Staunton, April 10 – Vladimir Bukovsky’s call to bring Mikhail Gorbachev to trial for the crimes he committed as Soviet leader has met with “almost universal condemnation,” Aleksandr Podrabinek says, when the appeal of the former Soviet dissident should have been met with understanding and support.
In an essay on the Grani.ru portal, Podrabinek, himself a former dissident and longtime human rights activist argues that “the most intellectual and socially conscious part” of Russian society has failed by not helping Bukovsky in his “efforts to cleanse our history of myths and lies” (grani.ru/opinion/m.187520.html).
Among the actions for which the last Soviet leader would appear to bear responsibility, the human rights activist says, are the various applications of military force against peaceful civilian populations in Tbilisi in April 1989, Baku in January 1990, and Vilnius and Riga in January 1991 which left many dead and wounded in their wake.
“Behind all these operations of the Soviet army, the MVD and the KGB stood the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee and (after March 1990) USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev,” Podravinek points out. “He was the supreme commander and first person” of that “still totalitarian state.”
Consequently, Podrabinek continues with the rhetorical question, “who if not he must in the first instance answer for the concrete crimes of the Soviet regime” during that period? That is the basis of Bukovsky’s argument, he says, but Bukovsky’s critics “from that most intellectual and conscious part” of society won’t face up to that.
“Their basic argument,” he continues, “is the absence of arguments! They do not argue with Bukovsky;” they simply condemn him. “They do not speak about those who died, about the responsibilities of the criminals whom it is necessary to find and judge. They forgive Gorbachev these victims,” and instead attack Bukovsky for raising the issue.
Among those doing so, Podrabinek says, is Leonid Radzikhovsky, who observed that the issue of trying Gorbachev does not arise because “no one has arrested [the former Soviet leader]” Consequently, in the view of that liberal commentator, “Bukovsky simply is engaging in PR for himself” (www.echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/762216-echo/).
Another liberal, Vasily Utkin, has taken the same position, Podrabinek observes, calling Bukovsky’s call for Gorbachev to be tried “a step … dictated exclusively either by some absolutely absurd motives or by a desire simply to advertise himself” to the Russian public (www.echo.msk.ru/programs/razvorot-evening/762220-echo/).
Two more, Vladislav Bykov and Olga Derkach, simply “laugh[ed]” over Bukovsky’s idea by asking a series of “rhetorical questions [like] Has Bukovsky begun with Gorbachev only because in contrast to Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Yeltsin he is still alive? [or] what about the leaders of the more than 200 other countries? (grani.ru/blogs/free/entries/187470.html).
“It is extremely easy” to answer such queries, Podrabinek observes. Only living people can be brought to trial, Bukovsky “lacks the time and strength” to deal with all the world’s leaders. And Gorbachev should answer “not for all Soviet history but for military actions against the civilian population” while he was in office.
Aleksandr Skobov even suggests that he is “grateful to Gorbachev for liberating political prisoners, an action that counts for a lot” (grani.ru/blogs/free/entries/187498.html). But Podrabinek says, Skobov, himself a political prisoner, ought to remember those who died in Soviet jails while Gorbachev was ruler, including Vasil Stus’ and Anatoly Marchenko.
Moreover, if anyone tries to insist as Skobov and others have that Gorbachev didn’t “kill” these people, Podrabinek argues, then he says he will respond that “it was not he personally who liberated the political prisoners either.”
Nor does it suffice to argue as Valeriya Novodvorskaya and Konstantin Borovoy have that Gorbachev should not be held accountable because “in August 1991 he did not control the situation” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hjqg-FRifA0). Are they prepared to say the Soviet leader “didn’t control the situation in 1989/”
And finally Viktor Shenderovich attacks Bukovsky for showing a lack of good taste (www.echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/761960-echo/). But Podrabinek asks what does taste have to do with the issue? “This isn’t a restaurant or a theater or a game or even politics. This is a question of justice and of the duty of those who have survived before those who have died.”
The inability to bring Gorbachev to trial, something Podrabinek admits is “almost impossible,” is “not a curiosity but a misforture for our country and a shame for our jurisprudence.” It is an indictment on a society “which is prepared so easily to forget and forgive” what was done to it – and thus makes a repetition of such things more likely.
Some people like Bukovsky are prepared to stand up and make this demand, but “alas” such people are relatively few. “The majority experiences toward Gorbachev a feeling of devoted gratitude for the fact that he did not drown the country in blood,” with many thinking that “on the conscience of every leader of a country are such sins.”
But that is not the case. In Europe, what countries “except the socialist and the fascist have put down civil protests with tanks?” Podrabinek asks, pointing out that “this is not an all-human misfortune.” Instead, “it is a characteristic sign of totalitarian regimes” like the one Gorbachev ruled over.
Many Russians live by myths because they “do not want to know the truth. One of these myths is about Gorbachev as a reformer, a peacemaker and the author of democratic transformations.” But in fact, forces were at work beyond his control that led to the destruction of the totalitarian system, even as Gorbachev sought to defend it.
“Without doubt,” Podrabinek says, Gorbachev had “a first-class apparatchik nose” for events. Even during the August coup, he “said in Foros “in order then to come to victory, it was unimportant whose.” He would have remained in office had these larger forces not made it impossible for him to do so.
When Gorbachev finally “understood that it was impossible to save [the CPSU and the Soviet Empire], he successfully saved his own reputation,” but nothing more, Podrabinek argues. And thus he did not behave at the very last as Ceaucescu or Milosevich did, allowing many to conclude that he gets credit for avoiding a civil war.
But “whether one should be grateful to a tyrant for the fact that he did not tear to death all his subjects is a personal issue,” Podrabinek insists. Tragically, the West has not behaved any better than the Russian people in its assessment of Gorbachev and the role he played at the end of the Cold War and the end of the USSR.
“Europe is grateful [to Gorbachev] for the destruction of the Berlin Wall,” but “I have watched these remarkable pictures,” Podrabinek says. “Gorbachev was not there. The youth of Berlin destroyed the wall. Gorbachev took this as a given and di not begin to send in tanks,” undoubtedly a correct response but one any sensible politician would have adopted.
Where in this is “the heroism for which the West loves him?” Podrabinek asks, and he suggests that what has been taking place is evidence of “’the Stockholm syndrome’ of Western civilization,” of a situation in which hostages display positive feelings towards those who have taken or held them hostage.
“Communist collapsed not thanks to Gorbachev or even not in spite of him,” Podrabinek concludes. “He was too unremarkable a figure despite what would seem to be great opportunities. The tyranny was fated to be destroyed, and Gorbachev couldn’t do anything about that,” despite all his efforts and his willingness to sacrifice “hundreds of human lives.”