Russians in the Wilderness, Part III: Remembering the Past

Russia is struggling. Its people are battling through a series of crises unparalleled in modern history. Russian commentators, both secular and religious, have frequently compared their country’s experience to that of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness before they reached the “Promised Land.” This series of “Reflections” explores that theme, searching for a deeper understanding of the enormous challenges that face the Russian people.

The Dismantling of the Soviet State

When Nikita Khrushchev surprised the Communist Party leadership — and the world — with his devastating indictment of Joseph Stalin in February 1956, he began a process that Mikhail Gorbachev completed thirty years later. Khrushchev publicly revealed for the first time the violence Stalin committed against his own people, itemizing the crimes in considerable detail. This revelation marked the first time that the Soviet regime told the truth — even if only in part — about its own history.

For more than thirty years, this initial effort by Khrushchev to honestly recall the past, to remember what really happened under Stalin’s harsh rule, was stifled. It was not until 1987, after two years of hesitation, that Gorbachev at last resumed what Khrushchev started. He opened the door to history once more — and this time it stayed open. On the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, Gorbachev stood before the Communist Party leadership and told them the truth about the past. “The guilt of Stalin and those close to him . . .for the mass repressions and lawlessness that were permitted are immense and unforgivable,” Gorbachev declared. The new Soviet leader wanted his people to know their past, to remember it. As David Remnick noted in his book Lenin’s Tomb, Gorbachev’s speech “opened the gate and the lion of history came roaring in.”

Now that the truth has been told and the painful realities of the past are laid bare for all to see, the natural instinct is to move on, to bury the pain of the past, and to focus on what lies ahead. Already we see signs in Russia of children and teenagers being raised without any awareness of the recent past, without any understanding of the Soviet experience that shaped the lives of their parents and grandparents. This refusal to address the past not only allows extremists to manipulate history for their own immediate political advantage, but also creates an unhealthy environment of denial. Russians must realize that new institutions cannot be created out of thin air; they must be constructed using the building blocks of the past, combining lessons learned with new insights to shape a vision for the future.

Learning to Remember

As the Israelites neared the end of their wilderness wanderings and prepared to enter the Promised Land, they began the difficult process of laying the legal foundations for their new nation. Under Moses’ leadership, a whole new legal code was hammered out, based on the Ten Commandments — governing principles that were, in fact, chiseled in stone! Throughout this rebuilding process, Moses repeatedly instructed his people to remember their past, including their rebellious and painful behavior, as a starting point for shaping the future of their new nation. Remembrance is a persistent theme in the story of the Israelites’ desert experience and the rebuilding of their nation.

Moses recognized that remembrance would lead to understanding and wisdom, and to the identification of what not to do again — building blocks for the Israelites’ new, just society. Outlining the essential features of the new legal code for his people, Moses emphasized God’s greatness, justice and impartiality. He stressed God’s concern for the orphan, the widow, the foreigner — all vulnerable sectors of society in his time — and reminded the Israelites of their own vulnerability and powerlessness as slaves in Egypt. As they drafted laws about how to treat the poor, for example, Moses warned them not to forget their own bondage experience, encouraging them to build a society merciful to those in need.

Remembrance and Legal Reconstruction

After centuries of a civilization in which law was an instrument to enhance the wealth and power of the ruling elites, Russia’s current challenge to build a law-based society is an enormous one. Declaring law as the foundation for the new Russian state, and no longer a tool to be cynically used by the ruling elites, is a bold act in a post-Communist environment. It requires courage and fortitude. And it requires remembrance.

Remembering the experiences of the past, facing the history of a nation, acknowledging acts of pain and injustice — these are important building blocks for the construction of a new political, economic and social order. Russians must not forget the state-directed violence against their own citizens; the massive dislocations of farmers, industrial workers and ethnic groups; or the chronic food, housing and clothing shortages. With the knowledge gained from experience, they must now build a society where these injustices will never happen again. They must heed the message of Moses: Remember your suffering. Create a society where you will no longer be a slave, a society where everyone will be free.