20 years ago, on 5 June 1989, one man stopped a tank. He will be remembered this week in many countries, that young man without a name, without a past or future. For millions of television viewers there were only those moments when he refused to let the tanks pass. For people from the Soviet Union and its satellites there were numerous associations, all of them painful. It was, after all, in their countries that a totalitarian regime used tanks to mow down those unwilling to submit.
And a young man stopped them in their tracks. Surely a pure gift for Hollywood, only reality stubbornly slips out of those glossy frames. The tanks were coming from the bloody crushing of student protest on Tiananmen Square. Each of us must decide for ourselves why the young man did not back off. He was finally dragged away and nobody really knows what happened to him. Deepest respect to him.
There is little triumphant fanfare for another reason. The young man is remembered in many countries, only not in China where for 20 years the regime has tried to say as little as it can about the carnage on Tiananmen Square. Key search machines have obliged, helping China block the Internet. The national media are mute, inconvenient subjects are avoided in schools and, as it turns out, the Internet can be kept under lock and key.
Where there’s the will to do so, of course, however the authorities generally demonstrate such a will, and if they encounter little annoying opposition at home or abroad, why restrain themselves? The attention of the international community was, shall we say, distracted by China’s burgeoning economy, nuclear weapons and permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
I assume the same was true of Russia for a long time after Putin came to power. There’s nothing new in this. The rose-tinted glasses worn by some and cold calculation of others had made it possible to not notice the “inconvenient” for decades.
No attempt here to attribute blame. Who is not attracted by glossy packaging and fine words, especially when they assure everybody that the past is well and truly gone? No mechanisms were introduced either in Ukraine, or in Russia, however for a long time the words were just fine. Freedom, democracy, rule of law - what more could you ask?
In Russia they first dealt with the television channels, though newspapers were not forgotten. By the time of the attack on the school in Beslan it was easy to brazenly lie, and this they did. Since 2007 the lies have been systematically turned into a component part of the school curriculum, while now they’re branching out into history and all the humanities.
It is worth recalling Putin’s words back in 2007 regarding “positive moves” in the treatment of history in new textbooks. Put most concisely, the more that’s positive the better, while even the negative – i.e. Stalin, the Terror and millions of victims, can be presented in a positive light, even “understood”.
These positive strides are continuing and indeed it is only marches of “positive thinkers” that are not broken up these days in Russia. There are, admittedly, difficulties for many in the interpretation of “positive”. Entirely immediate problems could also arise if the State Duma passes the new draft law imposing criminal liability for denying the Kremlin-endorsed single correct and positive version of the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War.
Information about the new “History Commission” aimed at countering “efforts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia” sped around the world. Commendable vigilance from journalists, perhaps, but the extraordinary speed makes one wonder whether we are seeing the same motivation that prompts skinheads to seek any publicity, however negative. We’ll make them tremble! And what can you say about a commission “on countering falsification of history” which is made up not of historians, but of representatives of the President’s Administration, the Federal Security Service [FSB], other enforcement agencies, etc? The task is clear.
I don’t know whether certain psychotic behaviour is contagious, or whether the problem lies solely in the lack of mechanisms to prevent regression, however certain trends in Ukraine, including the calls for more “positive notes” in the media, arouse concern.
We could begin with the draft “Doctrine of Ukraine’s Information Security” which the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine effectively copied from a similar document from the analogous body of the neighbouring Russian Federation. The document fairly teems with dangerously woolly terms which specialists from the Council of Europe back in 2007 suggested Ukraine shed once and for all, as well as the normal mass of fine-sounding and meaningless phrases. The authors (or translators from Russian?) of this “Ukrainian” version of a doctrine on information security clearly prefer to communicate only in what we will loosely term post-Soviet language. A great shame since they have created a document which can present only insurmountable difficulties for translators into any European language, and strain the intellectual capacity of all those accustomed to dealing with the fundamental concepts of a law-based democracy.
The term used throughout the document “information security” remains elusively hard to fathom with the only certainty being that it means vastly more than what an English speaker would understand. .The list of similar terms is long and they are used to speak of tasks which have no relation to the duties of the State in a democratic country. According to the draft Doctrine “the safeguarding of Ukraine’s information security is based on the principles … of ensuring that information is accurate, full and unbiased”. Meaningless gobbledygook most certainly, but when it runs counter to all principles of pluralism and the role of the State in a democratic country, we can hardly speak of fine words. And what we are to understand by “prophylactic measures and neutralization of offences in the information sphere” I leave to others to unravel.
Who is supposed to safeguard “accurate, full and unbiased” material on history in today’s Russia is, unfortunately, clear. And in Ukraine?
The SBU [Security Service] has of late been actively engaged in the declassifying of documents about Holodomor and repression. This is undoubtedly to be welcomed, however with regard to their decision to initiate a criminal case on charges of genocide in Ukraine over Holodomor 1932-1933 I have serious reservations. What is most disturbing is the political nature of this move which will probably have no legal consequences but will sharpen conflict and division within the country. There is no consensus even among those who agree that Holodomor was an act of genocide as to this particular move by the Security Service. I find it difficult to view with understanding the decision to concentrate only on Holodomor, or on the murder of the nationalist leader Roman Shukhevych, as though the Terror of 1937-1938 had never happened. Or as if the crimes of the Soviet regime ended with the death of Stalin. Another question just won’t go away. If in Soviet times the KGB loyally served a criminal regime, and now its successor is serving a different regime, but just as loyally, what will happen if the regime changes again In Ukraine?
Nor do we even have to overly stretch our imagination. It is quite enough to observe the increasingly inadequate behaviour of the National Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality [the Commission]. It is presently awaiting an external assessment from various specialists, however back in March it found that the Russian documentary film “Holodomor 1933: unlearned lessons of history” contained propaganda of national and religious enmity”. I haven’t seen the film but I assume it differs little from various revolting texts I’ve read. They make me angry and sometimes I hurtle to respond – with words, arguments, evidence, not with calls to ban the work or punish its authors. A ban of what we find outrageous or offensives today creates an extremely dangerous precedent. At a meeting on 28 May, one member of this incomprehensible State body called on his colleagues to “pay attention to the writings of Oles Buzyna in the newspaper “Segodnya” [“Today”]. “In this newspaper they discredit outstanding Ukrainian figures, and choose the most shameful parts of our history”, Mr Kononenko asserted”. He clearly saw no need to become familiar with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights with regard to criticism of public figures which I in turn find rather baffling since the case law of the European Court is a source of law in Ukraine also. With regard to Buzyna and his attacks even against the great poet Taras Shevchenko, what can you say? Nothing positive, that’s for sure, however the danger from banning or restricting his writing would, I am convinced, far outweigh any damage caused by his primitive nonsense. The question again refuses to be quashed: if the regime changes then who will the new members of the Commission go for?
Just over a year ago some staggeringly silly words spoken by Buzyna about a notorious “Hitler doll” supposedly enjoying popularity among Ukrainian families gained much more publicity than they deserved. Lots of people asked indignantly why the government was “doing nothing”. What precisely the government was supposed to do I did not understand then, and continue to be in the dark about now.
One should not underestimate the danger from people or forces attempting to spread enmity or destabilize the country. However any measures which foist certain views or political correctness in the interpretation of historical events contradict fundamental principles of pluralism of views and under certain conditions can turn into a dictatorship of “the only possible” version of history or the truth. After decades of repression and millions of victims we should not deceive ourselves, especially since we can observe Russia slipping back. However fine-sounding the words may be, the result of any game, including of a political variety, is determined by the rules we follow. We already know all too well which rules lead to intellectual stagnation, censorship, persecution of dissidents and tanks.