Vladimir Putin, in his effort to restore the Stalinist legacy in Moscow, exceeds himself as a defender of Russia's totalitarian and genocidal past. In the wake of President George W. Bush's tour of the new post-Soviet democracies, Putin has attempted to revise history.
First, let's begin with a review of accepted history: The Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Georgia, are not Slavic in culture. They have no ethnic affiliation with Russia at all. They were taken over by the tsarist Russians in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1918, all of them declared their independence. The Georgians were re-conquered by the Bolsheviks in 1921. The Balts fought both German and Russian forces, as well as diplomatic trickery, to remain free, and retained their independence until 1939. But then Stalin, after seven years of wavering in the face of Nazi preparations for a new world war, took a decisive step. He allied with Hitler for the re-division of Russia's western frontier. German and Russian armies split up Poland, liquidating the independence that country also gained in 1918.
The Baltic states were absorbed by Moscow and Sovietized, and attempts at real genocide -- the destruction of whole nations -- ensued. Thousands of Baltic citizens, including the intellectual elite of all three countries, were transported to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. The Stalinist policy of "ethnic cleansing" -- 50 years before that miserable euphemism was invented -- inspired Hitler and his cohort to believe that moving "undesirable" people around, and massacring large numbers of them, could be done with
In addition, the Soviets sliced off sections of Romania, which is why there is a separate country called Moldova -- a desperately impoverished orphan of the Stalin-Hitler alliance.
Stalin and Hitler's pact shocked liberal opinion around the world--it even shocked western Communists and ordinary Soviet citizens. For the previous four years, since 1935, the Soviets had thundered that nobody would surpass them in resistance to the Nazis. But from autumn 1939 to summer 1941, Stalin schemed to assist Hitler in the complete conquest of Europe, on the argument that it would be a defeat for the international capitalists.
In 1941, Hitler decided the masquerade was over and invaded Russia. The Soviets were unprepared for this turn, and since Stalin had purged and murdered the majority of the Soviet officer corps, the Russian military was incapable of preventing the Nazi seizure of the Baltic states and most of European Russia and Ukraine. (In the latter instance, Ukrainian nationalists organized movements that fought against both the Nazis and the Stalinists.)
When the border states were re-conquered by the Russians in 1944-45, as we have recently been reminded by President Bush, they continued to suffer national oppression. The independence they had gained after the First World War was either completely snuffed out (the Baltic states were reincorporated in the Soviet Union) or subjected to Soviet domination through limited national sovereignty (Poland).
The United States officially rejected the Soviet absorption of the Baltic states and permitted Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to maintain diplomatic representation in Washington until 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet empire allowed their return to freedom. The Baltic peoples had nothing to celebrate about the Soviet triumph in Eastern Europe. Estonia and Lithuania, for instance, refused to send delegates to the recent hoopla in Moscow to commemorate the end of the Second World War.
Putin now seeks to reassert Russian imperialist "rights" in the border countries -- known in Russia as the "near abroad." He is infuriated with President Bush's forthright admission that the Yalta agreement, which divided Europe between the democracies and Stalin, was a tragic error; he is also enraged by the president's solidarity with the Balts and Georgians, and U.S. condemnation of the dictatorship of Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus.
A reflection of Kremlin anger came on May 12 when Russian secret police boss Alexander Patrushev denounced the United States and Britain, along with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for espionage against Russia. In other words, Bush and Blair are, in the Russian mind, moral equivalents of the Wahhabi terror agents coming from Riyadh and recruiters for the extremist Muslim Brotherhood based in Kuwait. Before 1935, Stalin similarly argued that the democracies and the fascist powers were all the same; the only change is that Islamofascism has replaced the fascists of the past.
Patrushev also repeated the now-common Russian complaint against foreign involvement in democratization of the ex-Soviet republics. But Putin has led the way in the Stalinization of debate over the future of Russia and its neighbors.
According to the Russian president, who calls himself a proud veteran of the Soviet secret police, the Baltic states were never independent and were never invaded or occupied by the Soviets. As quoted by Vladimir Socor of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, the Russian leader declared, "'Russia turned over some of its territories to Germany,' including the territories of what became
the Baltic states. 'In 1939, Germany returned them to us, and these territories joined (voshli v sostav) the Soviet Union.'" Socor also noted "the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement of May 5, which similarly claimed that the Soviet Union could not possibly have occupied what it already possessed."
A century and a half ago the Russian liberal Alexander Herzen wrote, "The revolution of Peter the Great replaced the obsolete squirearchy of Russia -- with a European bureaucracy; everything that could be copied from the Swedish and German laws, everything that could be taken over from the free municipalities of Holland into our half-communal, half-absolutist country, was taken over. But the unwritten, the moral check on power, the instinctive recognition of the rights of man, of the rights of thought, of truth, could not be and were not imported." In Russia, some things may never change.