Back in the U.S.S.R.

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

May 5, 2005

When President Bush travels to Russia for Sunday's ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Allies' World War II victory in Europe, he'll stop in Latvia first to signal his support for democracy in the region. At least some former Soviet states are making progress. Not so Russia. As President Vladimir V. Putin continues to hark back to the Soviet past and bully his neighbors, Bush will be hard-pressed to put a happy face on that part of his visit.

Putin's evisceration of press freedoms and a fledgling free-enterprise system is by now a familiar story. But equally disturbing is his growing penchant for rewriting Russian history by rehabilitating the Soviet era. Putin, who was a KGB agent, has never made a secret of his nostalgia for the Soviet Union, but he has grown bolder about praising the halcyon days of communism. In recent weeks, he has defended the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, which historians regard as a colossal blunder that opened the way for Nazi Germany to overrun the Baltic states and attack the Soviet Union in 1941. Putin has also expressed his regret for the collapse of the Soviet Union; in his words, a "genuine tragedy."

No, it wasn't. Without the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe would remain divided and Bush would not be visiting Moscow. Nor would Russians be better off under communism, which ravaged and impoverished the country in every way possible. Russia has yet to recover from what used to be called the "Soviet experiment."

The real tragedy happened in the midst of World War I, when Bolshevik leaders hijacked the legitimate February 1917 uprising against czarist rule. They launched their own coup d'etat in October to topple the democratic provisional government led by Aleksandr Kerensky and to create a totalitarian dictatorship, one that would rival the Nazi movement that swept across Germany in the early 1930s. As Josef Stalin would go on to demonstrate by carving up Poland and the Baltic states with Adolf Hitler in 1939 and in constructing the gulag's slave labor camps, Nazism and Soviet-style communism were always kissing cousins.

In burnishing the communist past, Putin, a dangerous man surrounded, like Stalin and his successors, by sycophants, seeks to justify his own increasingly arbitrary and dictatorial rule. Bush, who has claimed to read Putin's soul, would do well to focus his attention on Putin's historical revisionism and what it might imply about Russia's future.