As unrest threatens to fell dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, it is appropriate to consider history’s lessons. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire offers a look at how some thirty countries, many newly created, have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. A close look reveals that viable democracies are more likely to emerge when the old guard is blocked from emerging in the guise of a new “democratic” elite. Nations that have nostrified (a Latin word originally meaning “religious purification”) government, party, and secret police officials have become democracies, including the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and, to a lesser extent, Poland. Former communist countries that have not confronted their past–the Russian Republic, Central Asian countries, Belarus, and the Caucasus (an exception being Georgia)–continue under authoritarian rule. Studies show a remarkable rate of “elite survival” in these countries, with the new elite being the old Soviet nomenklatura. Russia is ruled by former KGB agents; former republic party bosses reign in Central Asia and in Belarus.
History teaches that nations adapt better to democracy if they come to grips with their brutal past via a Nuremberg trial, a South African Truth Commission, or a public trial of aging Khmer Rouge leaders.
The Hoover Archives Fond 89: Communist Party on Trial is a stark witness to Russia’s missed opportunity to confront its Stalinist and post-Stalinist legacy. Hoover’s Fond 89 microfilms contain documents submitted to the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation for the intended trial of the Soviet Communist Party. The documents were gathered by archivists from the formerly secret archives following President Yeltsin’s decision in November 1992 to outlaw the party. Government prosecutors received more the than ten thousand pages of documents covering Stalin’s purges, the Gulag, the financing of communist parties abroad, and the repression of dissidents by interior security forces, all of which are in Fond 89.
On July 8, 1992, the Russian Constitutional Court began its hearing on the Communist Party’s challenge to Yeltsin’s ban and his charge that the party was a criminal organization. The court ruled that a reformed Communist Party could compete on an equal basis with other parties and declined to examine the massive evidence in Fond 89. With this disappointing and perfunctory ruling, the opportunity for a “Russian Nuremberg” was lost forever, leaving the issue for historians to sort out.
Although we do not know what the outcome of a full-fledged trial of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have been, the public airing of the party’s criminal activity surely would have weakened nostalgia for the old Soviet Union as Russian economic performance deteriorated. Public revelations on Stalin’s murder and imprisonment of more than a million ordinary citizens should have quashed subsequent revivals of the Stalin cult. Such a trial, most likely, would have made Vladimir Putin’s rise, with his open admiration for the Soviet empire and the KGB, unlikely if not impossible. If so, the failure to use Fond 89 changed world history.
Triumphant Romanians celebrate atop a tank in Bucharest after the fall of the Ceauşescu regime, December 23, 1989, Poster Collection, Hoover Institution Archives