On May 9, 2005, a grand ceremony in Moscow commemorated the victory over Nazi Germany sixty years ago. The victims of Soviet ‘liberation,’ however, do not join in the commemoration with the same celebratory sentiments. The questions raised publicly and officially for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union concern the central one: victory for whom? According to both Vladimir Putin and what passes for his opposition, May 9, 1945, was a historic victory—their victory—leading to the liberation of half of Europe.
Their main argument is that the USSR paid by far the highest cost in human life—traditionally estimated at some 20 million—during the war. However, it is far from clear why Stalin’s criminal incompetence and total contempt for human life, which unnecessarily magnified the Russian cost in casualties, should now become a justification for rewriting the history of the war.
The Russians argue that by contributing to the defeat of Nazism, Moscow brought “liberation” to Eastern and Central Europe. But the facts are quite different. Poland, whose partitioning in 1939 by Hitler and Stalin marked the beginning of the war, lost the eastern half of her territory and became a Soviet subject; similarly, Romania, at the end of the war an ally of Moscow, lost a fourth of her land as well as her independence. But the worst was the fate of the Baltic states. For the second time in four years, they lost everything: their statehood; some 20% of their people (sent to Siberia); and in the cases of Latvia and Estonia, the near loss of their very ethnic existence through forced Russification.
The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe in the wake of the “Great Patriotic War” also brought about one of the largest campaigns of ethnic cleansing ever: the deportation of some 3 million Germans in then Czechoslovakia and Poland, most of whom had lived there for the better part of a millennium, to what became the Soviet-controlled part of the truncated Germany. The Red Army’s soldiers—self-proclaimed liberators—unleashed a wave of raping, stealing, and brutality on the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe. Even Allied soldiers, like those of Romania, were randomly captured and sent to the Gulag.
Russia has consistently refused to repudiate the 1939 non-aggression pact with Germany, wherein the two partitioned Eastern Europe. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russia's representative in talks with the EU, is a prime example of Russia’s continued denial of the realities of 1945, as his comments about the Baltic States made on May 5 demonstrate: "One cannot use the term ‘occupation’ to describe these historical events. The troop deployment took place on an agreed basis and with the clearly expressed agreement of the existing authorities in the Baltic republics. There was no occupation of foreign territory seized by military means." The Balts would be surprised indeed to find that “their” nonexistent authorities in 1945 “agreed” to Soviet annexation. Yastrzhembsky added that he would advise those seeking constructive relations with Russia not to project “phobias and historical prejudices” onto those relations. Orwell would feel vindicated.
When, in December 2004, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe held hearings on the crimes of communism, a Russian representative held that “communism was not responsible for the deviations of Stalinism, which betrayed the beautiful ideals of Lenin.” That was five months ago!
Many Russians have never fully understood how their role in 1945 was seen quite differently in Eastern Europe than at home, and that for many East Europeans, the Soviet “liberation” – achieved through the wave of Soviet rapes, lootings and deportations, and subsequent domination-- were by no means welcome, to say the least. Russians are often still shocked at the “ingratitude” of their present western neighbors. In that sense, if few others, Putin is indeed representative of his people’s sentiments. Even today Moscow tries hard to bully its neighbors into accepting its version of World War II history. Combine that with his recent claim that the end of the USSR was a “geopolitical catastrophe” and all of the above become much easier to explain.
The presidents of Lithuania and Estonia have pointedly refused to participate in the Moscow celebrations. Latvia’s President, Vaira Vike-Frebeirga, did show up but only to remind the participants of the other, dark side of 1945. President Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland will do the same. Even Vladimir Voronin, Moldova’s self-proclaimed communist president, will be absent after being accused by Moscow of “fascism” for paying respect to the graves of both Soviet and Romanian soldiers fallen in World War II. The term “fascist” for all those who dare to criticize Stalin’s 1945 actions--and occasionally for those who criticize Russia today – remains a rhetorical tool in the Russian media and official language, just as before Putin’s “catastrophe”; it was applied to communist Voronin, East European nationalists and the Baltic democrats alike.
Why is what may appear as quibbles over the past (to some) relevant today? First of all, because today’s Russia sees itself and behaves like Stalin’s successor, albeit, fortunately, without his means. Moscow plays a decisive role in maintaining secessionist (and truly Stalinist) enclaves in Moldova and Georgia, as well as in Azerbaijan. Moscow keeps Alexander Lukashenka’s totalitarian regime in power in Belarus and continuously bullies the Baltic states--after interfering in the democratic process in Georgia and Ukraine.
From the perspective of Russia’s neighbors and victims of the Soviet pseudo-liberation of 1945, Moscow remains a constant threat. The post-1991 East and Central European rush to join NATO, as an act of protection against Russian imperialist reflexes, and the prevailing pro-American sentiments in the region, serve as evidence. Such actions and sentiments stand in sharp contrast to the anti-American mood of Western Europe, an area which has the luxury of distance from Russia and the historic benefit of having been truly liberated—by Americans—in 1945. This contrast is now being played out within the newly expanded EU, as recent debates in the European Parliament in Strasbourg have demonstrated.
When asked to vote on a resolution condemning the infamous Yalta Agreements of 1945, signed by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, which gave the latter what amounted to a free hand over half of Europe, West European leftists were true to form. Belgian Socialist Véronique de Keyser repeated the Russian argument—“One should not insult the memory of some 20 million Russians who perished as liberators”—while her German colleague, Martin Schulz, reminded everyone that “the Red Army helped defeat Nazism and put an end to the Holocaust”--as if the latter was Stalin’s goal or that it could have excused what happened during and after the Soviet “liberation.”
On the other hand, Estonian socialist Toomas Ilves and the Polish Marek Siwiec pointed out that the end of the war was a disaster for their peoples, and that “one must commemorate at the same time the victims of Nazism and communism.” An embarrassed president of the European Parliament, Spanish socialist Josep Borrell, whose idea of commemoration included a violin concerto, was accused by Polish MPs of lack of respect for their country – an opinion shared by the Balts. Ultimately, the East Europeans’ version failed at Strassbourg. Though Western Europeans’ old reflexes of conciliating Moscow may continue unabated, the good news is that the new members do not share them.
Compare that spectacle with President Bush’s public position, expressed in a letter to President Vike-Freiberga: “In western Europe, the end of World War II meant liberation. In central and eastern Europe, the war also marked the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the imposition of communism.” That brought the following reaction from Russian defense Minister Sergey Ivanov:
“That war was won at the cost of countless deaths and the impact on demographics and our living standards is still perceptible. And when some now argue over whether we did or did not occupy other countries, I feel like asking them: 'And what would have become of you if we hadn't broken the back of fascism—would you still exist as a people?'
Answer to Ivanov: we will never know (although the German occupation in the Baltics was, by Nazi standards, fairly benign), but we do know that under Soviet rule, the Balts were almost eradicated as peoples, on purpose.
One has to note that the newly strengthened realism in Washington on matters related to Moscow’s behavior has much to do with the new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, a former academic who specialized in Russian affairs. Accordingly, and encouragingly, the administration has had sharp reaction to Russian protests to President Bush’s visit to Latvia and Georgia, two of Moscow’s historic victims. Even if Putin pretends not to know and the Western Europeans apparently do not know, Russia is no more, and must not be allowed to become again what it was in 1945: the slave master of its neighbors. The more often Washington (and Riga or Warsaw) remind it of these facts, the safer everyone in Europe will be.
Cf. Sylvaine Pasquier, « Pays Baltes-Russie. A chacun sa mémoire, » L'Express, May 2, 2005
Rafaële Rivais, « 8 mai 1945 : la ‘résolution Yalta’ oppose les eurodéputés de l'Est et de l'Ouest, » Le Monde, May 5, 2005.