Moscow’s Misplaced Indignation

Jul 21, 2009
By Vladimir Ryzhkov, The Moscow Times

This summer marks a number of tragic dates — the 70th anniversaries of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of Aug. 23, 1939, the start of World War II on Sept. 1, the Soviet Army’s entry into Poland on Sept. 17 and the partitioning of Poland between Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. And the closer those dates approach, the stranger, if not more foolish, becomes the position taken by Russia’s rulers. The authorities label any criticism of Stalin’s actions or the crimes of his regime as criticisms of Russia and Russians, and even an affront to the memory of the Soviet people’s wartime dead and heroic deeds. By doing so, modern Russia, for some reason, increasingly associates itself with Stalinism. Not only does this fail to raise the country’s prestige and improve its foreign policy positions, but it causes Russia to become even more isolated and could spark conflicts with its neighbors.

The biggest uproar in recent weeks was caused by a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that refers to a European Parliament initiative to declare Aug. 23 — the date the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed — as a day of commemoration for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. The resolution notes that Europeans suffered from two powerful totalitarian regimes in the 20th century — Hitler’s and Stalin’s — that committed genocide, human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The resolution calls for every OSCE member country to firmly reject all forms of totalitarian rule, continue studying the tragic past and educate its youth in the spirit of respect for human dignity and rights as well as basic human freedoms, pluralism, democracy and tolerance. The resolution also calls on member countries to reject any justification and glorification of totalitarian regimes of the past and to open all archives for research. The resolution does not contain a single word about World War II or its causes. It does not deny the crucial role played by the Soviet Union in achieving victory or the heroism displayed by the Soviet people in battling the Nazi forces.

Even so, Russia’s reaction to the resolution bordered on hysterical. First, Alexander Kozlovsky, the head of Moscow’s delegation to the OSCE, called the resolution “a public insult against all Russians” and said, “Those who place Nazism and Stalinism on the same level forget that it is the Stalin-era Soviet Union that made the biggest sacrifices and the biggest contribution to liberating Europe from fascism.”

Next, Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, saw the resolution as “nothing but an attempt to rewrite the history of World War II by placing responsibility for its causes, course and results equally on Hitler’s Germany and the former Soviet Union.”
Anyone who has taken the trouble to actually read the resolution will find that it makes no attempt to rewrite history or undermine the Soviet Union’s role. Rather than focus on a possible connection between the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the start of World War II one week later, the resolution looks at the symbolic political alliance between Hitler and Stalin. This relationship was officially established in August 1939 and confirmed not only by their subsequent partitioning of territory in Eastern Europe and the two countries’ economic and military cooperation, but also by telegrams exchanged between Hitler, Stalin and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in December 1939. One such telegram from Stalin to Ribbentrop spoke of the “historical hours in the Kremlin in which the beginning of a decisive turning point in the relations between both great peoples has been laid, creating the basis for an enduring friendship between us” and of the “friendship of the peoples of Germany and the Soviet Union, bonded by blood.” A debate can and should be held as to whether Stalin’s pact with Hitler in August 1939 was the critical factor in Hitler’s decision to attack Poland or if a chain of events led up to it, including the Munich Agreement of 1938. Also worthy of direct and candid assessment are the partitioning of Eastern Europe and what was essentially an alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany from September 1939 until June 1941.

But why does Russia reject the OSCE resolution as a whole? Is it possible that it does not agree with the characterization of Stalin’s regime as totalitarian and criminal? Is it possible that Russia is opposed to the protection of human rights and freedoms, the opening of all archives and the search for historical truth? The most appropriate response would have been for Russia to fully support the OSCE resolution’s condemnation of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes and their crimes against humanity but at the same time propose further study to clarify the roles each power played in starting the war. It is incontestable that Hitler and his regime were responsible for unleashing the war — as was determined by the findings of the Nuremburg Trials. However, Stalin, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and even the United States for its isolationist policies at that time all must share in the historical responsibility of putting up inadequate resistance to an increasingly powerful Hitler and thereby contributing to his rise. That is a subject for a separate, major discussion requiring the efforts of historians and the opening of all pertinent archives. However, the fact that the Allies won the war does not in any way justify writing off the monstrous crimes committed by Stalin and his regime.

Russia needn’t fear the truth. It should have long ago opened up access to all documents pertaining to the Katyn Massacre, the mass deportation of Baltic citizens in 1940 and following the war, Stalin’s organized mass famines on agrarian territories in Ukraine and elsewhere in the early 1930s, the looting, violence and rape committed by Soviet troops in Europe at the end of the war and the gulag. Modern Russia is not the direct successor of that criminal and totalitarian regime, and it is not responsible for its crimes. Russia should calmly and firmly condemn the crimes committed by Stalin’s regime and its unprecedented brutality aimed primarily against its own citizens. We have an obligation to expose the inhumanity of that regime to our children in both textbooks and museums. This has long been the practice in Germany regarding Hitler’s regime, in Spain regarding the regime of Francisco Franco, in Portugal regarding the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, in Greece regarding the “Regime of the Colonels” and in Italy regarding the regime of Benito Mussolini.

The current defense of Stalin and his crimes constitutes the real insult to the Russian people. After all, it was the Russian people themselves who achieved unparalleled victory despite suffering enormous losses and having to endure long years of terror under one of the century’s bloodiest and most ruthless dictators.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

© Copyright 2007. The Moscow Times. All rights reserved.