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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Those Who Were Tortured to Death Are Standing behind Us

An international conference on the consequences of totalitarianism, ended on September 6
13 September, 2005 - 00:00

Two important events have just taken place in Kyiv, as reported by The Day: the launch of the book Death of the Land. Holodomor in Ukraine: 1932-33, written by a team of Italian researchers, and the international conference “Soviet Totalitarianism in Ukraine: History and Heritage,” which was organized by Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute, the State Committee for Archives of Ukraine, and the Institute for Criticism, jointly with the Renaissance Foundation, a number of civic organizations, and the Italian, Polish, US, and French embassies in Ukraine. These events shared a common goal: to cure national conscience through memory. Our past has so many horrifying “black holes” in our conscience, responsibility, and humaneness that if we want to remain human, it is our duty to remember our obligation, no matter how intolerably difficult this is. The noted American philosopher of the 20th century, George Santayana, wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.” His words must keep knocking at the heart of everyone who considers himself Ukrainian.

Those who were tortured to death are standing behind us. This is neither a creative image nor a romantic overstatement, but a precisely stated fact. By its structure, the historical process is not simply our past, which is always and irrevocably known; it is a three-dimensional process (past-present-future). And for us, the last component in this triad is the most important one. It is precisely for the sake of this one, in the name of coming generations, that the national conscience must travel the hard road of purification to rid itself of that totalitarian toxicosis, that heritage of falsehood, violence, and genocidal experiments on fellow humans; of everything that marked Ukrainian history in the first half of the 20th century. There is every reason to expect that the international conference “Soviet Totalitarianism in Ukraine: History and Heritage” will become an important landmark on this road.

This was the first conference of this magnitude to be held in Ukraine, involving not only leading Ukrainian researchers and public figures (including the scholars Ivan Dziuba and Myroslav Popovych; member of parliament Les Taniuk; Prof. Yury Shapoval; philosopher Yevhen Sverstiuk), but also world-renowned experts from Western Europe, US, and Russia (professors Alain BesanЗon, Andrea Graziosi, George Grabowicz, Boris Dubin, Roman Szporluk, and Andrzej Mencwel). However, the point is not just the scope of this conference. There is a noteworthy paradox that needs to be grasped, namely that only now, in the 14th year of independence, Ukrainian society and public opinion appear to have matured enough to conduct such a serious and substantial discussion of what is most important for us: how to cure and cleanse our citizens’ souls of totalitarian complexes, fears, and prejudices, and — most importantly — how to answer the main question of how all this could have happened in Ukraine.

In his opening address Harvard professor George Grabowicz noted that the conference participants were faced with a complex task: first, to initiate a scholarly discussion of the problem of totalitarianism; second, to organize public readings dealing with the totalitarian legacy, without being restricted to a strictly scholarly framework, in order to help overcome it. (Getting ahead of the story, I must note that these readings have turned into a truly important event, but more on this later); third, to make every effort to make all such conclusions known to the Ukrainian government. Moreover, Prof. Grabowicz said he was convinced that the issue of the totalitarian heritage should be a priority for the government, not just for scholars and representatives of the Ukrainian public. The totalitarian regime held our society in its grip for almost the entire 20th century, so the Ukrainian state is simply obligated to take this into account.

The feeling at the conference was that the main concern for all the speakers and participants was to avoid the temptation of thinking and analyzing things according to clichПs and old patterns that inevitably lead to clichОd and meaningless conclusions. The tone was set by the noted academician, Ivan Dziuba. He noted that the historical and international context of Soviet totalitarianism has been studied in a markedly inadequate way (the conference was thus meant to fill in this gap). He then presented several fundamental issues that are of special importance in comprehending the very nature of the totalitarian regime in Ukraine and its legacy, specifically, whether the Ukrainian people were only victims of totalitarianism resulting from aggression from the northeast (and aggression there was!), or whether Stalin’s regime had some inner, innate Ukrainian roots. It should be noted that the conference generally confirmed these roots, otherwise the totalitarian regime would not have been possible.

Another issue concerned the concrete ethnic and psychological mechanisms of totalitarian influence on public conscience; whether there was a connection between the total critique of capitalism, present in practically all the developed European countries in the early 20th century, and that instrument of “worldwide rejuvenation” (a horrible illusion!) that stemmed from totalitarianism. Ivan Dziuba stressed the importance of studying Ukrainian sources and reserves of all-Soviet totalitarianism, and not just by explaining all this by the effect of Soviet bayonets. Here there is no avoiding the need to overcome certain contemporary illusions.

In an emotional speech parliamentarian Les Taniuk declared that the problem lies in understating the very nature of totalitarianism as an ethical system. He was referring to the prominent Georgian philosopher, Merab Mamardashvili, and his phrase “isles of totalitarianism” in our conscience.

Les Taniuk noted that the government (in which most people are “short-distance runners”) should be warned against forging nails for their crucifixion; the Ukrainian MP believes that only 7 or 8 out of 120 parties officially registered in Ukraine do not have a manifestly totalitarian “politburo.”

During the work of the various conference groups, the participants analyzed dozens of problems, handling them in a complex manner and using interdisciplinary methods of research, proceeding from the assumption that a correct answer simply cannot be reached without a properly formulated question. The conference concluded with a series of important public readings held at the Ukrainian Home on September 5.

A number of researchers stressed the importance of concrete facts when studying various manifestations of totalitarianism and its enslavement of the public conscience. Those who attended the readings were impressed by a photo exhibit of archival documents, entitled “How Comrade Stalin the Caring Gardener Raised Soviet Man” (those who know the history of totalitarianism agree), and the Ukrainian documentary film Glory to the Leader, commemorating Stalin’s 70th anniversary in December 1949. Watching the film was especially interesting, as it showed how Ukraine’s gifted sons, the poet Maksym Rylsky and the composer Levko Revutsky, created a song eulogizing the tyrant, in response to the “sacred calling of the heart” (what else but mortal fear could have caused them to do this? Herein lies the greatest mystery!). The film shows Stalin standing in front of the Bolshoi Theater audience, listening to its hysterical ovations, watching the people with his snake-like eyes, with that inherent expression of boundless contempt for the masses.

Myroslav Marynovych, rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, whose speech during the readings was conceptually among the best, quoted the results of an interactive poll held by a Ukrainian television channel: 70% of respondents believe that totalitarianism has not been overcome in any way, while 10% say that it will never be overcome. Mr. Marynovych is convinced that a totalitarian state is even more of a problem than a despotic one. Stalin bound everyone in a web of mutual responsibility for evildoing (each would be arrested at the time on “concrete charges”), and thus everyone should be held responsible. Although it is a difficult thing to say, one must speak of everyone’s accountability. On the other hand, he noted that the reasons for the invincibility of totalitarianism are also hidden in impunity, for at the very least, it is absurd to imagine a situation in which NKVD veterans condemn OUN and UPA veterans and consider it possible to offer moral judgments of these individuals.

The conference was honored by the participation of such celebrated scholars as the noted French historian and philosopher Alain BesanЗon. During the public hearings Prof. Grabowicz read the text of his lecture during one of the conference sections after the French researcher had left for Paris. Dr. BesanЗon recalled a remarkable event from his life, when he, already an acknowledged European expert, first learned about the true scope of the Holodomor in Ukraine only in 1972 from a story written by the famous Russian writer, Vassili Grossman, entitled “All Things Are in Flux.” Does one need further illustration of the mood of the European intelligentsia at the time (and nowadays), the members of which often refuse — or are unable — to learn the truth?

The audience listened attentively to the speech by the Russian sociologist, Prof. Boris Dubin, of the Moscow-based Yuri Levada Center. Dr. Dubin stated that the Russian government’s attitude to totalitarianism can be summed up in these words: “The investigation is over. Forget all about it.” Vladimir Putin’s characteristic statement of 2005 reads, “We shall not allow the past to grab us by the sleeve.” Most Russians share Putin’s views on the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.” Meanwhile, the Russian media are practically completely nationalized (against the backdrop of total power vested in people wearing stripes). In Prof. Dubin’s expert opinion, today’s Russians are inherently secretive and distrustful, often acting out of fear, with xenophobia and the tendency toward totalitarianism running in their blood. Incidentally, Boris Dubin shared the horrifying results of a recent poll: two-thirds of Russians support the motto “Russia for Russians Only!” and 61% support a third term of presidency for Putin). Summing up, Prof. Dubin declared, “In Ukraine watches are set to the present time; in Russia, unfortunately, they are set to yesterday and the day before yesterday.”

Much could be said about the veritable harvest of ideas that were generated during the conference, during which Prof. Grabowicz declared, “It is only by ridding ourselves of the entire totalitarian legacy, primarily in people’s souls, that we will gain the right to view our future with hope.”