Boris Yeltsin, the former chief apparatchik in Sverdlovsk, and Gennadi Burbulis, the former professor of Marxism-Leninism in the same town, are the men behind the prosecution in the case against the Communist Party, which opened in Moscow’s Constitutional Council on July 7. The idea of these former party stalwarts sitting In judgment on the sins of Communism seems almost surreal. But keep in mind that Eastern Europe is now in transition. Periods of restoration are marked by sudden conversions and strange amnesias; they are propitious for pragmatists rather than for people of principle, and the acrobatics performed by turncoats are often a comical sight.
But if the manner is comic, the matter is not. The purging of former members of the C.P. or the punishing of alleged police informers is a serious problem. There were millions of party members throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, accounting for a substantial proportion of the adult population in all those countries. So any form of collective ban or discrimination is bound to affect the general political climate. Because the secret police could shred some documents and forge others, the publication of lists of suspects and the absence of legal safeguards for people who should be presumed innocent could cause countless human tragedies. With the promised land of capitalism appearing ever more distant on the horizon and the people losing their patience, it is convenient for their rulers to put all the blame on the evil past and divert attention to scapegoats.
The purges are clearly inspired by political rather than moral considerations, and they are spreading. After the release of the East German Stasi files and the passage of Czechoslovakia’s lustration law, it looked as if it was Poland’s turn. Until the timely collapse of the government this past June, its Interior Minister, the sinister Antoni Macierewicz, threatened to reveal the names of countless security police informers who are now high-level public servants, ministers and members of Parliament and of lower local assemblies. His minions were preparing bills destined to ban from the administration and state-owned factories all those who had, at any time since 1945, been elected to any Communist office, down to the local student union. Rumors in Warsaw spread out of control. Even Lech Walesa was not above suspicion. When they reach such levels of absurdity, why aren’t such campaigns quickly discredited? Because even the obvious settling of political accounts simultaneously touches a chord: a society’s need to come to terms with its past.
Using the Czechoslovak example, Aryeh Neier showed in these pages the dangers of collective guilt and the artificiality of analogies with de-Nazification in Germany [see “Watching Rights,” January 6/13]. On this last comparison I would like to add an abstract point with very concrete consequences. The mass murder of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals fit perfectly into the Nazi ideology. In contrast, Stalin. at his bloodiest, had to use Orwellian doublespeak to find a “Marxist” justification for his crimes. The now fashionable attempt to lump together Nazism and Communism is not innocent. Consider the law passed by the Czechoslovak Parliament last December, which promises a sentence of one to five years for those who support groups promoting “national, racial, class or religious hatred,” adding, so that there should be no misunderstanding, “such as fascism or communism.”
Whether one should allow parties or publications preaching hatred of blacks, Arabs or Jews is highly debatable. There are people who claim that, for the sake of democracy, we should in Voltairian fashion “fight to the death” for the right of people to express views we abhor. But this is not the real problem with the Czechoslovak legislation. To put it plainly, under the law as it stands, I could go to jail in Prague for having written in these columns that Michael Milken made in one year as much money as it would have taken an American on the minimum wage 74,000 years to earn. Such information, I would have to admit to my judges, was not designed to promote love between the exploiters and the exploited. True, this part of the law has not been applied so far, though it is not difficult to imagine to what use it could be put by a pugnacious and reactionary prime minister faced with a winter of discontent.