The troubled 'conscience' of Russia

After the economic turmoil, social disintegration, and political crises of the past decade, Russians are looking back at the Soviet era with ever more nostalgia. A recent opinion poll found more than half of those surveyed agreed with the statement: "Things would be better today if there had been no perestroika," the democratic reforms introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and credited with bringing on the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"It's very difficult to prove to people today that democracy is not the cause of their suffering," says Konstantin Truyevtsev, deputy dean of the Higher School of Economics, a private Moscow university. "It is fashionable now to see [Soviet dictator Joseph] Stalin as the leader of a great country who brought us prosperity and victory, and no one wants to hear that he was a criminal."

At a time like this, it's difficult to be the self-appointed "conscience" of Russia. The Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center, the country's only full-scale educational facility devoted to the horrors of Communist rule, nearly shut down Dec.1, due to an overwhelming lack of interest and support. Located in a small downtown building gifted by the city of Moscow - the only state support it has received - the center was started by Soviet-era dissidents, including Yelena Bonner, widow of the Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist Mr. Sakharov. The founders envisaged the center as an engine of change, a meeting place for human rights workers, an adviser to the government, and a resource for Russia's school system. The center's outspoken criticism of the ongoing war in Chechnya - a nearly lone voice in Russia - has done nothing to endear it to the government of President Vladimir Putin.

Depending on the person you talk to, its crisis is either a normal development or an alarming sign. "History was an important weapon in the struggle against communism, but now that the danger has passed, people are obviously less interested," says Alexander Pesov, a Moscow historian. "The Sakharov museum is just a victim of Russia's success in shedding communism. We have capitalism and democracy now, and people have new concerns."

Museum director Yuri Samodourov holds a different view. "Our state and society still don't know what they want to be," he says. "A community center that focuses on the history of repression and the record of resistance to tyranny is seen as a threat to social peace in Russia. It makes our authorities and many average people feel very uncomfortable." The center won an 11th-hour reprieve in a $3 million donation from controversial tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who said his gift was to protest alleged government moves toward authoritarianism. The center also has received aid from the US Agency for International Development. In fact, the US taxpayer has anted up more than 80 percent of operating costs for the center's archives, library, museum, and community outreach programs since it opened in 1996. Until Mr. Berezovsky's donation, just $17,000 - less than 1 percent of the center's total budget - had been raised from Russian sources.

The Ministry of Culture, which funds dozens of Soviet-era museums devoted to Lenin and the Russian Revolution, has never offered money for any museum exposing the crimes of Communist regimes.

The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, has yet to set forth clear directives on how to teach Soviet history. Mr. Samodourov says the Sakharov Center has prepared a textbook and is ready to hold seminars for history teachers, but is still awaiting a nod from authorities. "I do not want to live in a country that refuses to confess its crimes," Samodourov says. "Our government has never taken responsibility, never initiated a process of social repentance."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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