Monday, November 30, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Where Reichstag Fires Take Place Again and Again

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 30 – Tomorrow, December 1, is the 75th anniversary of the murder of Sergey Kirov, an action that Russian commentators continue to refer to as “the Stalinist version of [Hitler’s] Reichstag fire” because it opened the way to the purges and the great terror of the following years.
But what is even more disturbing now three-quarters of a century later is that, as one Moscow observer put it today, in Russia “the Reichstags burn and burn” because neither in the case of Kirov nor in that of so many other tragedies in that country has there been a full and honest reporting by the government or by authoritative people about what happened.
And because of the lack of such an honest accounting of events, Aleksandr Ryklin writes in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” thoughtful Russians would need to be presented with “convincing evidence” that the special services did not blow up the “Nevsky Express” this week in the service of the powers that be (
“For me personally,” Ryklin says, “the most terrible result of the tragedy with the ‘Nevsky Express’ (after the death of people, of course) is the absence of any hope in the foreseeable future to find out the TRUTH about what happened. Because I will never believe THEM. And not one sober and thoughtful person in Russia will ever believe them.”
As he continues, “hundreds of times we have caught THEM in a monstrous lie” – about Nord Ost, about Beslan, about the Kursk, to name but the first three that come to find. “THEY are cynical, unprincipled and pitiless,” and they assume that Russians will swallow “any version” of events they choose to dish out.
But tragically, given Russian history, “if we don’t get it from THEM, then what means do we have to find out the truth about what has taken place? Is there any political organization in Russia which would be bold enough to say: ‘We will create an independent experts commission which with time will present its conclusions to the court of public opinion’?”
“In 1999,” Ryklin recalls, [he] “could not image that the special services were involved in the blowing up of the apartment buildings in Moscow. And even after the case of the hexogen in Ryazan [where a television crew filmed what appeared to be a bomb planted by the authorities] did not shake his conviction. I then rejected that version with anger and disgust.”
“But the years have passed, and my naiveté,” Ryklin acknowledges, “gradually has dissipated … so that now one would have to apply definite efforts in order to convince me that the Russian special services did not blowup a peaceful train. And show me evidence of their non-involvement … Convincing evidence.”
What Russia needs and does not now have, he continues, are investigations being carried out by both the authorities and by independent experts, all of whom would offer their own conclusions and allow Russian citizens like himself to judge just what took place, who was responsible and what it means for the country and its future.
Why is this so important? Ryklin asks. Why do Russians need “in principle to know THE TRUTH about the true causes of the Moscow-Petersburg train catastrophe? For the simple reason because in this train could be travelling my children, or yours by the way also. They were not there by pure accident.”
While the “Yezhednevny zhurnal” commentator argues that this is “the basic” reason, his article makes clear that there is yet another: Governments that repeatedly lie cannot expect to be believed even when they may be telling the truth, and the erosion of authority such lies entail not only often leads to horrors but inevitably undermines the authority every state and society need.
In an article in today’s “Novaya gazeta,” historian Yakov Rokityansky discusses the archetypical event of this kind in Russian history: Stalin’s murder of Kirov on December 1, 1934, an event that “in one instant radically changed the political development of the country” and determined the fate of its people (
As Rokityansky notes, “Soviet historians and contemporary supporters of Stalin have done everything to reduce the significance and distort the essence of this event by describing the murder of Kirov as an everyday crime of a single individual Leonid Nikolayev, a terrorist action in which Stalin had no role.”
But as all serious and independent investigators have shown, none of the arguments in defense of Stalin hold up. Nikolayev was found next to the dead Kirov but “this does not mean that he was found at the place of this crime.” There is no indication that Kirov knew Nikolayev’s wife. And Nikolayev’s confessions under torture are not worth much.
Equally unimpressive are the claims that Stalin and Kirov were friends or that foreign intelligence services were involved. Already in 1934, Rokityansky points out, “ordinary people” if not the intelligentsia in the Soviet Union or intellectual circles in the West “immediately understood the direction the wind was blowing.
After 1956, he continues, Nikita Khrushchev took several useful steps toward correcting the record, but that effort was cut off, even though the members of the commission concluded that Kirov’s murder was ordered by Stalin and that the Soviet dictator had done everything to hide his crime, killing almost all those who might have been in a position to contradict him.
But there is an even more disturbing aspect of the Kirov case, Rokityansky says, that relatively few have paid attention to. Stalin followed closely what was happening abroad and especially what Hitler was doing in Germany. The National Socialist leader faced problems until the Reichstag fire and with it Hitler “liquidated the threat to his power and became a dictator.”
Just as the Reichstag fire opened the way to a period of unrivaled evil in Germany, Rokityansky continues, so too the murder of Kirov led to the horrors of the GULAG along with all of Stalin’s other crimes. Unfortunately, while this period has been overcome in Germany, there is an important respect in which it has not in Russia.
“This epoch,” the “Novaya gazeta” writer continues, “has not become the past of our country. Stalin continues to restrain its development in intellectual, spiritual and economic relations. It remains a serious obstacle on the path to the advancement of Russia toward humanism, political freedom and historical truth.”
But in addition to what such actions say about their authors, the commentator continues, they say something important about the general understanding of the interaction of the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Generally, Rokityansky notes, their “interaction” is generally viewed as being limited to the period “directly preceding the Second World War.”
However, as he points out in the case of the Reichstag Fire, “the events connected with the murder of Kirov and with what followed that show that such interaction took place much earlier,” a reality that the defenders of the Soviet system are certain to be even more loathe to acknowledge.

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