David Frum

04.01.13

David's Bookclub: It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway

On a visit to China three years ago, I was taken to a hilltop park in a small city in Guangdong province. There stands a museum of the Cultural Revolution. It's the only such monument in the whole vast country of China. Yet even this does better than Russia, where monuments to the victims of communism are few and neglected - and where many local authorities work to restore the toppled symbols of the old regime.

David Satter's book, It was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anywaytells the story of the dwindling and isolated groups of Russians who have attempted to force acknowledgement of the millions murdered between 1917 and 1991 in the name of communism.

They have scored some few successes, notably the construction of a monument near the entrance to the old Kolyma camp in Russia's Far East.

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Mostly, though, they have encountered willed oblivion not only from the state, but from Russian society. After a brief opening in the early 1990s, Russians have decided they prefer not to remember - and indeed, prefer to carry on thinking that the millions killed either died for a glorious cause or else somehow brought their punishment upon themselves. Even now, Satter reports, the children and grandchildren of those arrested and deported in the 1930s carry a lingering whiff of inherited suspicion.

Satter's story is a deeply depressing one. The disregard of human life that enabled communist atrocities in the first place continues to be a feature of Russian society to this day. Satter tells a harrowing story of a person who drank too much, passed out on the street, and was scooped into a garbage trunk. He awoke to find himself unable to move, in total blackness, inches away from crushing blades. He had retained his cellphone however and was able to place a call to the Russian equivalent of 911. Over 23 minutes, he called and called, meeting consistent indifference.

"Should we stop every garbage truck in Frunzenskaya and check them? Do you understand?"

He was crushed to death, as have been and continue to be so many other poor souls in a country that cannot build a decent future for its people because it won't face the truth about its past.