Edward Lucas
AUTHOR:Edward Lucas
14 November 2017

Learning from the past

Re-examining the Soviet legacy in Europe

Russia has largely ignored the centenary of the 1917 putsch, as the Bolshevik “revolution” should really be called. The questions it raises are just too embarrassing: if Lenin is still truly venerated (as his mausoleum on Red Square suggests), then revolutions are good and religion is bad. But Vladimir Putin’s stagnant, increasingly clerical regime reckons the opposite: religion is good and revolutions are bad.

Critics of the regime—meaning Russia’s true friends—should have exploited the dissonance and ambiguity to ask hard questions and prompt subversive thinking. Instead, as so often in dealing with the Kremlin, we play a reactive game rather than a positive one.

But next year marks some important centenaries too, of countries which gained or regained their place on the map at the end of the First World War. Some are no longer with us—Yugoslavia, for example, and Czechoslovakia. Some took one gasp of oxygen and disappeared beneath the waves either immediately (
Belarus and Ukraine) or soon thereafter (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia).

For the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the anniversary is a chance to hammer home the most important piece of their historiography. They did not “become independent” in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. They regained an independence which was first achieved in 1918, and then interrupted by foreign occupation. Russia does not recognize this history.

For other countries, the centenary offers a chance for reflection. What went wrong in the interwar years? One mistake was the failure to appreciate the importance of collective security. Divisions and squabbles made life easy for outside powers to play divide and rule. Lithuania and Poland were at odds over Vilnius. Poland’s dream of the Intermarium—building a cordon sanitaire against Soviet Russia—won only Romania as an ally. The government in Warsaw gleefully attacked Czechoslovakia after the Munich agreement. Hungary was so traumatized by the treaty of Trianon that it saw too late the even bigger dangers that lay ahead.

Another mistake was to indulge in a narrow and exclusive nationalism, which increased internal and external tensions. Marginalizing minorities makes them less loyal, and may encourage neighboring countries to take an unhealthy interest in your affairs. Pre-war Czechoslovakia made a grave mistake in not allowing the national radio stations to broadcast in German, because it was a “foreign” language. That gave Hitler’s propaganda stations an easy foothold. We have come close in some countries to making the same mistake with regard to public broadcasting in Russian.

It is also worth reflecting on more recently missed opportunities. Few foresaw that the years after 1991 would be marked by shocking population declines, partly the result of Communist-era damage to public health, partly because women could have babies later, but also because of dismaying levels of emigration. I generally detest the category “ex-communist” because it lumps together so many countries with such wildly differing histories and prospects. But one lasting legacy of the Soviet empire is that its captive nations are in danger of growing old before they get rich. Decades-worth of savings were squandered by central planners. A shrinking workforce will have to bear a heavy load in providing pensions and health-care for those retiring in the next two decades.

The reasons for emigration and low birth rates are complex: they include low pay, limited life chances and poor public services. Though vitally important, the problem does not seem urgent. But I fear that those celebrating the 100th anniversaries of the countries between the Baltic and Black Seas will find today’s policymakers as mystifyingly irresponsible as we regard their predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Soonti