"Why do you hate your own country so much?" This was the angry reaction of one Russian who had just listened to a devastating critique of everything that Communism had done to his country between 1917 and 1990. The event was a seminar at the Moscow School of Political Studies and the speaker who had provoked this outburst was Andrei Zubov, one of Russia's most brilliant — and most controversial — historians.
Zubov, who is the editor and co-author of a two-volume history of Russia in the 20th century, has a burning desire to make Russians face up to the realities of the Soviet era. He used his talk (which I attended as a participant in a later seminar) to describe in relentless detail the way in which all that was good in Russia's past — not least the flowering of culture that took place in the second half of the 19th century — was destroyed by Lenin, Stalin and their associates. But his remarks about today's Russia were no less striking.
For Zubov, Stalinism was worse than Nazism since it left nothing untouched; art, literature, education, the whole of civil society was sacrificed to the goal of creating Homo Sovieticus, a new type of man never before seen in the history of the world. He quoted a Bolshevik writer in 1923: "Parental authority? No such thing. The authority of religion? Ditto. Traditions? There aren't any. Moral feeling? The old morality has died, but a new one has yet to appear." Morality had to be totally subject to the interests of the class struggle.
As the Communists tightened their grip on society, Zubov explained, there was open talk of the abolition of the idea of the family, of belief in God, of love for one's fatherland and reverence for the memory of one's ancestors. "Pushkin and Dostoevsky were thrown overboard from the ship of revolution without a second thought; national history was ridiculed and then forgotten; countless experiments destroyed the system of educating the young." For the Bolsheviks the complete destruction of the fabric of society was vitally important because it enabled them to strengthen their power over people.
The new Soviet man was trained to lie in order to live. "He could talk at a party meeting about proletarian internationalism and the brotherhood of workers, while knowing that any unsanctioned meeting with a foreigner would immediately mean a summons to the KGB with dire results for himself and his family." He learnt not even to consider trying to build a better life with neighbours, colleagues, fellow villagers or citizens.
How much has changed since 1990? Zubov quoted a remark made by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in that year: "The clock of Communism has struck its last hour, but the concrete structure has not yet collapsed. How can we manage to be liberated, rather than being crushed under the ruins?"
In Zubov's view, despite all the changes that have taken place over the last 20 years, "we have not yet been able to struggle out from under the concrete blocks". Step by step Soviet attitudes had regained the ground they seemed to have lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. Russian government, both central and local, was more authoritarian since the mid-1990s.
It was outrageous, he said, that the Lenin mausoleum still stood in Red Square and that so many statues of Soviet leaders adorned Russian towns and villages. Germany, by contrast, had preserved as memorials of the Nazi era, not statues of Hitler, but concentration camp sites. If statues of past statesmen were needed, it would be better to honour Pyotr Stolypin, who as a reforming prime minister in 1906-11 represented the last chance of avoiding the catastrophe that followed.
The message to his audience — made up of politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs and government officials from all over the country — could not have been clearer. Unless and until Russia rids itself of all vestiges of the Soviet regime it will remain a dysfunctional society.
Zubov's speech was clear, well argued, delivered without oratorical flourishes, but informed by profound grief at the damage inflicted on the country by its misguided leaders over the past century. As he remarked later, he wept many times as he worked on his new history.
The reaction of his Russian listeners was as interesting as the speech itself. One man, furious at Zubov's remarks, referred movingly to the sacrifices his father and grandfather had made in defending the country against foreign aggressors — was Zubov condemning all those who had fought for the Soviet Union in the Second World War?
Zubov replied by quoting a famous war poem by Konstantin Simonov, "Remember, Alyosha", which speaks of the soldier's love of Russia, "the great bitter land I was born to defend". Those who fought in the war, Zubov said, were defending not the Communist ideology or the Soviet state, but the Russian land. Many people both in the army and in the home front dreamed that after victory over Hitler they would liberate their country from Stalin, "but Stalin stole the people's victory and enslaved the Russians".
To judge from comments made after the session, it seemed that more of the attendees sided with Zubov than with his critics. Many of them were in their twenties or early thirties, and had no experience of life under the Soviet system. Whereas their parents had Soviet ideology rammed down their throats in the Pioneers or the Komsomol, they belong to the internet generation. Their views about Russia and its place in the world are increasingly formed, not by state-controlled TV, but by popular bloggers who have no inhibitions about exposing corruption in high places and attacking the way Russia is run. The internet is where the most vibrant political debates take place.
These are the people, Zubov believes, who have the potential to end Russia's isolation and establish the country as a respected member of the international community. Yet, as he points out, true modernisation is a long and arduous process requiring enormous political skill. It is not impossible that after all the suffering of the past century Russia could still become not necessarily a great but a Western country with a developed and responsible civil society. "Alternatively, if we shut ourselves off from the West we may try again to create the simulation of a powerful modern state but with a quickly deteriorating people, enslaved by a corrupt elite — a colossus with feet of clay, doomed to fall sooner or later."