Russia, Ukraine, and moral reckoning

Putin is conducting a carefully-orchestrated campaign to reverse history’s verdict in the Cold War and subjugate the now-independent former “republics” of the old Soviet Union.

A service member with the Ukrainian armed forces walks past combat positions near a line of separation from Russian-backed rebels near Horlivka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine Jan. 22, 2022. (CNS photo/Anna Kudriavtseva, Reuters)

There have been vast improvements in the techniques and technology of filmmaking since 1961, when Stanley Kramer made Judgment at Nuremberg. But it’s difficult to imagine any cast today improving on the extraordinary performances of Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift in that gripping courtroom drama, which explores the meaning of justice in Germany’s — and the world’s — moral reckoning with the evil of the Third Reich.

The Nuremberg trials, which lasted for several years, were not flawless. Serious jurists and public officials ask whether “victors’ justice” could be true justice, while others questioned the rectitude of indicting men for crimes that were not defined statutorily at the time they were committed. That Soviet hack Andrey Vishinsky was a prosecutor at the first Nuremberg trial was nothing less than grotesque; Vishinsky had first come to international attention as a prosecutor in Stalin’s infamous Purge Trials, in which he urged the “court” to deal with his former Bolshevik comrades in these terms: “Shoot these rabid dogs…Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses…”

Whatever the flaws of the Nuremberg trials, however, manifestly guilty men and women were held accountable for unspeakable acts of wickedness. The trials also confronted the German people with what had been done by public officials and jurists who claimed to be acting for the good of their country. Germany is a model democracy today for many reasons. The moral reckoning the Nuremberg trials made unavoidable is one of those reasons.

Nothing like that legal, political and moral reckoning has happened in post-Soviet Russia. That is why Lenin’s mummified corpse is still honored in Moscow’s Red Square. That is why an independent survey in 2021 found that 56% of the Russian people think of the mass murderer Stalin as a “great leader.” And that is one of the reasons why Vladimir Putin, seemingly Russia’s president-for-life, exists — and poses a mortal threat to peace in eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine.

Putin is conducting a carefully-orchestrated campaign to reverse history’s verdict in the Cold War and subjugate the now-independent former “republics” of the old Soviet Union. That campaign would not have been possible if, having confronted the hard truths about the Soviet past as the German people were compelled to do by the Nuremberg trials, the Russian people had built a law-governed Russian state.

What happened instead was that ex-KGB apparatchik Putin and a cadre of oligarchs built a lawless kleptocracy that murders its political opponents, invades its neighbors, conducts massive disinformation and destabilization campaigns around the world, shuts down non-governmental organizations dedicated to memorializing the victims of communism and masquerades as the defender of “Christian” civilization, all at tremendous cost to the Russian people. Because there was no “Russian Nuremberg,” a 15-year-old boy in Russia in 2012 had a life-expectancy three years lower than that of a 15-year-old boy in Haiti.

Vladimir Putin’s current aggression against Ukraine also deploys the Big Lie that Ukraine is not a real nation — a malignant falsehood based in part on the claim that Russia is the sole legitimate heir of the baptism of the eastern Slavs. That epic event in fact took place in Kyiv (now the capital of Ukraine) in 988, when what’s now Moscow was a dense forest inhabited by wild animals. The subsequent history of eastern Slavic Christianity is vastly complicated, to be sure. Those complexities notwithstanding, the Russian claim to be the sole proprietor and interpreter of that history is theological and historical nonsense — just as the Russian stance toward Ukraine since at least the late-18th century has been that of imperial aggressor. In 1932-33, that aggression turned into a genocide, when, in the Ukrainian Holodomor (“Terror Famine”), Stalin and his minions deliberately starved to death at least four million Ukrainians.

Putin’s Russian regime is a danger to the Russian people and the world, and will likely remain so, until the kind of moral and historical reckoning that took place in Germany after World War II takes place in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church, which has immense spiritual resources, could play an important role in a national examination of conscience. It will not do so, however, so long as its leader, Patriarch Kirill, teaches, as he did recently, that his country’s current social condition is “a manifestation of God’s mercy,” even as Kirill proclaimed that “Russia is the leader of the free world.”

George Orwell, call your office.


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About George Weigel 394 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

32 Comments

  1. George Weigel remains a neoconservative ideologue whose foreign policy prescriptions over the last three decades have caused countless problems for this country and other affected by them. Putin is not the reincarnation of Stalin and Russia today is not the Soviet Union. Who controls Crimea and the Ukraine is not a matter of vital interest to the United States. The ongoing invasion at our southern border is, yet Weigel has nothing to say about it. For sound analysis of this situation, turn to Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson, not George Weigel.

    • You are wrong. George Weigel, like me, is Not a Neoconservative, but a conservative or a 19th century liberal, like Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln based his whole philosophy on the Declaration of Independence of the Right to Life, Liberty and the fruits of one’s labor.

      People in the Ukraine deserve their freedom: their God give Freewill!

      I was born in 1940. I grew up seeing the evils of the Statism of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. Something you do not share with me or George Weigel. So today we have the Terrorism of the Tyrants in Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

  2. Russia is perhaps the most paranoid and isolationist nation in history seeking a buffer of satellite states surrounding Mother Russia to absorb the influences from the outside world in particular Germany, France and Britain to her east and China to her west. The USA is the most important premier though secondary threat given the military alliances with the historic enemies of Mother Russia. What must puzzle Russia most at this time is why a apparently very socialistic Brussels and Washington DC may be rising to the defense of the Ukraine? Her socialistic brothers should be engaged in appeasing her socialist expansion to the west of her. Russia is perhaps, probably counting on an half-hearted effort by the current administration to fold like a house of cards.

    • Can you blame the Russians? What has the US brough to the world but consumerism, hypercapitalism, and moral degeneracy masqueradign as “human rights advocacy”?

  3. “History” does not render verdicts, men do, men with political agendas. The men also allowed Stalin and his friends to take control over Eastern Europe, including Poland and East Germany. Yet, no Nuremberg trials happened for them. While I sympathize with Ukrainians who want independence from Russia, I do not believe that the US has any interest in that conflict. The US has little moral standing protecting Ukraine’s borders while it totally ignores the invasion at the southern border. Also, on what grounds does it prohibit Russia reclaiming a state when it waged a bloody, horrible war to keep the Confederate States in the Union? The Ukrainian government today is corrupt and presents a danger to Russia. The corruption stems from the Bidens and other Democrats who have imposed themselves on the Ukrainian government. Putin is not Stalin. Stalin would never have allowed Catholic nuns into the country to do charity work. Stalin would never have allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to make a comeback.

  4. I don’t disagree with anything that Mr. Weigel says in this article about Russia today. But in reading the 6th paragraph I can’t help pondering, and paraphrasing a little, about our own country.

    We have a career leftist politician and a cadre of like minded individuals promoting the murder of millions of unborn citizens, appointment of former Planned Parenthood employees to White House stafff positions, not invading other countries but allowing last year two million invaders at our southern borders, conducting massive disinformation campaigns in our country, transforming our once proud military with a variety of social experiments and declaring climate change and white supremacy our worst enemies, doing nothing about the dismemberment of live aborted babies and the selling of their body parts, causing the firing of employees for refusing to take an abortion tainted “vaccine”, but – certainly not in any way masquerading as defenders of “Christian” civilization.

    With Russia’s last 100 years of history we might understand a little bit how they developed to their present state. But what is our excuse?

    Yes, Russia did not have Nuremberg trials. Will we have ours?

    • So true. Wiegel is concerned about the splinter in Russia’s eye while the US has a log in her eye. How can we ever call ourselves righteous as we allow the butchering of the unborn.

      • I don’t believe George Wiegel ever condoned killing of innocent unborn, in fact I’m sure he condemns it. So does that mean he cannot comment other evils in the world?

  5. “There have been vast improvements in the techniques and technology of filmmaking since 1961 when Stanley Kramer made Judgment at Nuremberg.” What techniques and technologies is Mr. Weigel talking about? Digital cameras? You can make movies exponentially cheaper with a digital camera, but can you achieve the same aesthetic qualities that film does? I don’t think you can call a process “filmmaking” if you’re not using film.

  6. As a history buff [I did study historiography] George Weigel ignores facts. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of former Soviets, or territories Russian president Boris Yeltsin welcomed the West with open arms. What did the great neocon genius president Reagan do? He pushed for Nato membership of Georgia and Ukraine, the historical threat to Russian of a new Cordon Sanitaire. The strategic rationale for Russia to keep Nato out of Ukraine, and having prevented the making of Crimea a Nato military bastion.
    That precipitated the resurgence of the old Communist guard. If we’re stupid enough to follow the advice of neocons including self appointed world strategist George Weigel [boundless in critical knowledge], if we want war, potentially nuclear these outstanding brilliant men will lead us into it.

    • With respect to you Fr
      God gave the world Noah and his Ark…to look about us today and not see the hatred in the air for life, perhaps is simply the attitude of the people at the time of Noah. God will correct things indeed,though through a method other than flood.

      • I agree Bill. I share similar feelings that we’ve arrived at a time that may invoke divine chastisement. Hatred and anger is rampant, murderous rage seems satanically inspired. Killing of prenatal infants is overwhelming. I’m reminded of the better path of being less critical and harsh, and more conciliatory. Although I’m compelled to address the truth. As a priest I have a commission for spiritual intercession and sacrifice. I pray for all [including my own needs], perhaps, especially when I disagree.

    • I think you mean George W Bush was the President who began the push to bring Ukraine into NATO. The elder Bush’s administration had promised not expand to NATO eastward. We have not dealt honestly with Russia since the end of the Cold War. And that does not even take into account the activities of the Pope’s pal, Jeffrey Sachs, in Russia during the privatization scam.

      • Actually Tony, Reagan did maintain a friendly Posture with Gorbachev. It wasn’t until 1990 during the George H W Bush [41] administration that the US reneged on its agreement with Russia to limit Nato when Bush 41 enlarged nato Eastward into the former Soviet block nations.
        “After discussing the issue with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on February 24-25, the U.S. gave the former East Germany special military status, limiting what NATO forces could be stationed there in deference to the Soviet Union. Beyond that, however, talk of proscribing NATO’s reach dropped out of the diplomatic conversation. Indeed, by March 1990, State Department officials were advising Baker that NATO could help organize Eastern Europe in the U.S. orbit; by October, U.S. policymakers were contemplating whether and when as a National Security Council memo put it to signal to the new democracies of Eastern Europe NATO’s readiness to contemplate their future membership” (LA Times).

        • Reagan really *was* out of the picture as far as formal US policy-making was concerned by 1990. As this excerpt notes, the George H.W. Bush Administration was in power at that point.

          But even Papa Bush cannot be blamed for NATO expansion. The inclusion of East Germany was by formal agreement with the USSR, and specified no deployment of non-German NATO forces into the former GDR territory, an agreement which was kept. The next actual round of NATO enlargement did not happen until 1999, deep into Bill Clinton’s second term, inducting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. And even so: One suspects that the Kremlin (whoever is in charge) would not be quite so antsy if NATO enlargement had gone no further than that first round.

          But I share all of your concerns about Weigel’s neo-conservative stance on this issue.

    • So according to you Father, the Ukrainians have no right to choose how they are governed and Putin has the right to Terrorized them into submission. Other than the bloodless invasion of Grenada, what wars were fought under Reagan? Seems like peace through strength worked!

  7. What to me is ironic in all of this, is that Russia essentially defeated Germany in WW2 with the help of the US.
    Nobody was ready then or sense to try and have a “Nuremberg” event with Russia with the exception perhaps of Ronald Reagan’s “Mr Gorbachev tear down this wall” and the US reaction under Kennedy to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  8. I think we are in a different era. We have to read the moment better.

    It would then be a misuse of history 1. to use it to bolster the misreading of the times and 2. to subject Russia and Vladimir Putin to a misplaced “moral reckoning” drawn from inapplicable things.

    At the level of character Putin demonstrates many dependable qualities. Politically, he has a vast support at all levels and it speaks to something good not bad.

    The Ukraine thing is exaggerated and over-bought; and it gambles for pittances; and it makes everyone ill-at-ease; and the Obama/Biden Group is perennially blind to this; and it portends weakness for everyone and playing into China.

    There are greater matters to tend to. One aspect of it is, the US should be the one to maintain open lanes in the south China seas and the seas around Japan and so on, etc.; that would also bring a stability for nations who need the presence of an independent force.

    Russia has China in check. North Korea does not want to be submerged into China. Since when can’t the US recognize a true strength?

    The Biden Administration is unable to recognize such things, I think – let alone handle them adeptly and draw out a meaningful progression from them. This is the crux.

    And it’s not even the first time. Here is the crux again.

  9. Mr. Weigel says: “Putin is conducting a carefully-orchestrated campaign to reverse history’s verdict in the Cold War and subjugate the now-independent former “republics” of the old Soviet Union.” I wish that he would have explained how this meshes with his other claim that Russia is a “kleptocracy” which to my mind is usually a system of corrupt oligarchs feeding off their own nation for their own personal, financial aggrandizement. In reason, can it be sustained then that Putin is seeking in the long term to form a large Russian union of states or is he only looking to secure Ukraine as a buffer to further support his kleptocracy by expanding it before his government arrangement is threatened by Ukraine increasing ties with the West? Truly, knowing Putin’s motives is paramount to mounting a response to his actions. For now I take a middle position (not a mediocre position). Sending troops to the Ukraine does not seem prescribed at this point, but giving up the Ukraine to Russia as a “non-matter of National Security” is also far from optimal. Making Putin’s motivations for invasion go away, while at the same time showing U.S. will and strength seems to be the best notion. I would hope that someone with great experience in such matters could come up with a consistent plan of action that would restrain Putin and also show the world (especially our greater enemies like China) that America can be a “trusted” power to be reckoned with.

  10. Is it only Weigel’s politics that bother people, or does his defense of Pope John Paul II play a role? Admittedly, both are bound in the Cold War.

  11. Mr. Weigel’s Cold War polemics, like his long term (failed) attempts at a Vatican II apologia, place him circa 1965. Putin is an authoritarian. He’ll strive to obtain traditional Russian interests, not international ideological hegemony. The attempt to put NATO on his doorstep , and continous political intrigue in the former Doviet Republics will help Putin obtain his objectives.

    • Well said, Michael. The reason we all supported NATO in the first place was because it provided the bulwark of defense against Bolshevism after the fall of Germany. Today, Bolshevism is to be more likely the enemy within the NATO countries (eg., BBB, BLM,CRT, Wokeness,”choice, homosexualism, transgenderism). Since the early 1990s, NATO has become, in effect, an anti-Russian provocation, which also attempts to project the neo-con “nation-building” project into Asia and North Africa.
      I used to think that something like the Nuremburg trials ought to have been held at the end of the Cold War. But the problem with that was that the West didn’t really “win” the Cold War, as the West and East won WWII. Instead, the West prevailed because Russian interest in national survival prevailed over Bolshevist ideology. It was much as it would have been in 1944, if Stauffenberg and his collaborators had succeeded in toppling the Nazi regime, and in negotiating peace with the Allies.
      Instead, the plot failed and the Allies fought their way to total, bitter victory, which enabled them to deliver judgment of the German nation at Nuremburg. There was no total victory in the Cold War. Russia managed to save its civil and national integrity, eschewing the ideological aims of Bolshevism.

  12. Neocons gonna neocon.

    The United States has precisely zero compelling interest in the region, and all Russia wants is guarantees that NATO will stop expanding Eastward and threatening Russian security. Instead, we insist on ringing the country with “allies” (read puppet states) that we can then place military forces and strategic weapons in. Remember that playbook? It was the same one that the Soviet Union used when it made Cuba a member of the Eastern Bloc and then placed nuclear missiles within easy striking distance of the US mainland.

    Neocon thirst for war and blood knows no bounds. They are a spiritually and morally bankrupt people, utterly wanting in faith and charity, and disgustingly claiming to be “Christians” while doing so. They are a cancer to the nation and the world, a pus-filled boil that needs to be lanced sooner rather than later.

    • “Neocon thirst for war and blood knows no bounds. They are a spiritually and morally bankrupt people, utterly wanting in faith and charity, and disgustingly claiming to be “Christians” while doing so. They are a cancer to the nation and the world, a pus-filled boil that needs to be lanced sooner rather than later.”

      Right. As a progressive, I’m sure you miss the irony of your own self-righteousness, trying to occupy a moral high ground you do not and cannot occupy. And being quite hateful on top of that. How typical.

  13. For those of us whose takes, opinions and geo-political prescriptions matter very little I think the Pope of Rome, who is the Successor of St. Peter, had the only answer to this threat: prayer for peace. Ave Maria!

    “Never again war!” Pope Francis

  14. In my view, this “purge” from the US military of those who are “not vaccinated” is an attack on the might of the US and an attack on the intelligence /natural understanding of what military force is. For healthy and strong individuals, not being vaccinated is a medical strength against COVID; and acquiring natural immunity wins biological resilience with having to suffer any debilitating effects from the vaccines. Something is terribly wrong and it is to be noted that the idea of purging the military in this way does not come from Russia. I am restraining myself from making further comment.

    https://www.usnews.com/news/top-news/articles/2022-02-02/u-s-army-to-discharge-soldiers-who-refuse-covid-19-vaccine

    https://www.npr.org/2022/02/02/1077625142/u-s-army-covid-vaccination

    https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-army-discharge-soldiers-who-refuse-covid-19-vaccine-2022-02-02/

    https://www.rt.com/news/548139-us-army-vaccination-mandate-separation/

  15. So, I’d like to know where Mr. Weigle gets his information. My family living in in the Ukraine tell a very different story. According to them, Putin did not invade Crimea. My family voted to exercise their constitutional rights and voted along with their fellow countrymen for Crimea to leave the corrupt, unelected government of the Ukraine.

    Now, they are wondering why the US is trying to bring troops there. The EU does not want Ukraine to be part of the European Union and Germany does not want Ukraine to be part of NATO. Ukraine is in such international debt, Russia would be foolish to step[ in. The only thing this whole situation does is take attention away from out own borders.

    Remember the movie ‘Wag The Dog’? That folks is exactly what’s going on here. Unfortunately it is our politicians bring us to the brink of war with Russia, for no reason at all.

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