Russia Is Sick

by George Weigel
Until someone lances the boil of denial by telling the truth, no one will be safe.

Thirty-three years ago, on September 6, 1981, Father Józef Tischner preached one of the great sermons of the 20th century at a Mass opening the second day of the inaugural Solidarity Congress in Gdań​sk. Tischner, an old friend of John Paul II and the pope’s fellow philosopher, combined the rugged good humor and patriotism of a Polish highlander with a first-class intellect.

So he began his sermon with some essential truth-telling to the men and women about to deliberate the future of the Communist world’s first independent, self-governing trade union. Father Tischner didn’t tell the thousands assembled in Gdansk that they were heroes for having formed Solidarity, although he, and they, understood that they had already done something of historic importance. He told them they could indeed be men and women of destiny and national renewal, but only if they faced the hard truth about their lives — the truth of what Communism had done to their work, and to them:

Polish work is sick. That is the reason why we are here — because Polish work is sick. It is as great as the Vistula [River], but equally polluted. Today we ask, why is it sick? It is not easy to answer this question, but certain facts are obvious. Instead of enhancing reciprocity, instead of being a sphere for man, work in Poland became a sphere for disagreement, dispute, or even treason. The waters of the Vistula are dirty. The waters of the Vistula are even bloody. We are here to clean the waters of the Vistula. Let us work on work, so that work can again become a sphere for agreement, accord, and peace.

Curing Polish work (and, by extension, Poland) of its Communist-inflicted sickness was not just a matter of politics, Tischner continued. Nor was it simply a matter of adjusting the mechanics of labor and industry, such that the old joke about Polish labor — “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” — was rendered a thing of the past. The cure was, fundamentally, a matter of the spirit, of national cultural renewal. It was a matter of recovering the truth about Poland’s history and culture, as John Paul II had challenged his countrymen to do in June 1979. It was a matter of conversion:

We must look at the issue [of work] from above, like looking from the peaks of the Tatras, where the waters of the Vistula have their beginning. The very liturgy of the Mass encourages us to do this. . . . This bread and wine will become in a moment the body and blood of the Son of God. This has a deep meaning. . . . Were it not for human work, there would be no bread and wine. Without bread and wine, there would not be among us the Son of God. God does not come to us through a creation of nature alone, holy trees, water, or fire. God comes to us through the first creation of culture — bread and wine. Work that creates bread and wine paves the way toward God. But every work has a part in this work. Our work, too. In this way our work, the work of each of us, paves the way to God. . . .

Our concern is with the independence of Polish work. The word “independence” must be understood properly. It does not aim at breaking away from others. Work is reciprocity, it is agreement, it is multifaceted dependence. Work creates a communion. . . .

We are living history. A living history means one that bears fruit. Christ has said, “Let the dead bury their dead” [Matthew 8:22]. Thus, let us do the same. Let us become occupied with bearing fruit. . . .

Poland’s transition to democracy — which reached its first dramatic high-water mark 25 years ago this summer, when Solidarity swept the freely contested seats in Poland’s first free elections since World War II — was not perfect. No such transition ever is. But as Father Tischner’s sermon demonstrates, Poland’s democratic renewal began with truth-telling: the truth that Communism was sick; the truth that the Communist sickness had infected an entire country; the truth that the dead system of Communism must be buried so that the living could get on with “bearing fruit,” with building a society fit for human beings. That truth-telling set the foundations for everything else — including biting the bullet of serious economic reform as soon as the Warsaw Pact collapsed, a brave decision that created the conditions for the possibility of economic health in Poland ever since.

Why is this worth revisiting today? Because it helps explain why Russia has re-emerged as a grave danger to the post–Cold War order in Europe and elsewhere. There was no Józef Tischner in post-Soviet Russia. There was no such truth-telling. There was no summons from a nationally respected moral leader to name and diagnose the national cultural illness so that the future might be different from the past. The dead system was not buried; indeed, its primary symbol, Lenin’s mummy, remains on honored display in Red Square to this day.

The results of that truth-deficit are, now, much with us.

As David Satter demonstrates in a book that ought to be essential reading for Western political leaders today, Russia has never come to grips with its Communist past. The title of Satter’s study — It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway – captures the essence of the contemporary Russian sickness: historical amnesia and denial, leading to systemic and internalized misrepresentation of the past, and thence to falsification of the present. The crimes of the Soviet past have never been publicly examined, much less repented. Millions of victims of Communist terror and murder have been forgotten. There has been no public confrontation with the questions, How did this happen in the first place? And, What allowed it to continue? Denazification was regarded as essential to German rehabilitation after the collapse of the Hitler regime; no such attempt to reckon with the Communist past has taken place in Russia, in part because the West, playing the good sport after 1991, did not help facilitate it. Thus Vladimir Putin’s laments for lost Soviet “glory” are not dismissed as the ravings of a warped mind (and soul); they are applauded, as are his attempts to re-create a simulacrum of Stalin’s empire under the rubric of “New Russia” or a recovered and reconstituted “Russian space.”

Satter sums up the diagnosis at the end of his chilling book:

Russia today is haunted by words that have been left unsaid, sites that have not been acknowledged, and mass graves that have been commemorated partially or not at all. In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been little attempt to understand the Soviet period or to draw inspiration from those, like Andrei Sakharov, who stressed that what Russian society needed was a new morality. The failure to face the moral implications of the communist experience, however, has meant that real change in Russia was not possible. The psychology of state domination was left intact to influence the new post-communist Russia.

That psychology, it might be suggested, is what has predisposed vast numbers of Russians — a considerable majority, on the available evidence — to believe the Big Lies that have characterized the Putin regime’s propaganda about the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent war on its neighbor. The most recent example of this moral vulnerability to prevarication beggars the imagination. As Julia Ioffe wrote in a recent article on The New Republic’s website, various Russian media outlets, controlled by Putin, have been engaging in conspiracy-mongering with titanic shamelessness. They claim that MH-17 (the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down by a Russian-provided SAM over eastern Ukraine last Thursday night with the loss of 298 lives) was really the seemingly lost MH-370 (the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared over the Indian Ocean several months ago). But it didn’t really disappear, the Russian media now say: The plane was taken to the American base at Diego Garcia and hidden there; then it was flown to the Netherlands, loaded with corpses, and flown to Ukraine by autopilot, where it was blown up by a bomb planted aboard. (There are variations: Some media outlets claim that the plane took off from Amsterdam with live pilots, who later bailed out.)

The mind boggles at the inescapable next thought: There are millions who believe this, just as there were millions who believed that Germany lost World War I because the German military, on the cusp of victory, was stabbed in the back by a cabal of socialists, liberals, and Jews.

As one tries to sort through the epidemiology of this Russian sickness, the date September 9, 1990, ought to be borne in mind. It was a Sunday morning, and Father Aleksandr Men was walking to the local train station from his home in Semkhoz, northeast of Moscow, to celebrate the Divine Liturgy at his parish in Novaya Derevnya. He never made it. He was axe-murdered along a woodland trail. The crime was never seriously investigated, and the murderer or murderers remain unidentified.

Who was Aleksandr Men? He was a Russian Orthodox priest who might have been post-Soviet Russia’s Józef Tischner: the truth-teller who could compel a moral confrontation with the past and summon his people to a nobler future. He was an ecumenical spirit in a church not known for ecumenical cordiality. He was a popular preacher and teacher, an evangelist in a nation where Orthodoxy had often been transmitted lethargically, by ethnic osmosis. He was an independent spirit in a church that had long played chaplain to the czar, in whatever livery the czar dressed — and thus he was a threat to the state-controlled (and KGB-affiliated) Russian Orthodox leadership. He was a regular target of KGB harassment.

All of which leads to the suspicion that his murder was a brutal act of statecraft, not a random homicide.

But whoever killed Aleksandr Men, and for whatever reasons, his death was an important milestone in the metastasis of the sickness that now besets Russia, the sickness that sustains the Putin regime. As David Satter’s book powerfully suggests, there can be no Russia safe for Russians or safe for the world until Russia and the Russians come to moral grips with what happened in that vast land between 1917 and 1991 — and what has been happening ever since. The obvious candidate for leading that process of moral reckoning is the Russian Orthodox Church. But until Russian Orthodoxy disentangles itself from its subservience to state power, it cannot be the focal point or the engine of historical truth-telling; it cannot lance the boil of denial so that the poisons, the lies, drain out.

That is why any comprehensive Western approach to 21st-century Russia must include Western Christian communities’ encouraging, even pressuring, their Russian Orthodox counterparts to tell the truth, about both the past and the present. When Russian Orthodox leaders lie about what is happening in Ukraine, as they have done consistently over the past eight months, those lies must be challenged for what they are. And until those lies stop, there should be no pretense — in ecumenical dialogues, say, between Russian Orthodoxy and the Vatican — that, the Ukrainian unpleasantness notwithstanding, it is ecumenical business-as-usual.

That morally craven strategy has been tried for the past two decades. It has singularly failed, and that failure is now written in blood. Russia is sick, and its sickness involves more than its dreadful public-health statistics. The sickness is in the human spirit. The sickness is moral. Facing that fact is the beginning of any possible Western support for the brave minority in Russia who know the truth about the Russian sickness — and its consequences for their country and the world.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.


Did you like this?