THE LITERARY MEERKAT: Howard Denson

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Not on the Side of Evil ©

Posted by Howard Denson on September 4, 2022 at 1:50 PM

 By HOWARD DENSON

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I wasn’t being obsessive-compulsive in reading the obits of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. His counterpart on the world stage, Ronald Reagan, made it to 93, compared to Gorbachev’s 91, but the Russian kept his wits about him until the end.

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Gorbachev was walking a tightrope from 1991 onward. If he had been inclined to shoot from the lips without thinking things through, he likely would have—who knows?—fallen out of a window, sipped on a toxic bowl of borscht, or simply been blown away. The ruthless kleptocrats now running the Russian oligarchy probably figured that a hit would draw too much attention and that Mother Nature would take him out quickly enough with his diabetes and multiple ailments.

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He walked a tightrope similar to the one on which poet-novelist Yevgeny Yevtushenko balanced (and similar to the one walked by Princess Elizabeth during the reigns of Edward VI and Bloody Mary). To switch metaphors, Mikhail had to make a critic’s sandwich: The top slice was praise for the government, the middle was the criticism, and the bottom slice reinforced the praise.

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In reading the obits, I noticed that observers were tepid and almost dismissive. He certainly didn’t deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, they said, but it was, well, okay that he came to a pact with the American cowboy president, Ronald Reagan.

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My cursory examination of his obits didn’t reveal a single one that identified his true strength. At his core, he was a decent human being who would not attack his own people. In this respect, he has much in common with the German industrialist and Nazi Oskar Schindler, who saved about 1,200 Jews rather than kowtow to Berlin’s orders . . . and with General Dietrich von Choltitz, who became known as the “Savior of Paris” when he ignored the orders from Berlin to destroy Paris as the Allies closed in. The General didn’t want to be remembered as the man who had destroyed a thousand-year-old city.

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The standard set by Joseph Stalin didn’t appear in the obits that I sampled, although references to Vladimir Putin showed up regularly. Certainly, Stalin was known as a butcher of his own people, but the figures range from 5 million to 60 million, as historians argue whether to include just those directly targeted . . . or those who died as a result of deliberate starvation (as in Ukraine) . . . or those who perished when sent to gulags.

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It is almost pointless to imagine a Joseph Stalin in charge as the Soviet Union was crumbling. In his paranoia, he didn’t hesitate to execute his generals and even his own soldiers who had been prisoners of war. He would not have permitted Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (“openness” ) with its greater freedom of speech and press nor his perestroika (“restructuring” ) that tried to decentralize economic decision-making and improve efficiency in the USSR.

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Three years after Stalin’s death, the world saw the Hungarian Revolution, and, while the blood count was relatively modest, about 16,000 Hungarians died or were wounded in opposing the Soviet-backed government. I recall a friend at Florida State describing what he had seen: “Tanks would roll down a street, turn their turret toward apartments and fire. They move on again and fire again.”

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To the shame of America, our Radio Free Europe, a private entity, encouraged the Hungarians and suggested that Uncle Sam would come to the rescue . . . even though President Eisenhower had said we would not get involved.

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As the USSR was crumbling, the CIA warned Gorbachev that the generals wanted him deposed (and likely disposed of). Stalin would have executed the generals, but Gorbachev merely sought a degree of safety and hoped to ride out the crisis. He may have been assisted coincidentally by the energies and persistence of Boris Yeltsin.

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When the Soviet fever broke, Russian soldiers decided they would not fire on their own citizens. Gorbachev could have embraced the revolution and tried to stay in office, but he remained loyal to his life-long ideology. Yeltsin, by contrast, was able to take center stage and become the first president of Russia.

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So Gorbachev ended his days as “a good man,” but does that mean he was a saint? Hardly, but even our American presidents may have approved operations for which they needed to have “plausible deniability.”

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Who actually is talked up in Russia as a possible saint?

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Joseph Stalin.

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The Russian Orthodox Church needs to be taken to the woodshed for a paddling. The pastor of St. Olga Strel’na near St. Petersburg hung a portrait of Stalin among sacred images of saints. Said the noble churchman, “I remember him on appropriate occasions, the day of his birthday, his death and that of Victory. He was a true believer.”

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The slippery slope of limited criticism is shown in the words of Putin. While speaking in 2017 at the Wall of Grief memorial in Moscow, he acknowledged the horrors suffered under Stalinism. He said that the “terrible past” could not be “justified by anything” nor “erased from the national memory.” In that same year, Putin said that while “we should not forget the horrors of Stalinism,” the excessive demonization of “Stalin is a means to attack [the] Soviet Union and Russia.”

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Or it was a way to recognize that Stalin was not a good man.

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Oh, what’s with Russian troops firing upon Ukrainians and raping the females? That’s a topic for another day.

 

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1 Comment

Reply Jerry Connell
7:23 PM on September 4, 2022 
One of the most accurate, incisive descriptions of ”how things came to be”.