Bridging the Red-White Divide Is a Home Run for Putin

File Photo of Revolutionaries Marching in Moscow in 1917, adapted from image at state.gov

(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – Maxim Trudolyubov – May 30, 2017)

Maxim Trudolyubov, Senior Fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large with Vedomosti, has been following Russian economy and politics since the late 1990s. He has served as an opinion page editor for Vedomosti and editor and correspondent for the newspaper Kapita

In an event infused with historical and moral significance, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, consecrated a church late last week that would commemorate the suffering of the Orthodox believers persecuted by the Soviet state.

Original design specifications for the church included “on Spilled Blood” as part of its full name, recalling the name of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, commemorating the murdered nineteen-century Russian czar Alexander II. The words were apparently dropped closer to the consecration date, leaving the name Church of the New Martyrs and Confessors.

The Sretensky Monastery, where the new church is located, is indeed a place where blood was spilled. In the 1930s and 1940s the monastery, defunct under the Soviets, served as a dormitory for secret police officers, who carried out some of their summary executions right there. The monastery’s postal address is 19 Lubyanka Street, a name immediately recognizable to a Russian as the headquarters of the secret police.

Russian society’s relationship with its tragic past is so ambivalent one can only congratulate both the church and civic authorities on reaching a stage in their relationship where a memorial to Soviet-era crimes is being erected right in the heart of Moscow’s most notorious place of terror.

But the more one thinks about this, the more questions arise. If reconciliation is the main theme, what is the conflict in question? The Revolution of 1917 is the conflict, both the president and the patriarch respond. In fact, the consecration of the Church of the New Martyrs and Confessors has been, so far, the only major official event marking the centenary of the 1917 revolution. The new temple signifies reconciliation, Putin told the church officials and the elect lay public present at the event, because it opened exactly 100 years after 1917, the year that became the “starting point of so many trials our country had to go through.”

What sides have now reconciled? Both the president and the patriarch mentioned the unification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, a splinter church created by Russians in exile in the 1920s, as one important achievement on the path to reconciliation. “The reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the so-called ‘White Russian’ Church that took place 10 years ago is a very significant landmark. The descendants of those who emigrated and those who stayed in Soviet Russia should work together to build our motherland, our country. This is the right kind of reconciliation, a reconciliation that truly makes sense,” Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, the abbot of the Sretensky Monastery and the force behind the entire project, told journalists.

And yet the Civil War between the Whites and the Reds (1918-1922), though fratricidal and brutal, was not the event that caused most of the suffering under the Soviet rule. Come to think of it, bridging the Red-White divide is a home run for Putin and his like-minded elites. Since property restitution is not even being considered, this kind of reconciliation comes cheap. Since very few descendants of the Russian aristocracy survive in Russia, this reconciliation is fairly abstract: most Russians cannot relate to it. Since many of the Whites supported imperialist expansionist policies, some of their descendants find Putin agreeable. The pictures of elderly foreign people with Russian-sounding names visiting Crimea provide additional, and not very costly, legitimacy to the regime. It is the kind of legitimacy that is not crucial but is good to have. In other words, this is a profitable-and deeply misleading-reconciliation narrative. One hopes at least some of the White Russians understand how they have been used by the Kremlin’s clever political managers.

The real civil war was waged not just against the Whites but against Russian people of all convictions, ethnic groups, and walks of life who happened to stand in the way of a totalitarian machine that intended nothing less than taking over Europe and America and building the most progressive state in the world. It was that machine that intimidated, tortured, and killed.

That machine had faces, many of whom became known through a public initiative but who have never been condemned, even symbolically, by the Russian state. The person who led that system, Stalin, is buried in Red Square and enjoys a cult status. His popularity, helped by the state-run media (the same media that hail the church-led commemoration of the Church of the New Martyrs), is at its highest point in 16 years.

The Kremlin pursues a policy of strategic ambiguity on Stalin: while proclaiming some of his victims martyrs, it is busy fuelling sympathies for Stalinism in society. Putin himself would, of course, always deny any Stalinist sympathies. After all, it is he who supports commemorating Stalin’s victims. The valorization of Stalin and his time at the helm of the Soviet Union comes not from the Kremlin, Russian officials would explain, but from Russia’s civic society and media, which are of course free of the Kremlin’s control. This maddening confusion disorients the public and blunts the pain, but does not heal.

In some respects, today’s Russia could not be more different from the Soviet Union created by Lenin and Stalin. We can travel, own foreign cars, and have (if we make an effort) access to information that is not vetted by the state. But the old political machine is lurking beneath the surface. Many of the institutions created by the Stalinist state, including the decision-making black box of the Politburo, its security apparatus and propaganda outlets, live on under new guises. Their ability to intimidate and sow division has been not lost but perfected. What they have achieved so far is, in a way, more impressive than what their predecessors did. With all the truth out there, one click or one book away, they are still able to sustain a protective information bubble over an entire nation. And yes, of course, the reconciliation with the White movement is good to have.