In the last few weeks Russia vetoed a UN resolution commemorating the anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as an act of genocide and strongly hinted that it would veto a UN inquiry into the downing of the Malaysian Flight MH17 by pro-Moscow forces in Ukraine a year ago. Even for Moscow this is quite a notable record of misanthropy and denial. To be sure, there are very good, even compelling, geopolitical reason for Russia’s stance. No government ever finds it easy to admit its crimes or those of its would-be partners in the Srebrenica case where Serbian Prime Minister Nikolic apparently wrote Putin that a vote for the resolution would bring Serbia to the “brink of war.”
Neither is Russia the only offender here. This year alone we see Turkey still unable to accept that its government and military carried out the Armenian genocide a century ago!. Neither can Japan still bring itself to satisfy both the Northeast and Southeast Asian, not to mention the Chinese, demands for a forthright acknowledgement of the Imperial Army and Government’s war crimes during 1931-45. The struggle over the Confederate flag in the United States demonstrates just how difficult coming to terms with the crimes of the past is even for a democracy that has by all accounts made considerable progress in overcoming the crippling legacies of racism and segregation. Finally nobody should be waiting with bated breadth for a truth commission to appear in Beijing anytime soon to investigate and disseminate the mass murders that Mao and his government committed during his tenure.
Nevertheless the fact that Russia is by no means alone in its obduracy cannot be considered as some kind of absolving factor. It is particularly necessary for those states who claim or aspire to major or great power status to face the truth of their deeds as Germany has done. Those who would claim that closeness to the summit must be legitimated by their deeds in order to enjoy the trust of their own and other peoples and government. And in our context Russia remains mired in hared and denial. Putin’s Russia has backtracked upon the pioneering efforts undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s to bring to light all the crimes of Communism from Lenin’s seizure of power until the collapse of the regime. As a result, much of the Russian Federation still refuses to acknowledge those crimes. If anything, some of the perpetrators are being rewarded. Thus, recent legislation actually awarded pensions to informers, a particularly ugly sign of the return to a police state and an incentive for new generations to become informers for the material rewards it might bring.
Since this society cannot even bear looking into the mirror of the past to acknowledge crimes that happened almost a century ago under Lenin, Stalin and their successors, we should not be surprised that it cannot acknowledge crimes that it is committing or those its partners abroad have committed. A new article in the journal Problems of Post-Communism amply demonstrates the difficulties Russian media had in 2013 — by which time, it was thoroughly under state control — in discussing openly Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical warfare against his opponents in Syria. Neither will anyone find accounts of the continuing use of those weapons, despite the supposed removal of those weapons by a joint Russo-American operation. And of course the information blackout and systematic incitement of ethnic hared against Muslims, Ukrainians, and in many cases Jews, continues with official approval and encouragement.
Under the circumstances, the restoration of official mendacity, hatred of others, and denial plays a major factor in ensuring that nobody can trust Russia even when it protests its good intentions. Nobody in today’s world seriously fears Germany, which is as close to pacifism as a country can get. But Turkey, Japan, China, and Russia, are all states whose intentions and policy goals cannot be taken on trust. And this refusal to look squarely into the mirror of our times, and the mirror of Russian history, and recognize that the reflection they see is not that of a beautiful young dandy or powerful respected state, but of one still suspected (rightly in some cases) of harboring criminal intentions, will continue to bedevil them as long as they continue along this path.
In the European context, Russia, which claims to be a great European power and the true legatee of European and Christian culture, demonstrates that the culture it is inheriting is that of Fascism and Stalinism, the worst episodes in European history. For Russia to achieve anything like the greatness it claims for itself and that it aspires to it must renounce those heritages and acknowledge which inheritance it is repudiating. Until it does so it will remain an outcast under permanent suspicion. As the Russian proverb observes, if you do not like the reflection, don’t blame the mirror. The reasons for the mistrust of Russia and for what Russians call “Russophobia” lie not in the stars but in Russian history and Russia’s present. The sooner Russians come to grips with their present and past, the better it will be for them and for us.