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The Week In Russia: The Shifting Shape Of The Past


Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) listens to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during a news conference in Schleswig in northern Germany in December 2004 following a German-Russian summit.

Thirty years after the U.S.S.R.’s collapse, courts ordered the closure of the human rights and historical research group Memorial, making what observers said was a big move to whitewash the past and the present. Meanwhile, Moscow pressed ahead with an effort to roll back some of the results of the Soviet breakup.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

30 Years Gone

Anniversaries tend to loom large in Russia, whose recent history has been filled with momentous events, with no sign of a letup anytime soon, and the last few weeks of 2021 have brought three of the big ones -- as well as a few new developments that are themselves already seen as turning points.

December 25 marked 30 years since Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the leader of a country that had ceased to exist, signing the death certificate of the U.S.S.R. months after a failed hard-line coup against him and his reform efforts hastened its demise and thrust Russian President Boris Yeltsin to the fore.

December 31, meanwhile, marked 22 years since Yeltsin stepped down and handed Russia’s reins to Vladimir Putin, a longtime former Soviet KGB officer who had emerged from obscurity to head the Federal Security Service in 1998 and had become prime minister in August 1999, pursuing a new war in Chechnya.

The month of December also marked 10 years since the start of a wave of protests that were held by change-hungry Russians dismayed by evidence of widespread election fraud and by Putin’s decision to return to the presidency after a second stint in the No. 2 spot.

And on January 17, one tumultuous year will have passed since Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny returned to Russia from Germany following treatment for a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin, setting off an newly intense phase of a government crackdown that began with the December 2011 protests.

This week, the clampdown reached what might be called a peak -- but might not, because that would imply a subsequent easing off for which there is no evidence -- when courts ordered the closure of the human rights and historical research group Memorial.

The rulings on Memorial -- expected but still stunning and surreal -- seemed like a grimly fitting wrap on a year that began with the return and immediate arrest of Navalny, who is now serving a 2 1/2-year prison term on what he calls an absurd parole-violation charge and may face further prosecution.

But while the moves to shut Memorial may have rounded out the year 2021, they had roots reaching back three decades, to Gorbachev’s pen stroke and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- because the organization, created a couple of years before that December day, is more than a human rights group.

One of its chief roles has been researching, revealing, and compiling a record of the crimes of the Soviet state against its own people, work that has meant digging deep into archives, grave sites, and the memories of the survivors and the relatives of those who did not survive.

It’s a role that has, in the 22 years since Putin first became president, been increasingly at odds with what Kremlin critics say is an increasingly determined campaign to whitewash parts of the Soviet past, rewriting some of its darker passages and harnessing it as a source of support for the state today.

Memory And Memorial

In turn, that campaign -- tangible in equivocal statements about dictator Josef Stalin and laws against equating the U.S.S.R. with Nazi Germany, among other things -- is at odds with what many Russians and Memorial itself have long argued is a crucial factor in seeking a better future for the country: a real reckoning with its past.

“With the Kremlin's decision today to ban Memorial -- to abolish the nation's memory of its own horrendous past -- Russia has taken perhaps its largest step to date from a harshly authoritarian to a fully totalitarian state,” Mikhail Iossel, a Russian-born professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal, wrote on Twitter on December 28.

When Putin is criticized over controversial court decisions outlawing civil society groups or convicting Russians who contend they are victims of political persecution, Putin puts on a straight face, claiming that such rulings simply mean that the defendant or organization in question has broken the law.

And in the case of Memorial, that was the state’s line: The group violated existing legislation, it said. But what one journalist called a “telling remark” from a prosecutor at the December 28 Supreme Court hearing that decided the fate of Memorial International, one of the entities that was ordered shut, suggested there were motives quite separate from the law.

“It is obvious that, by cashing in on the subject of political reprisals of the 20th century, Memorial is mendaciously portraying the U.S.S.R. as a terrorist state and whitewashing and vindicating Nazi criminals having the blood of Soviet citizens on their hands,” prosecutor Aleksei Zhafyarov said, according to a translation in a report in the British newspaper The Guardian.

The prosecutor “portrayed [Memorial] as a geopolitical weapon used by foreign governments to deprive modern Russians of taking pride in the achievements of the Soviet Union,” the report said. “Those arguments dovetail closely with the Kremlin’s use of Soviet history as a rallying point for society and reinterpretation of key historical moments in its confrontations with European countries.”

The timing of the rulings on Memorial, almost 30 years to the day since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, was striking, in part, because it seemed like a 180-degree turn from those times, the blatant rejection by the U.S.S.R.’s successor state of a principle that may have appeared undeniable in 1991: that revealing the truth about the past is a good thing.

'Ownerless' Territory

If the push to shutter Memorial marks a monumental reversal at home, the Kremlin has been making a big, insistent push this month for what amounts to a rollback of some of the results of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union 30 years ago -- a substantial reversal of Moscow’s retreat in the region at the close of the Cold War.

The Warsaw Pact’s dissolution in 1990 lifted the yoke of Soviet dominance from several countries whose people had struggled under Moscow’s thumb for decades. The Soviet breakup made 15 countries independent -- including Russia, which accepted the sovereignty and borders of each of the others.

Now, Russia is calling for a binding pledge that NATO will refrain from any further eastward expansion, a step that would leave several countries, including Ukraine and Georgia -- nations that have faced Russian military aggression in recent years -- without the right to choose their allies and with limited means of ensuring their own security.

Moscow is also calling for agreements that would essentially outlaw NATO military deployments beyond the borders of the alliance as of 1997 -- before any of the former Warsaw Pact nations or the Baltic states became members.

Russia has largely based these proposals, as it calls them, or demands, as it sometimes suggests they really are, on the bitterly debated argument that the United States and its allies made promises in the early 1990s -- albeit spoken, not written and not signed -- not to expand NATO eastward.

Whatever one thinks of the merits of that argument, the audacity of the proposals could be described as breathtaking: Among other things, a country that seven years ago seized control of part of a neighboring nation whose borders and sovereignty it vowed years ago to respect is saying that nation must now be neutral, in effect, to satisfy what Russia says are its security concerns.

Much in the way the prosecutor’s remarks at the Supreme Court this week appeared to reveal a less formal, more emotional motive behind the push to close Memorial, a statement by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to suggest that while three decades have passed since Moscow lost control over the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia still sees them as part of its potential sphere of influence -- or at least wishes they were.

Lashing out at NATO, as he does, Lavrov asserted, without citing evidence, that the alliance is now a “purely geopolitical project aimed at taking over territory that became ownerless” -- or was “orphaned,” as the Foreign Ministry put it in an English translation -- “after the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Talks And Threats

In the case of Ukraine, Lavrov’s depiction of the countries to Russia’s west as “ownerless” property or “orphaned” children rather than sovereign states -- whether he was trolling or not -- echoed remarks by Putin, who has repeatedly sought to cast doubt on Ukraine’s right to be an independent state.

In any event, Moscow is now pressing its case for restrictions on NATO enlargement and deployments, among other things, in a mix of military pressure and diplomacy. It has tens of thousands of troops deployed north and east of Ukraine’s border and in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it occupied in 2014, and U.S. intelligence officials have said Russia is making plans for a possible military offensive that could begin as soon as a few weeks into the new year.

On the diplomatic track, Russian officials are to meet with U.S. officials in Geneva on January 9-10, and meetings with NATO and with fellow members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are expected later that week. On December 30, Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden held their second call this month, speaking for about 50 minutes.

For the time being, talks and the prospect of more talks have taken a bit of the edge off tensions. But Russian demands that U.S. officials have suggested are unacceptable -- chiefly, the call for a legally binding pledge to keep Ukraine and other nations out of NATO -- are a potential recipe for diplomatic disaster, with some analysts suspecting they are designed to fail, providing Moscow with a pretext for military action.

And while both sides indicated that the latest Biden-Putin call was substantive and useful, the White House and Kremlin readouts suggest that, to some degree at least, they talked across one another.

Biden said that the upcoming negotiations can only achieve progress “in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation,” and threatened crushing economic sanctions from the United States and its allies “if Russia further invades Ukraine,” according to a statement by White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki and remarks from a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Putin told Biden that imposing such sanctions would be a “serious mistake” that could lead to the “complete rupture” of bilateral relations, a Kremlin readout said. Without setting a deadline, it also indicated that Putin sought to make clear that Moscow would not back down on its core demands, saying he underscored that talks must lead to “firm legal guarantees ruling out the eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of threatening weapons systems in direct proximity to Russia’s borders.”

The senior U.S. official’s remarks on that score differed substantially, suggesting that there may be more wiggle room on those core demands than the Kremlin wants to admit.

“Both leaders acknowledged that there were likely to be areas where we could make meaningful progress as well as areas where agreements may be impossible, and that the upcoming talks would determine more precisely the contours of each of those categories,” the official said.

That seems to raise two questions: Which readout more accurately reflects Putin’s position, and can that position change? The answers could be crucial.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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