Russians feel betrayed
by Stalin now the West

By Alexei Pankin
The Moscow Times
A division of the
 Interntional Herald Tribune

"We believed in you, Comrade Stalin, even more, perhaps, than we believed in ourselves."

These lines were written from the heart by the outstanding Soviet lyricist Mikhail Isakovsky soon after the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. But they came into modern folklore by way of a prison camp song, written by the remarkably talented lyricist and dissident, Yuz Aleshkovsky.

Aleshkovsky wrote, "The sins of others we wore as if our own, like flanks of bondsmen united against some evil fate. We believed in you, Comrade Stalin, even more, perhaps, than we believed in ourselves."

And people continue to believe in the same way today, often because the line has become a symbol of their disillusionment.

"We believed in you, oh honored West, even more, perhaps, than we believed in ourselves." This paraphrasing could serve as a metaphor for President Vladimir Putin's February 10 speech to the security conference in Munich, more so than the hard-line rhetoric and veiled threats it contained. The speech demonstrates not so much anger as disappointment with the West.

The dissident Andrei Sakharov's widow, Elena Bonner, turned 84 on February 15. The official state newspaper Rosiiskaya Gazeta even published an interview with the indomitable rebel in which she shared her sad impressions of modern life in the United States and Russia.

For me, the two events were woven together somewhat because I had read Sakharov and Bonner's diaries, which were published late last year. They cover the period from 1970 to 1989, and one of the major collective heroes referred to in those pages is the West.

With the help of Western journalists and radio stations, these spouses were, at least to some degree, to convey their views to Soviet citizens — as they relied on the Western public and politicians to struggle for the rights of their compatriots.

The West was even a sign of hope for those who could be grouped collectively under the name "the authorities." Even before dissidents formed the Moscow Helsinki Group, Soviet diplomats signed onto the Helsinki Accords and their human rights pronouncements themselves.

Sakharov and Bonner staged hunger strikes in bitter exile, while diplomats and academics used the highest privilege of the time: to travel among the world's capitals with hard currency per diems. In their own ways, they were all placing their hopes on the West as the primary instrument for liberalizing the communist system.

During Mikhail Gorbachev's presidency, the country's trust in the West grew to unprecedented levels. And then, with the West's urging and accompanied by its applause came President Boris Yeltsin's reforms, which resulted in the plundering of the country and the adoption of an authoritarian constitution. The West no longer represented democracy for Russians.

And today? The new Russia is increasingly seen by Western media and many Western politicians as akin to the Soviet Union during Sakharov's internal exile. This is unfair and insulting. Even many inside Russia who oppose Putin's policies agree with him on the list of grievances toward the West he voiced in Munich.

So does the current situation represent the inevitable clash of national interests, the result of simple, specific mistakes made by particular politicians, or just another stage in the endless "love-hate" cycle of Russian-Western relations?

Whatever the case, much of the bitterness stems from betrayed hopes. "We believed in you, oh honored West ..."

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Mediaprofi, a monthly magazine for regional media professionals.