive bombs and volley fire missile systems. These weren't, of course, nuclear weapons, but they weren't much more humane. And in Chechnya we need only recall the ruins of Grozny -- reminiscent of Stalingrad -- that shocked Putin when he first saw the city from the air in the spring of 2004.

It's also worth recalling that as soon as it became known that the U.S. military was using defoliants in Vietnam, over 5,000 American scientists and scholars, including 129 members of the National Academy of Sciences and 17 Nobel Prize winners, brought a petition to the White House protesting the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons. The military was forced to stop using them. In the Soviet Union, only one scholar protested the war in Afghanistan -- the late Andrei Sakharov, who was exiled to the city of Gorky for almost seven years.

Do many people remember all of that today? I'm afraid not. And it seems the authorities would like us to know even less. They need history only as a collection of myths around which they can try to consolidate their electorate, especially young people. To do that, they need heroic pages of history: victories over our enemies, daring feats, discoveries and achievements. Everything else is mudslinging.

But history takes cruel revenge on those who ignore it. As George Santayana famously pointed out: Those who are unable to learn history's lessons are bound to repeat its mistakes.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst.