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Commentary: Pride Versus Prejudice In The West

Former Soviet dissident and veteran Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov says the Cold War did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Let me make several remarks about the current political course of the West, which combines strength and weakness, pride and prejudice.

Throughout its history, my country -- the Soviet Union -- conducted cruel and arbitrary mass purges; participated in international political terrorism; fostered new totalitarian regimes; committed aggression; and violated fundamental principles of law. Russia has returned to that behavior.

Now the West is firmly resisting Russian expansion. This instills in me hope with regard to the most urgent global problems. I have serious concerns, however.

The grounds for my concerns are widespread myths about Russia that have become rather prevalent in the West. These myths have been reinforced by experienced and skilled masters of deception from the special departments of the FSB (the Russian successor to the KGB).

One of the main myths is that Russia (the U.S.S.R.) freed the world from fascism. That is not true. Since the mid-19th century, Russia, the Soviet Union, and the current Russian Federation have never freed anyone. What they have done was enslave people, including their own population.

The Tsar-Liberator Alexander II, who abolished serfdom in 1861, was assassinated by terrorists who brazenly called themselves "The People's Will."

It's true that Hitler's army was drowned in Soviet blood and buried under Soviet corpses. It's true that Europe and the United States did less than they could and should have done during World War II. But that is a completely different matter. The definitive motives for the Soviet Union's major role in the military victory were not at all liberation. The peoples of Eastern Europe and Germany, who were ruled by two successive tyrants -- Hitler and Stalin -- should remember this.

"The definitive motives for the Soviet Union's major role in the military victory were not at all liberation."
"The definitive motives for the Soviet Union's major role in the military victory were not at all liberation."

Another common and dangerous idea is that Russia's immorality and political barbarism are solely Russia's internal affair. That isn't true. In our present interdependent world, serious problems become global and affect everyone. Russian (and not only Russian) totalitarian tendencies are fraught with catastrophic global consequences. No one knows how to deal with this challenge, but many people realize that not to face it is shameful and dangerous.

It's true that we don't know how to make universal values enforceable instead of empty slogans, but we should at least know what simply must not be done. You cannot appease an aggressor. You must not buy your safety, especially your gas supply, with other people's lives and fates. The acceptance of immoral political pragmatism is the shameful legacy of the Munich and Yalta agreements. Overcoming this legacy is long overdue.

Alas, the West's deficit of political will nullifies its good intentions. Russian expansion in the Caucasus exposed Western "forgetfulness." Each stage of this expansion was met by the unfeigned outrage of the West. There was the cruel ethnic cleansing of Georgians during the early 1990s in Abkhazia, provoked by Russian "peacekeepers." In 2008, there was the creation of two Russian satellites on Georgian territory, which caused general indignation. But all such offenses were quickly forgotten.

In the same vein, there were the many years of incoherent, ineffective fussing by the Council of Europe over Russia's outrages in Chechnya.

Now it is Ukraine's turn.

The occupation of Crimea has already been almost forgotten by the public. The European Union postponed some important items of the agreement with Ukraine, and the European Parliament did not contest this decision. It is said that the decision will not do any economic harm to Ukraine and will not give Russia any economic preferences. Russia, however, is not looking for any economic preferences; it just doesn't want to allow Ukraine to join Europe. Russia will interpret and use this postponement for a year and a half as a concession to its pressure. And the industry of a devastated Ukraine will not become competitive in that time.

"Imagine a postwar Germany that left the Gestapo untouchable. Or a Stasi lieutenant colonel chancellor of Germany."
"Imagine a postwar Germany that left the Gestapo untouchable. Or a Stasi lieutenant colonel chancellor of Germany."

There was a time when Europe imagined that the Cold War ended with the demolition of the Berlin Wall. It's not true. Russia only took a breather. Imagine a postwar Germany that left the Gestapo untouchable. Or a Stasi lieutenant colonel chancellor of Germany. That is and will be the Russia with which you seek partnership and mutual understanding. Right now, it will play fair only if forced to do so. It cannot be persuaded to do so. (Note that "forced to make peace" is a concept understood by the United Nations.)

Many are ready to make concessions to Russia, arguing that a cornered rat is dangerous. That's true. But you must remember: a rat, whether cornered or left in peace, is still a powerful carrier of plague. The plague under discussion has lasted almost a hundred years and has killed millions of people. The choice is limited -- you either fight the plague, or, in the words of Pushkin, you "feast in the time of plague."

Five years ago the European Parliament awarded my colleagues and me the Sakharov Prize, and I would like these notes to be taken as an open letter to the West. I knew Andrei Sakharov well. I am convinced that today, as in the past, he would urge the civilized world to be more resolute in its stand against tyranny. I will not discuss specific steps to support the victims of Russian expansion, but I wish to remind my readers that the American Lend-Lease Act and the Marshall Plan were historical examples of extensive and successful actions to defend democracy.

Effective resistance to the advance of the "evil empire" demands a maximum effort now. The day after tomorrow may be too late.

Sergei Kovalyov is a former Soviet dissident and veteran Russian human rights activist. He served as a human rights adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and was a member of the Russian State Duma from 1993-2003. This piece was originally published in Russian here
The views expressed in this piece are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Translated by Catherine Ann Fitzpatrick