Coming to terms with the past

Georgie Anne Geyer

November 24, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

SINCE Soviet communism collapsed, we have been seeing things we never believed possible. But can you top this?

It is Tuesday, Nov. 17. I have just come out of the new Russian Embassy, a huge, stolid congeries of buildings overlooking Georgetown. The United States, because of security fears, had long refused to allow it to be used. But tonight, some 300 people -- diplomats, journalists, businessmen -- milled pleasurably about the beautiful halls, eating caviar and beef Stroganoff and sipping vodka.

The evening was not quite social, however. We soon went into the gorgeous auditorium, which was planned in more hopeful days to be used as a center of Soviet power, to hear Russian diplomat Andrey Kolosovsky tell the assemblage:

"This would have been impossible 10 or 15 years ago -- I am even a little doubtful about two years ago. This embassy was closed for many years because of our conflict with our American friends; now we are here to see a film presumably anti-Soviet and anti-Russian.

"But I am glad to have it here -- it means that we have seriously begun the building of democracy. After all, it was our people who went to the camps -- and died by the millions and millions."

And at that point, the specially invited audience quietly sat down, for three hours, in the Russian auditorium, of the Russian Embassy, hosted by the Russian ambassador and Home Box Office, to watch with awe the new film "Stalin"!

The story is probably our modern age's most sinister story of betrayal and blood-lust destruction. Robert Duvall masterfully plays destroyer Joseph Stalin, who killed off the best minds and most productive people of three generations of Soviet citizens. The scenes of classical deceit actually take place in Russia, in the Kremlin and in the KGB prisons.

But I kept thinking that the film, which will show only on television, was also a special tribute to, among many others, two truly remarkable men who helped create it.

One, Dmitri Volkogonov, is a respected Russian military officer who delved deep into the recently opened Russian archives for unknown materials. The other, Robert Conquest, is a British-American scholar at the Hoover Institution. For years, while many "revisionist" Cold War intellectuals in this country still revered communism, Mr. Conquest virtually alone stood for the truth about the millions Stalin killed.

Today, his prophetic book, "The Great Terror," has been reissued to much fanfare. When I ran into him recently at a conference, he said with his dry, clipped speech, "Yes, I'm invited to Russia all the time now -- but the 'revisionists' are not! The Russians hate them."

When I was in Moscow last winter, I had wondered how the Russians in particular and the former Soviets in general would psychologically be able to accept all the ministrations of the West. Even the best-meant help from the West could easily, I feared, exacerbate the paranoid streak in the Russians and bring forth still more of the type of virulent anti-Americanism that so poisoned the entire Soviet period.

Indeed, in a recent lengthy talk with Russian-born Sovietologist Vera Tolz, of Radio Free Europe, she said that Russia's ties with America "are already used against Boris Yeltsin. That is one reason used by the right to criticize his foreign policy.

"They claim that the U.S. and Germany are interested in the war in the former Yugoslavia, for instance, and that they want both Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union to disintegrate. The critics say that Russia is too much taking into account American interests."

This is certainly the most dramatic response of the right, in particular the Rightist National Salvation Front, to the new ties with the West. And yet, last Tuesday night I also saw the hopeful beginnings of a new psychological relationship between these new Russians and America.

The film is dedicated "to the fortitude and endurance of the peoples of the former Soviet Union." And one Russian diplomat said, with more than a touch of melancholy in his voice: "This is a movie that Russia needs and that the world needs, but one that only Americans can make. Our wounds are still too deep, the pain is too fresh -- it will take us 20 years . . . "

You see, in this new relationship, the good people of Russia are extolled (Khrushchev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Zinoviev) even while the beasts are finally realistically portrayed (Stalin, Beria, Molotov). These new Russians seem to feel that we are not so much boasting of their failures as helping them to overcome the horrific parts of their past -- and, thus, finally cleanse them of them.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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