Try, if you can, to picture the scene. A vast crowd in Red Square: Lenin's
tomb and Stalin's memorial in the background. Soldiers march in goose step
behind rolling tanks, and the air echoes with martial music, occasionally
drowned out by the whine of fighter jets. On the reviewing stand, statesmen
are gathered: Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, Alexander Lukashenko,
the dictator of Belarus, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former dictator
of Poland — and President George W. Bush.
That description may sound fanciful or improbable. It is neither. On
the contrary, that is more or less what will appear on your television
screen May 9, when the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II is celebrated
in Moscow. I have exaggerated only one detail: Although Kim Jong Il has
been invited, his attendance has not yet been confirmed. But Jaruzelski
is definitely coming, as are Lukashenko, Bush and several dozen other heads
of state. President Vladimir Putin of Russia will preside.
Not every European country will be represented, however, because not
everybody feels quite the same way about this particular date. In the Baltic
states, for example, May 1945 marked the end of the war but also the beginning
of nearly a half-century of Soviet occupation, during which one in 10 Balts
were murdered or deported to concentration camps and exile villages. The
thought of applauding the same Red Army veterans who helped "pacify" their
countries after 1945 was too much for the Estonian and Lithuanian presidents,
who have refused to attend. Although the Latvian president will attend
the Moscow festivities, she's had to declare that she will use her trip
to talk about the Soviet occupation. The president of Poland also has spent
much of the past month justifying his decision to celebrate this particular
anniversary in Moscow. By May 1945, after all, the leaders of what had
been the Polish anti-Nazi resistance were already imprisoned in the Lubyanka,
the KGB's most notorious Moscow prison.
The Russian president hasn't made anyone's trip easier. Recently he
told a radio interviewer that the Soviet Union was justified in signing
the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, in which the two totalitarian powers agreed
to divide Poland and cede the Baltic states to the U.S.S.R. The Soviet
Union, Putin said, was within its rights to protect the "security of its
western borders," as if annexing other countries were a legitimate form
of border patrol. This week Putin went on to describe the collapse of the
Soviet Union — which resulted in the liberation of Eastern Europe — as
the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, presumably
ranking it higher than the war itself. His countrymen, in symbolic agreement,
have commissioned a host of new Stalin statues around the country to commemorate
the end of the war.
To its credit, the White House is trying to mitigate the impact of what
is, at the very least, an extraordinarily bad photo opportunity and is
nicely blossoming into a full-fledged controversy as well. Bush will go
to Latvia before Moscow, to meet with the Baltic leaders — all now members
of NATO and therefore U.S. allies — and afterward will visit the Georgian
Republic, where a democratically elected president has recently taken power
in the teeth of Russian opposition. But if we are to avoid turning the
anniversary of the end of World War II into a celebration of the triumph
of Stalinism, more should be done. To begin with, Congress should vote
on a resolution proposed this month by Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), which
calls on Russia to condemn the Nazi-Soviet pact as well as the illegal
annexation of the Baltic states. "The truth is a powerful weapon for healing,
forgiving and reconciliation," the resolution states, in a burst of unusual
congressional eloquence, "but its absence breeds distrust, fear and hostility."
Bush, too, should show that he understands what really happened in 1945.
Every recent U.S. president has visited Auschwitz, and many have visited
concentration camps in Germany, too. Perhaps it's time for American presidents
to start a new tradition and pay their respects to the victims of Stalin.
This is made difficult by the dearth of monuments in Moscow, but it isn't
impossible. The president could, for example, lay a wreath at the stone
that was brought from the Solovetsky Islands, the Soviet Union's first
political prison camp, and placed just across from the Lubyanka itself.
Or he could visit one of the mass-execution sites outside of town.
Of course these would be nothing more than purely symbolic gestures. But a war anniversary is a purely symbolic event. Each commemoration helps all of us remember what happened and why it happened, and each commemoration helps us draw relevant lessons for the future. To falsify the record — to commemorate the triumph of totalitarianism rather than its defeat — sends the wrong message to new and would-be democracies in Europe, the former Soviet Union and the rest of the world.