By Anne Applebaum
Try, if you can, to picture the scene. A vast crowd in Red Square: Lenin’s tomb and Stalin’s memorial in the background. Soldiers march in goose step behind rolling tanks, and the air echoes with martial music, occasionally drowned out by the whine of fighter jets. On the reviewing stand, statesmen are gathered: Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former dictator of Poland — and President George W. Bush.
That description may sound fanciful or improbable. It is neither. On the contrary, that is more or less what will appear on your television screen May 9, when the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II is celebrated in Moscow. I have exaggerated only one detail: Although Kim Jong Il has been invited, his attendance has not yet been confirmed. But Jaruzelski is definitely coming, as are Lukashenko, Bush and several dozen other heads of state. President Vladimir Putin of Russia will preside.
Not every European country will be represented, however, because not everybody feels quite the same way about this particular date. In the Baltic states, for example, May 1945 marked the end of the war but also the beginning of nearly a half-century of Soviet occupation, during which one in 10 Balts were murdered or deported to concentration camps and exile villages. The thought of applauding the same Red Army veterans who helped “pacify” their countries after 1945 was too much for the Estonian and Lithuanian presidents, who have refused to attend. Although the Latvian president will attend the Moscow festivities, she’s had to declare that she will use her trip to talk about the Soviet occupation. The president of Poland also has spent much of the past month justifying his decision to celebrate this particular anniversary in Moscow. By May 1945, after all, the leaders of what had been the Polish anti-Nazi resistance were already imprisoned in the Lubyanka, the KGB’s most notorious Moscow prison.
The Russian president hasn’t made anyone’s trip easier. Recently he told a radio interviewer that the Soviet Union was justified in signing the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, in which the two totalitarian powers agreed to divide Poland and cede the Baltic states to the U.S.S.R. The Soviet Union, Putin said, was within its rights to protect the “security of its western borders,” as if annexing other countries were a legitimate form of border patrol. This week Putin went on to describe the collapse of the Soviet Union — which resulted in the liberation of Eastern Europe — as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, presumably ranking it higher than the war itself. His countrymen, in symbolic agreement, have commissioned a host of new Stalin statues around the country to commemorate the end of the war.
To its credit, the White House is trying to mitigate the impact of what is, at the very least, an extraordinarily bad photo opportunity and is nicely blossoming into a full-fledged controversy as well. Bush will go to Latvia before Moscow, to meet with the Baltic leaders — all now members of NATO and therefore U.S. allies — and afterward will visit the Georgian Republic, where a democratically elected president has recently taken power in the teeth of Russian opposition. But if we are to avoid turning the anniversary of the end of World War II into a celebration of the triumph of Stalinism, more should be done. To begin with, Congress should vote on a resolution proposed this month by Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), which calls on Russia to condemn the Nazi-Soviet pact as well as the illegal annexation of the Baltic states. “The truth is a powerful weapon for healing, forgiving and reconciliation,” the resolution states, in a burst of unusual congressional eloquence, “but its absence breeds distrust, fear and hostility.”
Bush, too, should show that he understands what really happened in 1945. Every recent U.S. president has visited Auschwitz, and many have visited concentration camps in Germany, too. Perhaps it’s time for American presidents to start a new tradition and pay their respects to the victims of Stalin. This is made difficult by the dearth of monuments in Moscow, but it isn’t impossible. The president could, for example, lay a wreath at the stone that was brought from the Solovetsky Islands, the Soviet Union’s first political prison camp, and placed just across from the Lubyanka itself. Or he could visit one of the mass-execution sites outside of town.
Of course these would be nothing more than purely symbolic gestures. But a war anniversary is a purely symbolic event. Each commemoration helps all of us remember what happened and why it happened, and each commemoration helps us draw relevant lessons for the future. To falsify the record — to commemorate the triumph of totalitarianism rather than its defeat — sends the wrong message to new and would-be democracies in Europe, the former Soviet Union and the rest of the world.