Remembrance

Why resurrect the atrocities of the past? In this modern age, do they really matter?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provided a justification in a chapter entitled "The Bluecaps" in The Gulag Archipelago.


From the most ancient times justice has been a two-part concept: virtue triumphs, and vice is punished.

We have been fortunate enough to live to a time when virtue, though it does not triumph, is nonetheless not always tormented by attack dogs. Beaten down, sickly, virtue has now been allowed to enter in all its tatters and sit in the corner, as long as it doesn't raise its voice.

However, no one dares say a word about vice. Yes, they did mock virtue, but there was no vice in that. Yes, so-and-so many millions did get mowed down-but no one was to blame for it. And if someone pipes up: "What about those who . . . " the answer comes from all sides, reproachfully and amicably at first: "What are you talking about, comrade! Why open old wounds? " Then they go after you with an oaken club: "Shut up! Haven't you had enough yet? You think you've been rehabilitated!"

In that same period, by 1966, eighty-six thousand Nazi criminals had been convicted in West Germany. And still we choke with anger here. We do not hesitate to devote to the subject page after newspaper page and hour after hour of radio time. We even stay after work to attend protest meetings and vote: "Too few! Eighty-six thousand are too few. And twenty years is too little! It must go on and on."

And during the same period, in our own country (according to the reports of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court) about ten men have been convicted.

What takes place beyond the Oder and the Rhine gets us all worked up. What goes on in the environs of Moscow and behind the green fences near Sochi, or the fact that the murderers of our husbands and fathers ride through our streets and we make way for them as they pass, doesn't get us worked up at all, doesn't touch us. That would be "digging up the past."

Meanwhile, if we translate 86,000 West Germans into our own terms, on the basis of comparative population figures, it would become one-quarter of a million.

But in a quarter-century we have not tracked down anyone. We've not brought anyone to trial. It is their wounds we are afraid to open. And as a symbol of them all, the smug and stupid Molotov lives at Granovsky No. 3, a man who has learned nothing at all, even now, though he is saturated with our blood and nobly crosses the sidewalk seat himself in his long, wide automobile.

Here is a riddle not for us contemporaries to figure out: Why is Germany allowed to punish its evildoers and Russia is not? What kind of disastrous path lies ahead of us if we do not have the chance to purge ourselves of that putrefaction rotting inside our body? What, then, can Russia teach the world?

In the German trials an astonishing phenomenon takes place from time to time. The defendant clasps his head in his hands, refuses to make any defense, and from then on asks no concessions from the court. He says that the presentation of his crimes, revived and once again confronting him, has filled him with revulsion and he no longer wants to live.

That is the ultimate height a trial can attain: when evil is so utterly condemned that even the criminal is revolted by it.

A country which has condemned evil 86,000 times from the rostrum of a court and irrevocably condemned it in literature and among its young people, year by year, step by step, is purged of it.

What are we to do? Someday our descendants will describe our several generations as generations of driveling do-nothings. First we submissively allowed them to massacre us by the millions, and then with devoted concern we tended the murderers in their prosperous old age.

What are we to do if the great Russian tradition of penitence is incomprehensible and absurd to them? What are we to do if the animal terror of hearing even one-hundredth part of all they subjected others to outweighs in their hearts any inclination to justice? If they cling greedily to the harvest of benefits they have watered with the blood of those who perished?

It is clear enough that those men who turned the handle of the meat grinder even as late as 1937 are no longer young. They are fifty to eighty years old. They have lived the best years of their lives prosperously, well nourished and comfortable, so that it is too late for any kind of equal retribution as far as they are concerned.

But let us be generous. We will not shoot them. We will not pour salt water into them, nor bury them in bedbugs, nor bridle them into a "swan dive," nor keep them on sleepless "stand-up" for a week, nor kick them with jackboots, nor beat them with rubber truncheons, nor squeeze their skulls in iron rings, nor push them into a cell so that they lie atop one another like pieces of baggage-we will not do any of the things they did! But for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crimes. And to compel each one of them to announce loudly:

"Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer."

And if these words were spoken in our country only one-quarter of a million times (a just proportion, if we are not to fall behind West Germany), would it, perhaps, be enough?

It is unthinkable in the twentieth century to fail to distinguish between what constitutes an abominable atrocity that must be prosecuted and what constitutes that "past" which "ought not to be stirred up.”

We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. It is for this reason, and not because of the "weakness of indoctrinational work," that they are growing up "indifferent." Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity.

It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country!


Not only are the purveyors of vice "no longer young", they are dead. They can no longer be brought to trial to confess their sins. Yet, the more important reason for highlighting the horrors gone by remains, and is given in the next to last paragraph. Public condemnation of communism has been hesistant and sparse, especially among intellectuals and elites. Even today, there remains more than a thread of sympathy for the idea that communism was merely something simply gone awry in execution rather in essence. Uncomfortable historical truths are quickly brushed aside in favor of more pleasing ideology.

On this May Day, we make a visible remembrance of the tragedies to the remind the world, so that it may never forget.


Back to May Day 2006: A Day Of Remembrance

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Absolutely. What's so sad

Absolutely. What's so sad is that even today, more than a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the huge crimes of the past have not been confronted in Russia. Perhaps it's because so few voices were raised against it at the time - if you opposed the system you were killed - and so everyone who was left was left feeling guilty. Such a vast number of people were implicated in the slaughter, if only by their silence, that no-one felt clean enough to throw the first stone and now it was all too long ago to care about. Statues of Lenin still scar every town and city, when will they mourn the victims of the camps? Is it ever going to happen?

"When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations."

Indeed.