Thursday, November 5, 2009

20 Years After the Fall: Progress for Some, Repression for Others

BROOKLYN, New York -- As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, commemorations of those momentous events of 1989 are all around us. I'm marking the occasion by reading The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia, Past, Present and Future.

The book was published soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and author Yevgenia Albats, an investigative reporter who currently hosts a radio program on the independent station Echo Moskva, recounts the rise of the KGB and its terrifying hold on Russian society from the early days of the Revolution to the nascent Russian democracy of the early 1990's. She began her work as a journalist in the 1980's during perestroika, when a small degree of openness allowed her to investigate the depravities of the KGB.

Russia has changed a great deal in the 15 years since this book was written, but what Albats wrote in 1994 - that the state was still in effect run by the KGB, as it always had been since the state security apparatus was erected soon after the October Revolution - is even truer today. During the 1990's, Yeltsin made half-hearted attempts to curb the influence of the security services, but they were in vain. There is no more KGB, but its successor, the FSB, remains largely unreformed, with the same institutional structure and personnel in place as in the Soviet Union. A KGB agent rose to the presidency, and he remains entrenched in power, surrounded by a coterie of stooges who are all veterans of the secret police. These torturers and assassins have traded epaulets for business suits, yet they still wield the power of a violently repressive state.

The problem is that Russia, unlike most of its neighbors in Eastern Europe, has never come to terms with its past. There were no Nuremberg trials for the tens of millions butchered by the Soviet state. Almost no one has ever been held to task for the crimes of the KGB; the few that have were merely the pawns of power struggles within the organization (for example, Beria was executed not for ordering extrajudicial killings, as his indictment stated, but for opposing Khrushchev). Even today, chekists, as agents of the secret police are known, are protected from prosecution (and not just protected - Andrei Lugovoi, the alleged murderer of dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, is currently a member of the Russian parliament.)

Who wants to come to terms with anything? Putin's rule has reinscribed Soviet-era thinking among the people - democracy and free markets are a trick by the West to impoverish Russia, and the state must remain strong, even if that means resorting to violent repression. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 58% of Russians view the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "great misfortune." Since 1991, support for nationalist views and imperial expansion has increased, while support for multiparty democracy and free market capitalism has declined. History is written by the winners, and contrary to what the events of 20 years ago may have indicated, in Russia at least, the winners were not the democrats; they were the communist stooges who have always run the country, and they are writing a history that glorifies Stalin, demeans the victims of Soviet atrocities, and legitimizes state repression.

Things are not so grim everywhere in Eastern Europe. Nearly all the Soviet satellites have become democracies and joined the European Union. Even as we are disheartened by the lack of progress in Russia, we can celebrate the liberation of millions of people elsewhere on the continent. So, if you are looking for a more uplifting way to celebrate the fall of communism than reading about torture in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, over the next four months, New York will be host to Performing Revolution in Eastern Europe, a festival of music, theater, film and art.

To kick off the festival, this weekend (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village is hosting the Rebel Waltz music festival. The two-night event features bands from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland, all of whom found themselves at some point on the wrong side of the communist censors. In The State Within a State, Albats writes about the efforts of Soviet authorities to curb the deleterious effects of rock 'n' roll music. She quotes Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general who became a strong critic of the Russian security services. He was convicted in absentia in Russia for espionage in 2002, though his real crime was airing too much of the KGB's dirty laundry; he currently lives in exile in the United States:
"When Leningrad's stages began to fill up with rock-oriented musicians, a rock club was formed at the KGB's initiative to keep the rock movement manageable and under control."
Unfortunately, the censorship in Russia continues. DDT, a Russian rock band formed in the early 1980's that remains one of the country's most popular groups, has been unable to perform or record in Russia a song critical of Vladimir Putin, "When the Oil Runs Out." We now offer a recording from a concert in Lithuania, and with it a sincere hope that more tyrants will fall and criminals will be brought to justice twenty years on from the "fall" of communism:

And how would any celebration of the Berlin Wall coming down be complete without David Hasselhoff?

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