Opinion Now we see, with Putin, why Nuremberg-style Soviet trials were needed

(Washington Post illustration; Photos: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press, iStock)
(Washington Post illustration; Photos: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press, iStock)

Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, is chairman of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.

Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, longtime Soviet dissident and human rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky called for a trial of the leaders of the Communist regime. Bukovsky argued that, just as the Nuremberg trials had demonstrated the connection between Nazi ideology and Hitler’s murderous reign, so too a public trial of Soviet rulers could demonstrate the inextricable link between Soviet communist ideology and the starvation, persecution, torture and death of many millions.

Today, when Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his regime’s countless other transgressions are inspired and justified by Soviet-era ideology, we see how tragic it is that such an accounting never took place.

When the Iron Curtain came down, it seemed for a brief moment that such a trial might be possible. The KGB had been dramatically weakened and many of its officers were ready to speak out. The Soviet archives were partially opened, allowing access to records of Politburo debates. The Russian people themselves were more open to criticism of the communist system than they had ever been before or would be again.

Yet the idea never gained traction, either among the Russian ruling class or among Western elites, in part because there were also powerful arguments against it. For one, the U.S.S.R. had lasted for 70 years, meaning that those most culpable for its abuses were long gone and could not be brought to justice. And many Western intellectuals were taken with the idea that communism had destroyed itself from inside, without the need to fire a single shot. Liberal democracy had finally prevailed; there was little need for an extended public accounting of the Soviet regime’s depredations.

Today, though, liberal democratic values are widely besieged, most alarmingly in Ukraine. Putin is certainly not a Bolshevik, but his rule is driven by the same imperialist nationalism and disregard for human rights that gave the Soviet Union its power.

Nationalism was not a part of the original Soviet communist ideology, which rested on the idea of a class enemy — capitalists — who had to be eradicated to create a society of equals. Yet Joseph Stalin quickly realized that class warfare was not enough to mobilize the Russian people in the fight against fascism. He turned to the nation as a galvanizing force, resurrecting the czars — the very symbol of capitalist oppression — as official heroes, and erasing entire countries and ethnic groups in the name of Soviet national greatness.

The communist idea of totalitarian rule and the older imperialist idea of reassembling Russia’s historic lands turned out to be powerful partners. Soviet schools began to teach a warped version of Russian history, one that justified the regime’s expansionism and whitewashed its atrocities.

Because Russia never had its own version of Nuremberg, this history was never officially corrected. Only a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, public opinion turned nostalgic for Stalinism. Whereas in Germany it was unthinkable after World War II to declare a longing for the days of Hitler, in post-Soviet Russia, parties that explicitly invoked Stalin could still garner millions of votes. The Russian people remained trapped in a fake reality because they continued to believe in a fake history.

When Putin came to power and signaled his intention to follow in the footsteps of Russia’s greatest leaders, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Stalin, he knew the Russian people would understand and support him.

The parallels between Soviet-era imperialism and Putin’s recent actions are striking. At the outset of World War II, Stalin declared Poland an artificial creation of the Versailles Treaty; claimed that the Soviet Union had no choice but to invade it to save oppressed minorities of Ukrainians and Belarusians; and asserted that the people of the occupied territories had expressed their support for this act by voting to join the U.S.S.R.

Before invading Ukraine, Putin declared that country an artificial creation of the Soviet Union; claimed that Russia must invade to save the oppressed Russian-speaking minority there; and asserted that elections would confirm the will of the Ukrainian people to return to Russia.

The fact that such elections have not been held is a credit to the Ukrainians’ courageous resistance to Putin, not to Russians’ internal resistance to his rule. It is true that hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have followed their conscience and fled their country since the war began. It is also true that millions have been terrorized into submission by Putin’s new and draconian laws, which resemble the worst of the Soviet past. Yet Putin would never have gotten as far as he has if the Soviet-era ideology of imperialism and contempt for human rights did not continue to enjoy legitimacy among Russia’s increasingly silenced majority.

It is impossible to say whether Putin would be in power today if Soviet crimes had been tried, as Bukovsky urged. But the public atmosphere would undoubtedly be different. It is a platitude that, as George Santayana noted, those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Today’s Russia shows that those who do not confront the truths of the past are doomed to remain its victims and to victimize many others along the way.