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When Russia will be free from totalitarian mentality?

Sergei Karaganov is the Chairman of Presidium, Council for Foreign and Defense Policy; Dean, Department of the World Economy and World Politics, National Research University ­ Higher School of Economics; Chairman of the editorial board, Russia in Global Affairs magazine.

The program "On perpetuation of memory of victims of the totalitarian regime" prepared by the Working Group on Historical Memory of the Presidential Council for Civil Society Development and Human Rights is not, as the popular press often says, a "de-Stalinization" program. In reality, its main aim is to modernize the consciousness of the Russian people, as well as that of all the peoples of the USSR, who were left badly wounded by seventy years of the Communist, totalitarian regime. One of the main ways of dealing with this trauma is through showing respect to the millions who perished in Communist times: by building monuments for them and tending their graves. In cultivating this sense of respect for them people will learn to respect themselves, and each other. It is about giving people back that sense of self respect. This was not developed as an anti-Stalin initiative. De-Stalinization happened in the sixties and later. As I see it, this program deals at the fundamental level with restoring people's faith in themselves.

Having a strong, central power is important for the Russian mentality because Russia developed around a central state and a central authority. Its main national idea was one of defense, sometimes offensive defense, against foreign intruders. Essentially our nation grew up around a core and without that central power that growth would have been impossible. But now the environment is different; of course old habits persist but Russia no longer faces that order of external threat. The key is to restore the land, restore the people, and start anew. Generally speaking the view that the Russian people require a strong leader is a myth.

There is, however, a problem. That inner core is mired in corruption, and then there is the obscene gap between the rich and the poor. Together these factors create a protest impulse which is reflected in the fact that Stalin is still popular. In the work we have undertaken to date we have learned that most people (ranging from 50% to 75%) support our program's aims and essentially condemn that regime. However, there are strange processes at work in people's minds which is why Stalin is still relatively popular. Sociologists have explained that as being that protest impulse, and so it does not contradict the fact that Stalinism and communism are very unpopular.

Now, the first phase of work on our program has been completed successfully: a massive national debate is underway. We have uncovered, perhaps predictably, a lot of critics: some are communists, some believe that the past should be left alone ­ they are afraid of their own past, of their own history. Overall, we have found that the overall majority of the population supports the aims of this program. This is quite surprising given the mainstream media's tendency over the last few years to take a conciliatory attitude to this Communist past. They made several attempts to resuscitate the name of Stalin in the popular consciousness, but the majority remains opposed to that.

On July, 11 the first meeting of the newly created Interagency group on implementing the program brought together senior officials from the relevant Russian government agencies who discussed how the program's work will develop. There will be several sub-groups formed, people will be delegated to these groups and the overarching working group will be formed by Presidential decree. So this work is now underway. How fast it will proceed is another issue, but it has started.

It is heartening that some key ideas, such as that of erecting a memorial to the victims of persecution in St Petersburg have gathered considerable support and similar discussions regarding Moscow are working on which site should be chosen, not whether it should be done at all. There is also broad public support for the idea of giving grants to both public and private organizations so that memory books, lists of those who perished in the Gulag system, can be compiled.

As for how long it will be before Russia is free from this totalitarian mentality ­ consider the case of Moses. He led his people through the desert for 40 years, to freedom. Our people have already been wandering for 20 years and we have squandered some of the time. Hopefully with the help of this program and the natural generation change, in ten years' time we will have much more peace of mind.

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