Russia yet to grapple with past crimes, says Knesset speaker, an ex-refusenik

MOSCOW – Russia has not engaged in soul-searching about its dark past, Knesset speaker and former refusenik Yuli Edelstein said Thursday, expressing concern over local admiration for the murderous Soviet-era dictator Josef Stalin.

During Edelstein’s three-day official visit to Moscow this week — marking 30 years since his release from Siberian labor camps for the crime of teaching Hebrew — there was no explicit acknowledgment in his high-level meetings of his past personal suffering, he said.

There were, however, some private conversations, including at a courthouse, where local officials expressed sympathy and admiration for his experiences, and a historic speech he delivered in the Russian parliament that provided powerful closure. Ultimately, he said, he didn’t need an apology, and felt he had “won.”

“I don’t think there is soul-searching here. This is one of the problems, because — and this is something that must be said — the ideology of that period is still considered legitimate in this country.” That, Edelstein continued, is exemplified by the active communist political party, and the fact that “recently, you hear voices talking about the need to recognize Stalin as a great leader.”

A poster with WWII Soviet dictator Josef Stalin which was sponsored by a local branch of the Communist Party celebrating Victory Day in Novosibirsk, Russia, May 5, 2016. (AP/Ilnar Salakhiev)

Wrapping up his trip, Edelstein spoke three days after the annual Levada independent poll showed that Stalin, who is considered the architect of millions of deaths, remains the most popular figure among Russians, ahead of President Vladimir Putin.

“On the one hand, I can wave my hand and say this isn’t my issue. On the other hand, I would expect from the people here, for their sake — I don’t live here anymore and the borders are open — for their future… How can you praise and hail someone like Stalin?””

In an interview, Edelstein also said Israel’s cozying up to Russia has been chiefly pragmatic, and that Jerusalem is treating the relationship with due skepticism. He also denied charges that the rise of “fake news,” some of which has been attributed to Moscow, is new or distinctly a Russian phenomenon. There is no technological solution to the trend, he asserted, just a more discerning readership — like the former Soviet Jews who would parse the official Pravda mouthpiece for truth decades ago.

The visit, and Russia’s ‘cultural codes’

Edelstein was adamant he is not looking for apologies from current Russian leaders, largely distinguishing them from their predecessors in the former Soviet Union.

“Overall, it’s not the same state, not the same people — I don’t think I need their apology,” he said.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in the courthouse where he was sentenced to three years of forced labor in Siberia. June 28, 2017 (Israeli embassy in Moscow)

“In the end,” he added, smiling, “I won.”

He conceded that some of the very same leaders with whom he sat down this week had held various roles in the regime while he was imprisoned, though he maintained he was not perturbed by that fact. Valentina Matviyenko, the Federation Council chairwoman who had invited Edelstein to address parliament on Wednesday, for example, was a local Communist Party official in St. Petersburg district in 1984.

“They weren’t senior officials, but they were prominent activists in the Communist Youth League. Yes, they also sat in on meetings where they either said or heard that there are no human rights violations in the Soviet Union and there are no political prisoners, all are equal, and there are only a few Zionists who are being paid off from the West and are trying to inflame the nationalistic feelings of Jews here,” he said. “True, all this happened.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein meets with Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matvienko in Moscow on June 27, 2017. (Knesset spokesperson's office/Israeli embassy in Moscow)

Edelstein spoke with The Times of Israel ahead of his meeting Thursday afternoon with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was a diplomat for the Soviet Union from 1972.

According to Edelstein, what “eased” the discomfort was the official nature of the visit and Russia’s pulling out all the stops to accommodate him, a move he said signaled tacit acknowledgement of his rough treatment at the hands of the Soviets.

“In this visit, they are serving the Knesset speaker of the State of Israel who came on an official visit, with an official invitation, with a VIP visa, and this perhaps gives me the feeling, as I said, that why do I need their apologies?” said Edelstein, who on Wednesday became the first Israeli leader to address the Federation Council, an honor generally reserved for heads of state.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein addresses the Russian parliament on Wednesday, June 28, 2017 (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)

Stressing that on Wednesday he was also given unusual access to the courthouse where he had been tried in 1984 and his former Moscow cell, he said, “Those who know the cultural codes, know [Russia] already said it all in hosting the visit.”

‘Russia is friends with Russia’

Edelstein also addressed Israel’s ties with Moscow, which over the past two years have been publicly lauded by both parties as growing increasingly tight, despite Russia’s staunch support for the Jewish state’s fiercest foe, Iran.

This week Edelstein and Russian officials praised the increasingly friendly relationship, though, hinting at differences over Israel’s military activity in Syria, he also spoke of “tension” on regional issues. Despite the niceties, he said, Israel is keeping a wary eye on Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in Moscow on June 29, 2017 (Israeli embassy in Moscow)

“We, in our policy in Israel, are cautious about everyone,” said Edelstein, including “friends” and countries that boast of strong ties.

“Russia is friends with Russia. That’s generally how it is between states. And we [Israel] are friends with Israel. The relations are founded on partnerships in many areas. They are founded on our awareness that Russia is a key player in the region, which also has dangers,” he said, listing Moscow’s connections to “Iran, and the situation in Syria, and Assad and Hezbollah.

“There is a danger. So you could say, well, if there are dangers [in partnering with Russia], then we will sever diplomatic ties, let’s declare war on Russia. Or you can try to really change the situation, to bring the views [of the two states] closer, to manage the gaps that can’t be closed, and this is how we are operating.”

Fake news is old news

For the former gulag prisoner and refusenik, the rise of “fake news” isn’t news at all.

“It was completely obvious that with the development of the internet and social media, it would come. From one extreme — I remember this from here but also from other countries — that if it’s written in the newspaper, then it’s obviously true. Now it’s another extreme — everything is news, and no one knows [what’s true],” he said.

Noting a case in Israel, Edelstein also rejected firmly claims the phenomenon was recent or uniquely linked to Russia, which has been accused of running a campaign of disinformation in order to undermine the West.

A Hebrew-language newspaper clipping from the late 1980s warns "Only immediate surgery will save Prisoner of Zion Edelstein" after his injury in a Soviet labor camp (courtesy)

“A guy I knew decided as a joke to write a sort of family tree that proved that Ariel Sharon and Che Guevara are relatives. And afterward, it became fact. Sharon was asked about it,” he related. On a governmental level, “I think it’s something that many countries use. There is no technological solution… it’s about awareness, restoring trust.”

Only a more discerning readership will really resolve the issue, he said, tying the issue to the experiences of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

“In this country, we could have bought the Pravda [official government mouthpiece] and read it and known what really happened – you only needed to know how to read it,” he said, listing cross-referencing and checking sources as examples of ways to glean the truth.

“How did [we] know — apropos 50 years since the Six Day War — that everything on the radio was a lie? ” he said, noting that he was speaking about the Jewish community in general, as he was only a child at the time. “Because someone sat down with friends and did the math that according to the reports on the radio here, they destroyed the Israeli army three or four times already… meaning it was all a lie. So we knew.”

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