Most large nations are guilty of crimes against humanity. Supporters of these crimes will largely brush them off, too falsely patriotic and in denial to take responsibility for actions that were beyond wrong. But it takes an especially brave individual, particularly in a place like the USSR used to be, to come forward and acknowledge those historical sins and seek in some way to ameliorate their consequences.
Alexander Yakovlev, a senior adviser to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who died today, is often credited as being the "Godfather of Glasnost and Perestroika." In charge of ideology he introduced an openness that eventually led to the dissolution of the USSR.
Of importance to this blog, he initiated the exposure of the 1939 Soviet secret pact with Nazi Germany, or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that paved the way to the Soviet annexation of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The acknowledgement of the occupation of the Baltics alone would cost Yakovlev his head in the Kremlin today, let alone 20 years ago. But he did it, and he didn't do it as an outsider. He fought in the Soviet Army in World War II, and spent his life climbing the ranks of the Communist Party. But in the end he decided that truth was more important than dogma. Maybe it was the decade he spent as envoy to Canada in 1973 - 1983. But somewhere along the line, he made a brave decision.
One thing I regret and admire about my country is our willingness to deal with the past. I must say that I was very pleased when President Clinton invited the victims of the Tuskegee Syphillis Study to the White House in 1997 and apologized to them on behalf of the American people. I felt the same way about when Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush agreed to pay economic redress to Japanese-Americans who were relocated to internment camps during World War II. The government of Estonia has made similar gestures recently, opening a Holocaust memorial in Klooga to those that died in the concentration camps there in WWII and condemning the actions of Estonians that took part in those camps.
Still, sadly, I feel my country, and many others still have much to 'fess up for. Guys like Yakovlev, though, did the right thing. Perhaps the current occupants of the Kremlin could learn a thing or two from the older generation.