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Gorbachev being bold again

Ronald Reagan is gone. The Berlin Wall is gone. The Cold War is gone. But Mikhail Gorbachev remains. And he is still taking dangerous chances for democracy in a part of the globe where politics always will be a contact sport.

In a finely-tuned attack on the ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Gorbachev warned about whitewashing the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin and stressed the need for democratic ideals. Gorbachev's fear is that Putin is "rehabilitating" Stalin's reputation as a thug as a precursor to following in his footsteps. But Gorbachev, the architect of "glasnost" and the patriarch of Russian peace, is having none of it.

"It is impossible to live in the present or build long-term plans for the future if the disease of forgetfulness afflicts the country," Gorbachev said.

The remarks were a stinging rebuke to Putin and a call for forward-thinking Russians to take action. But more than that, his comments were a plea for the preservation of cultural memory in all countries and a shot across the bow of those who would revise history with a political agenda in mind.

The past always will appear to be naive and short on information in hindsight. And one day, when the present slips into the past, the current way of thinking will likely also look wrong headed. All we have to go on, Gorbachev is saying, are the facts — recorded with a dry eye and handed down with integrity.

To begin with, Stalin's crimes must be catalogued as carefully as the Holocaust. To date, little has been done to record the names of the slaughtered. More than 1.7 million people were arrested in Russia between 1937 and 1938. More than 818,000 of those were shot. But the Russian government lacks the political will to preserve that fact in the national memory banks.

Putin is slowly erasing the textbooks. He is restoring the symbols and national anthem from the Soviet era. He is pushing patriotism and pride. He stresses that his nation has nothing to atone for and should never feel guilty for the necessary actions of Stalin.

Gorbachev sees the danger of that and is bravely speaking out.

The least the rest of the world can do is listen.