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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Coming To Terms With The Past

Washington, 16 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin's meeting with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the Russian Orthodox Church's canonization of the last tsar are part of a new effort by Russians to confront their country's often complicated historical record.

But reaction to each of these events highlights just how long and difficult that process is likely to be.

President Putin received his Soviet-era predecessor for two hours last Thursday. Gorbachev, long shunned by Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, returned the compliment by observing that he had seen "a change for the better" since Putin became president. Moreover, he praised the current occupant of the Kremlin for what Gorbachev said was Putin's "democratic" approach to the media.

Then, on Monday, the Council of Archbishops of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to canonize Nicholas II and his family who were murdered by the Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918. The church body justified its action by saying that "in the last Russian Orthodox monarch and his family, we see people who sincerely tried to carry out the commandments of the Gospels in their lives."

Each of these developments is clearly the product of a careful political calculation, one that balances the contribution such moves can give to their authors with the risks that each of these steps so obviously poses.

By reaching out to Gorbachev, Putin has opened the way for a reconsideration of the last years of Soviet power, a period that many in Russia look back to with nostalgia but one whose major developments Yeltsin had either sharply criticized or attempted to pass by in silence. At the same time, the current Russian president's meeting with Gorbachev has angered those who dislike the last Soviet leader or who fear a return to a Soviet-style past.

By canonizing the last Russian tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has extended a hand to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, a group which broke with the patriarchal church over the latter's loyalty to the regime that had killed the Imperial Family. But as in the case with Putin's meeting with Gorbachev, the canonization decision is likely to infuriate those who were encouraged to view the last tsar as "Bloody Nicholas."

But behind these specific calculations is a more general shift in the way Russia and her leaders have chosen to deal with the past. After the 1917 revolution, Soviet leaders initially attempted with remarkable success to ignore or simply to denounce much of Russia's past only to see elements of that past reemerge in various ways over the succeeding decades.

And again, after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders in general and Yeltsin in particular attempted to ignore or simply to denounce the Soviet past and especially the Gorbachev period -- with the parallel result that many of the elements of that period have continued to play a role in post-Soviet Russia.

In both cases, this earlier unwillingness of many Russians to openly confront the past and thus to assimilate it into part of the national narrative has had the unintended effect of making the past more rather than less influential. Consequently, this latest effort in Moscow to address the past appears to give some promise that Russia may have begun to escape from this particular historical syndrome.

But the historical experience of both Russia and other countries suggests that such a shift in perspective is likely to be both long and painful.

First of all, such a shift in perspective on key historical events almost certainly will be misread and opposed by people accustomed to denying the past. Some will see it as a signal that Putin and the Church have launched a concerted effort to turn back the clock, and others will conclude that both are maligning the intervening periods.

Moreover, the obviousness of the current political calculations behind this shift in perspective almost always has the effect of further politicizing the past, thus making its interpretation and integration into national consciousness more problematic rather than less difficult.

And finally, decisions like those made by Putin and by the Russian Orthodox Church almost certainly will not be assimilated by everyone in Russia quickly or even at all, thus opening the door to new divisions even as those who took these decisions seek to overcome old ones.

But these two steps, as different as they are and appear to be, suggest that Russia and Russians are now more prepared to examine their pasts with equanimity, an approach that may have the unexpected effect of limiting the impact of their pasts on their futures.