History highlights dangerous reality of dictators
14 Jan 2022|

There is a saying in Vladimir Putin’s Russia that is profoundly insightful: ‘The less you know, the better you sleep.’ This observation could apply at various times in Russian history, particularly during the period of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1991. However, this remark has again assumed real form. Respected human rights organisation Memorial, which recalls the victims of Soviet tyranny, especially Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, was banned by the Russian Supreme Court at Christmas.

Shortly before this repressive decision was taken in Moscow, the Chinese University of Hong Kong ordered the removal of an emphatic sculpture, Pillar of Shame, from the campus. This evocative work of art, some 6.4 metres tall and composed of two tonnes of faux copper, commemorates the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Thousands of Chinese protesters are estimated to have died during the massacre at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army on the orders of the Chinese Communist Party. The victims of Soviet Stalinism numbered in the millions and Memorial was endeavouring to trace the fate of some 11 million people. The symbolism of these two decisions ought not to be lost on anyone committed to the most modest human rights agenda. These steps were designed to obliterate acutely painful episodes in the history of both Russia and China. Why? Because the legitimacy of the dictators rests on narratives that are in dramatic contrast to the historic record.

George Orwell understood this with crystal clarity in 1984: ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ He envisioned a totalitarian society in a dystopian future, and integral to a suffocating ideological framework was the reconstruction of history. Winston Smith, the central character, was charged with purging the news and the state’s histories on a regular basis and substituting a more interesting but fabricated copy. Most people assumed Orwell was referring to the Soviet Union, but he understood that democracies could fall prey to this kind of intellectual dishonesty. BB was Big Brother, but cynics also suggested it could refer to Brendan Bracken, wartime minister for information in the British government.

The classic history of the Great Leap Forward in China was written by Yang Jisheng, titled Tombstone: the great Chinese famine, 1958–1962, which documents in meticulous detail the result of Mao Zedong’s endeavour to skip the different economic stages, as detailed by Marx and Engels, in the creation of communism. The human fiasco that emerged caused at least 40 million deaths. As Yang set about writing the book, those Chinese researchers and archivists who made material available to the author understood precisely what he was doing but said nothing. Officially, it was a history of Chinese agriculture. The blind eye in a dictatorship, accompanied by a nod, can achieve much.

Memorial was denounced falsely in the Russian Supreme Court as being a ‘foreign agent’, and in the current paranoid state of Russian judicial quicksand, the fact that it did not identify itself as a supposed foreign agent brought about its downfall. But the overwhelming reality is that the Kremlin feared independent analysis of everything from rigged elections to the war in Chechnya. Putin’s regime appears superficially secure. But colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine threw out regimes allied with Moscow and replaced the stagnant corrupt elites with Western-oriented governments.

Witness the Russian problems with its client regimes in Belarus and Kazakhstan and we understand better Putin’s obsession with bullying an independent and sovereign Ukraine, which clearly wants membership of the EU and NATO.

The only means by which the current Russian empire can be held together is the deployment of police and military. The routine response to challenges ranges from the jailing of Alexei Navalny to the crushing of any form of street protest.

The Chinese wolf warriors face some similar dilemmas, most of which are imported by Beijing without any form of Western encouragement. ‘One country, two systems’ is now replaced by the dictatorship of the party, as we have seen in the snuffing out of basic liberties in Hong Kong. The agreement with Britain, as outlined in the handover of 1997, guaranteed freedoms of expression and organisation. These are now dead letters.

Taiwan is a functioning democratic entity that offends Beijing by its mere existence, which sets an example of Chinese aspirations being met freely and openly.

If West Berlin was the democratic canary in the coalmine of the first Cold War, then Taipei has assumed that role in the second.

Ironically, the result of such repressive policies being imposed by the dictators is that the West must lift its game further in respecting its own histories, and this falls most heavily upon the US. Historical truth must be defended at all costs and not left in the hands of those who would distort and deny it. This is why President Joe Biden’s address confronting the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 is more important than we might at first allow. Biden was the first president obliged to defend the citadel of American democracy since Abraham Lincoln in 1864 stood atop the parapet on Fort Stevens and saw the battle flags of the Confederate forces of General Jubal Early advance upon Washington DC. Biden did so directly. Hopefully, the ‘big lie’ about a stolen presidential election was dealt some collateral damage also.

American scripture is often to be found in the great speeches of US presidents. In the 20th century, we can point to Franklin D. Roosevelt (creating ‘the arsenal of democracy’), Dwight D. Eisenhower (warning of the military–industrial complex), John F. Kennedy (‘Ich bin ein Berliner’) and Ronald Reagan (‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’), the last two from a divided Berlin, now unified in peace. Biden’s recent speech doesn’t rival the Gettysburg Address. But it will be appended honourably to Woodrow Wilson’s clarion call of 1917 to buttress democracy.

The nature of the Russian and Chinese regimes should not prevent diplomatic dialogue being focused on achieving resolutions on outstanding issues wherever possible. This week in Geneva, a welcome if strained dialogue took place between the US and Russia to be followed by discussions at NATO level and later with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which Ukraine is a member.

It is more difficult to talk openly and honestly with Beijing while it is in the grip of wolf-warrior diplomats, but we should not abandon the determination to do so. We would all sleep better by understanding more clearly the world as it is, however unpalatable.