On Sunday night in a Pierson-wide e-mail, Master Harvey Goldblatt informed the students about a swastika and an SS symbol written on an Old Campus tree in packed snow. “Let us ALL agree that such behavior is completely INTOLERABLE,” he wrote in the e-mail.
I disagree with Master G. In the modern context, we should not rush to assume that the author or wearer of a historically evil symbol endorses that evil. I come from Estonia, and whenever I see a T-shirt that says CCCP (Russian abbreviation for the Soviet Union), I tell myself that the Yalie in the shirt probably does not, after all, endorse the regime that destroyed my grandparents’ homes and sent their families to labor camps in Siberia. If you wear a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, I kindly assume you are either stupid or mean to say, “Remember the evil – and do not let it happen again.” I give the same benefit of doubt to the authors of the snow swastika.
In my opinion, there is no such thing as a right to not be offended. But I have often wondered what would happen if I one day wore a T-shirt with a swastika on it. People would probably attack me verbally and physically, and possibly I would get expelled from Yale. Strangely, the symbols of an equally evil regime, the Soviet Union, are ubiquitous and make nobody flinch.
But in truth, the hammer and the sickle and the letters CCCP and KGB (abbreviation for the Soviet Union secret police) should scare us infinitely more than the swastika and SS. The regime symbolized by the swastika was toppled more than 60 years ago. On the government level and the individual level, Germans today are aware, ashamed and apologetic of what took place in their country two or three generations in the past.
But Russia, the core of the Soviet Union, openly regards the downfall of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster in recent Russian history. Moscow provokes conflicts with its neighbors and tries to restore control over former satellite states. The increasingly popular youth organization Nashi is eerily reminiscent of the Hitler-Jugend. Russian schoolchildren are not taught about the murderous history of their country, and the Russian people tend to nostalgically remember the Soviet Union as a period of power and glory.
In her award-winning scholarly book “Gulag,” Anne Applebaum argues that it is time for the Western World to realize that the Soviet regime was as evil as the Nazi one. Dramatic films and books, and decades of unimpeded historical research, have hammered it into everyone’s heads that Nazis were evil. Somehow, the Soviet Union is still seen as quaint and comical, as a good ideology foolishly executed. The cruelty of the Soviet Union, which in my opinion sums up greater than that of Nazi Germany, gets overlooked by the Western consciousness.
The question of whether Hitler or Stalin was more evil is not only a matter of historical curiosity. During World War II, my country, Estonia, was first conquered by the Soviet Union, then the Nazis, and then the Soviet Union again. In the minds of the current Russian government and much of the Russian population, the Soviet army liberated the Baltic countries from the Nazis. The “ungrateful” Balts, however, unanimously regard the Soviets as their occupants. And disagreement over the past translates into violence today. In April 2007, hell broke loose on the streets of Tallinn as ethnic Russians protested the Estonian government’s decision to remove an old statue that celebrated the “heroes” of the Soviet army.
Unlike Germany, Russia today seems unaware, unashamed and unapologetic about the suffering it inflicted on the world and on its own people during the 20th century. The world must condemn the Soviet Union in the same way that Nazi Germany is condemned, or else Russia will repeat its past – it is evident it has the ambition to do so.
For starters, let us treat the swastika in the same way as we do the hammer and the sickle. We can either let the symbols serve as provocative reminders of past evils or call in scandal and summon another panel of hate at the sight of them.
Kristina Mois is a senior in Pierson College.