My grandfather on my father’s side left Latvia in 1912 and tried to encourage others there to emigrate, too. Sadly, most stayed, and they paid the ultimate price when the Soviet communist regime invaded and took over the Baltic states. The authorities exiled my relatives to Siberia, and only one member of the family survived after 17 harrowing years in a labor camp. That family member returned to Riga in the late 1950s, and I visited her every opportunity I could until her death in 2003. I will never forget her story and that of my other relatives—victims of the tragedy that befell so many as a result of the Soviet Union and its communist ideology.
Fast forward to more recent times, and we must start with the fact that Russia has never come to grips with its Soviet, communist past. It has never launched lustration nor brought to justice those responsible for the crimes committed over many decades.
It is hard to imagine that Russia, with its current president coming from the notorious KGB, will address its history accurately and responsibly any time soon.
In fact, the opposite is happening. Putin is using the Soviet past to whip up support for present-day policies. Like his Soviet predecessors, Putin claims to defend the Russian homeland from outside threats and Western aggression; this enables him to justify his way of governing, which entails one of the worst crackdowns on human rights in Russia in decades.
He defends the 1939 Molotov-Robbentrop Pact and the Warsaw Pact—both of these were designed to “protect Russians,” according to Putin. Similar arguments are used to justify actions in Ukraine, even though the Kremlin denies that it is in Ukraine.
In an article in Gazeta Wyborcza on Aug. 31, 2009, Putin said:The Los Angeles Times has an interesting piece recounting how Putin six years ago, in the Polish port of Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity movement, condemned the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that included the secret protocol carving up Poland and other states. Putin said it constituted “collusion to solve one’s problems at others’ expense.” But even in 2009, if you look closely, Putin offered a defense of the Pact.
“There is no doubt that one can have all the reasons to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact concluded in August of 1939. But a year before, in Munich, France and England signed a well-known treaty with Hitler and thus destroyed all the hope for a united front to fight fascism….
“I would like to remind you that our country’s parliament unambiguously assessed the immorality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This has not been the case so far in some other States, though they also made very controversial decisions in the 1930s.”
Fast-forward to November 2014, when Putin said:
“Serious research must show that those were the foreign policy methods then… The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty with Germany. People say: ‘Ach, that’s bad.’ But what’s bad about that if the Soviet Union didn’t want to fight, what’s bad about it?”
A week later, on November 12, 2014, Putin denounced those who “still [put forward] arguments about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact” and blame the Soviet Union for dividing Poland. “But what did Poland itself do, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia?” Putin asked. “It took part of Czechoslovakia. It did this itself. And then, in turn, the same thing happened to Poland.”
In May, the Russian leader praised the 1939 nonaggression accord with Hitler as a clever maneuver that forestalled war with Germany, saying that it “defended the national security of the Soviet Union.”
“First, the [Molotov-Ribbentrop] Pact did mean to keep the Soviet Union safe. Second, I remind you that after the Munich Agreement was signed, Poland itself took actions to annex part of the Czech territory. It so happened that after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the partition of Poland, it ended up being a victim of the very same policy that it had tried to impose on Europe.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who paid her respects for the tremendous losses inflicted on the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany 70 years ago, was standing next to Putin during his defense of the indefensible. She replied: “I would like also to recall that the end of World War II did not bring democracy and freedom for all in Europe,” meaning the Soviet sphere of influence established over large parts of Eastern and Central Europe, including her native East Germany.
It is also worth noting that Merkel used blunt language in describing a more recent outrage, calling Putin’s annexation of Crimea “criminal and illegal […] and a serious setback for […] cooperation.” That stands in stark contrast to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who visited Putin in Sochi two days later and never even mentioned Crimea but profusely thanked Putin for meeting with him.
I remain deeply concerned also by the recent revisionist approach to the legacy of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator’s portrayal during events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII left out the tens of millions of his victims. Textbooks are being rewritten stating as fact that the 1939 pact was justified to fend off Western efforts to encourage Hitler to attack the USSR. There is debate within Russian historical circles about how to treat the past, with a Kremlin push to whitewash all the gross abuses and mistakes. As history professor Aleksei Miller was quoted as saying in a recent Reuters story on the subject, “History is a victim of the current crisis between Russia and Europe.”
Another victim is the Memorial Historical Center of Political Repression Perm-36, whose property has been confiscated by government officials. Having operated as a Stalinist labor camp up until 1988, Perm 36 was the only museum dedicated to political repression in Russia. It is now set to reopen as The Museum of the History of Camps and Workers of the Gulag, and will shift focus from the political prisoners to the camp system more generally.
According to a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 39% of respondents had a positive opinion of Stalin. Forty-five percent of those surveyed agreed that the deaths of Stalin’s millions of victims could be justified for the greater accomplishments of winning the war, building modern industries, and growing to eventually give their U.S. nemesis a battle for supremacy in the arms race and conquering outer space.
I’m deeply worried about the polluting of Russians’ minds as a result of the relentless anti-Western and anti-American propaganda spewed forth by the Kremlin. This includes the dangers of a population becoming inured to the loss of life, to the killings of journalists, opposition leaders, etc.—to whatever claims the regime puts forward to justify its domestic and foreign policies.
That’s why I’m troubled by the demonization of Kremlin opponents and critics, the fabrication of outside threats to Russia coming from the West – these attempts to justify Putin’s way of governing bear striking similarities to Stalin’s claim that he was keeping the USSR safe from outside enemies.
Lost in all this will be an accurate and critically important historical record. Equally distressing is the misuse of revisionist history to justify current domestic and foreign policies.
Much has been made of Ukraine’s law banning Soviet symbols and making a criminal offense denying the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union from 1917-1991. One can have a serious debate about whether this infringes on free speech, but one also must keep in mind the devastating effect Soviet communism had on Ukraine, exacting a death toll in the millions.
Meanwhile, Russia criminalizes the “rehabilitation of Nazism” but also “knowingly spreading false information about the activities of the USSR in WWII.” Who defines what is “false information”?
And what should be done when the Russian state spreads spurious accounts?
In May, a documentary on Russian television made the case that the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was justified, arguing that it was necessary to protect the country against a NATO-backed coup being planned under the cover of the Prague Spring. Of course there was no NATO-backed coup being planned. Kremlin propaganda puts forward the false argument that Ukraine is run by a bunch of fascists, a claim believed by some in the West who should know better.
As I noted above regarding Ukraine, one can never overstate the tremendously damaging and devastating effect Soviet communism has had over the years. That legacy, sadly, continues to this day. But it is also one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of comparing today’s situation to that of the 1930s, or to debate whether we are facing a “New Cold War.” Frankly, recent developments are not even close to the same scale as those that occurred some 80 years ago. As the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation notes, communism is responsible for 100 million victims, many of those from the Soviet Union. Putin, thankfully, lacks the capacity, if not the will, to exact such a toll.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Putin regime is not a threat. It is—but in its own unique way, less based on comparisons to Stalin. It is an evil, corrupt, kleptocratic, authoritarian regime, plain and simple, a regime that distorts history, twists the truth, kills innocent civilians, murders opposition figures, and does anything it can to stay in power. I regret that we have lacked sufficient spine and resolve to stand up to it. I regret that we don’t stand sufficiently with those brave Russians who, if they could, would try in Russia what Ukrainians have done in their country.
The nature of regimes matters. The way a regime treats its own people is often indicative of how it will behave in foreign policy. We saw this with the USSR and the evils of communism, we’re seeing it again under the Putin regime.
In closing, let me recall the words of George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This paper was originally presented during a panel discussion entitled “The Soviet Sphere in Reality and Memory,” hosted by VOC at the Library of Congress on June 11, 2015.