Verbatim, as delivered

May 17, 2007

There are few areas where historical memory and historical amnesia are as often encountered as in the field of Russian studies. I would like to spend a moment on historical memory.

I vividly recall the end of the Second World War and the heroism of the Russian people and the Russian military suffering enormous casualties liberating Europe from Nazi occupation. And this historical memory makes me conclude that the removal statue to the Russian military in Talinn, Estonia, was a profound mistake because that statue commemorates the heroic sacrifice of the people of Russia and many other republics over a period of many years.

What followed, of course, was a period of Soviet suppression, brutality, and mass murder and that is properly to be denounced. But I think it’s important in dealing with this unbelievable important and increasingly critical issue of U.S.-Russian relations is to keep memory and our amnesia very clearly in mind.

I left my native country of Hungary because of Soviet occupation. And later I became one of the leading anti-Soviet voices in Congress because of what the Soviet Union did to all those it controlled, and that was an abomination.

I was guided by a special interest as I watched – and often dealt with – a Russia that transformed from Stalinism all the way to a budding democracy. It is a disappointment to me and to all who admire Russia that the transformation didn’t quite take.

Three weeks ago, when Boris Yeltsin died, most reviews and obituaries dismissed him and his leadership as a bold but bungled, promising but dashed experiment. In my view, Yeltsin still holds a message for all of us, for Russia, and for his hand-picked successor, Mr. Putin. Yeltsin, whose father who was a gulag prisoner and whose grandfather’s land was seized, attempted to transform Russian politics and society completely, in one sweeping gesture.

It is true that the economy was paltry under Yeltsin and corruption was rampant, and the oligarchs became more powerful. But independent publications thrived and media were free. People began to express opinions openly and without hesitation. The grip of centralized planning loosened to reveal the potential of a bountiful market economy. It really was a moment of democracy, hope, and progress. But as it turned out, it was just a fleeting moment.

I do not think Vladimir Putin is a reincarnation of Josef Stalin. But I am profoundly disturbed by his pattern of abuse and repression of dissidents, independent journalists, and, in fact, anyone who opposes him. Russia’s tactics under the KGB colonel now in charge of the Kremlin threaten to send the country back to its authoritarian past.

Yesterday afternoon I received a call from the Secretary of State from her airplane shortly after she left the airport in Moscow. She was not very optimistic. And as we begin to learn about Secretary Rice’s visit to Moscow these past few days, we have very little reason for optimism. Some want to see to it that the rhetoric is toned down. I am all in favor of toning down the rhetoric -- reasonable diplomacy is always welcome. But even if we choose our words carefully, we must steadfastly stand by our principles.

The United States must continue to raise issues of grave importance and concern to us, to the Russian people, and to the entire region. There are areas where we need Moscow’s cooperation, particularly in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran and North Korea and terrorists. But we must be at least as honest with Putin as he has been about his views of United States policy in recent weeks and months.

He must understand that freedom of the press is not just a bourgeois, middle-class occupation. Independent media and a robust public debate, particularly in a place like Russia, hold the government to account and sharpen the tools of democracy. Last fall, when my friend Anna Politkovskaya, a leading voice of media opposition to Russia’s murderous war against Chechnya and a champion of human rights, was mercilessly gunned down in the lobby of her apartment building, she is became part of the rule rather than the exception. No fewer than 13 journalists critical of Putin have died under mysterious circumstances since he took office, and not one of these mysteries has been solved. Litvinenko, a British subject who was poisoned in London, is still a mystery, but we all have our suspicions. Putin completely controls TV and radio outlets and is gaining a similar stranglehold on virtually all print media.

He has been singularly unforgiving and punitive to anyone who threatens his hold on the economy, especially since rising oil prices have propelled Russia’s GDP to new heights. The former CEO of oil company Yukos, Mikhail Khodorovsky, sits in a Siberian prison on phony charges while Yukos itself is dismembered and its parts are absorbed into the state-controlled oil company. Just last week the final vestiges of Yukos – its headquarters – was auctioned off at a bargain-basement price.

As a friend of Russia and of the Russian people, I urge Mr. Putin to re-think his skewed vision of crime and punishment before he completely stifles freedom in Russia.

Now that its enormous energy wealth has given it newfound clout in foreign affairs, Russia is throwing its weight around in the region, cutting off natural gas supplies in the dead of winter to some former Soviet republics and to western European countries. This draconian use of Russia’s energy wealth to enforce its policy preferences simply cannot be tolerated.

I’ll never forget my first meeting with Mr. Yeltsin when he was president of the Russian republic when there still was a Soviet Union. I asked him what he thought the chances were of this Russian democratic experiment. And after thinking for a few moments, he said, “We’ve had dozens of those, and not one of them succeeded.”

Putin’s crackdown on recent peaceful opposition protests is haunting. It is reminiscent of so many dark moments in Russian history. This oppression, on top of suspending the direct election of regional governors, signals a revived authoritarianism.

A Russia stripped of true democracy is a Russia approaching an ominous autumn, an outcome the world has dreaded since the exuberant early spring of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Lest we let frigid winter descend upon Russia, we must work together with Mr. Putin and his successor to provide some freedom for the Russian people and to see the development of an enlightened Russian foreign policy. After a Russian history dominated by totalitarian rule and government mistreatment of its own people, we need to help the Russian government finally fulfill Yeltsin’s promise when he said, “Today is the last day of an era past.”

Now we are not in a new Cold War. We don’t see the descending of a new Iron Curtain. But we have moved back very, very sharply in the wrong direction. We must work with the many Russian democrats still functioning in and out of government, in and out of parliament, in and out of the business community to make the dream of a Russian democracy become a reality.


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