Review: It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, by David Satter

First of all, that’s a great title for a book. And this is a very good book.

Veteran journalist David Satter explores the difficult terrain of historical memory in post-Communist Russia. He explores issues like what do with mass graves from the Stalin era (and how to find them), memorials and museums, school textbooks, and so on. The book was published seven years ago, but it anticipates what the Putin era was going to be like, especially regarding Ukraine, Georgia and Russian foreign policy in general. The current debate between Putin and Western historians over the question of the Polish role in starting World War II is anticipated in Satter’s discussion of how Russians today view what they still call the Great Patriotic War.

For those of us who grew up at a time when the Soviet Union still existed, the story of the rise and fall of Russian democracy, and the marginalisation of human rights organisations, makes for a depressing read. The era of glasnost and the first years after the breakup of the USSR were in some ways a hopeful time — but that is now all gone.

Satter chooses to end the book without offering up much hope, but he does challenge the Russians to face up to their history as other countries (such as Germany) have done. He acknowledges that this is difficult, but writes that “it is certainly well within the capacity of a nation that tried to create heaven on earth.” And, he adds, “it is the only hope for a better future.”