Ancora su wwII
Russia, Poland and history. Mr Putin regrets. Russia bandages a wound in Poland
Dal BLOG di Edward Lucas, Sep 3rd 2009, From The Economist print edition
IT IS hard to imagine modern Germany haggling with Poland about opening wartime archives, let alone over who started the war. With Russia, it is different. Vladimir Putin’s visit to Gdansk, where a ceremony this week marked the first shots of the second world war in September 1939, was both a step forward and a depressing sign of continuing difficulties.
Polish officials struggled to stay polite before the Russian prime minister’s arrival. In June the Russian defence ministry website argued that Poland had caused the war by provoking Hitler. Last month a Kremlin-controlled television channel claimed that Poland had been conspiring with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Russian intelligence echoed this in a new dossier. And Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, denied that the Soviet Union bore any responsibility for the outbreak of war.
Poles find such talk outrageous. The liberation of Poland from the Nazis, in which some 600,000 Soviet soldiers died, is seen as a mixed blessing, as it led to 45 years of ruinous and sometimes murderous communist rule. The country’s president, Lech Kaczynski, spoke for many when he reminded Mr Putin that the Soviet Union had “stabbed Poland in the back” with its own invasion on September 17th 1939. He compared the wartime Katyn massacre of 20,000 captured Polish officers by Stalin’s secret police to the Holocaust. When the president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, was prime minister, such blunt talk put relations with Russia (and with similarly detested Germany) into the deep freeze.
Since he became prime minister in 2007, the emollient Donald Tusk has made friends with Germany and is now thawing relations with Russia too. He hoped that inviting Mr Putin to Gdansk with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, would make it impossible for the Russian leader to promote a Soviet-style version of history. Poland’s own account of its history may never quite chime with its neighbours’. But disagreements with Germany—chiefly over post-war expulsions of ethnic Germans—are manageable. With Russia, history is an open wound.
Mr Putin lightly bandaged it without admitting any responsibility. He called Katyn a “crime” and said that there were “good reasons” for condemning the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (secret protocols to that deal divided up eastern Europe). But he did not use the unambiguous language that Poles had hoped for. He said the pact was one mistake among many, likening it to the Munich agreement of 1938 when Britain and France bullied Czechoslovakia into accepting dismemberment (a dismemberment, Mr Putin spikily pointed out, in which Poland participated).
Today Munich is seen as a shameful low point in British diplomacy. Few Russians see the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that way. Indeed, no sooner had Mr Putin finished speaking than Konstantin Semin, a presenter on Russia’s official television station, said “we have nothing to repent of and we should not apologise to anyone: the pact was the only possible solution, which preserved the lives of Poles, among others.” He also doubted the authenticity of the pact’s secret protocols.
Even the hoped-for declassification of Soviet archives is proving inconclusive. Mr Putin said this would go ahead, but only on a strictly mutual basis. That may be tricky: Poland’s wartime archives are already declassified—and somewhat scanty, not least thanks to Russian visitors.
The unhistory man. Russia should do more to condemn Stalin’s crimes—for its own sake
Dal BLOG di Edward Lucas, Sep 3rd 2009, Leading article from The Economist print edition
EVERY country highlights the good bits in its history and ignores the bad. Russia’s keenness that none should forget the great sacrifices its people made in the second world war—it did more than any other country to defeat the Nazis—is therefore understandable. Yet its determination to whitewash the darker bits of its past goes far beyond normal image-polishing and ranks among the most sinister features of Vladimir Putin’s ten years as Russia’s dominant political force.
At this week’s commemorative ceremonies in Gdansk, Mr Putin offered his Polish hosts some comfort (see article). Unlike Russian official media in recent weeks, he did not blame Poland for starting the war, or try to claim that the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland on September 17th 1939 was justified. Unlike several Russian commentators, he did not maintain that the Nazis rather than the Soviets had perpetrated the Katyn massacre of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in 1940. And unlike official Russian history books, which talk mostly of the “Great Patriotic War” that started only when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, he accepted September 1939 as the beginning of the conflict.
Yet Mr Putin’s remarks still reflect a worrying blind spot. Under his leadership, Russia has rewritten history to reinstate the Stalinist version, in which the Soviet Union bears no guilt for the war or for the enslavement of eastern Europe. Mr Putin has been evasive about the iniquity of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the secret 1939 deal that led to the carve-up of Poland and other east European countries. And he has described the Soviet Union’s collapse as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, which jars with those who see the end of communism as a blessed liberation. No wonder some in eastern Europe detect a worrying new revanchism.
As well as rewriting the past, Mr Putin has closed Russia’s archives again and criminalised attempts to rebut his version of history. Under a new law, anyone who “falsifies” the Kremlin’s version of history, for example by equating Hitler and Stalin, two of the 20th century’s worst mass murderers, may be prosecuted. Suggesting that 1945 brought not liberation but new occupation for eastern Europe is also banned.
All this marks a big step back from the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin bravely came to terms with the horrors of Russia’s past. In 1991 he apologised to Estonia for its forcible annexation by the Soviet Union. He also opened up previously secret Soviet wartime archives. That put Russia on the same track as post-war Germany, which has spent decades in the commendable pursuit of reconciliation with victims of Nazism.
The biggest victims at home — Just as the Russians suffered most from communism, so the worst damage from revived Soviet-style history is done to Russia itself. It has become an ingredient in the toxic mix of xenophobia and chauvinism that the official Russian media, especially television, repeatedly serve up. The Kremlin uses history as a weapon to imply that east European countries which see the past differently are closet Nazis. It also tacitly justifies the loss of freedom at home as a price worth paying to defeat imaginary external enemies.
The renovation of Kurskaya metro station in Moscow last month restored a Soviet-era plaque glorifying Stalin for inspiring “labour and heroism”. The dictator’s rehabilitation is a shameful betrayal of ordinary Russians’ suffering. The Kremlin should admit that Stalin was Hitler’s accomplice before 1941, and that this nefarious alliance made the war far more dreadful than it otherwise would have been, not least for the people of the Soviet Union.
Mentioning the war
Dal BLOG di Edward Lucas, Sep 3rd 2009, From Economist.com
What Vladimir Putin should have said in Gdansk
Honoured Guests, Dear Excellencies:
My German counterpart Willy Brandt launched his country’s reconciliation with Poland by bending his knee at the Warsaw ghetto memorial in 1970. My aim today is less ambitious, but I would like to begin by stating unequivocally that my government regards the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, especially its secret protocols, as a crime, and a direct contributor to the Nazi attack on Poland that we are marking today.
Those were dark and shameful years for many countries. Out of deference to my British friends I will not mention the Munich agreement, and out of politeness to my hosts I will not cite the Polish land grab of Cieszyn that followed it. But many wrongs do not make a right. As a Russian leader it is my responsibility to ensure that my country acknowledges both the bright and black spots in our history. Our pride at the sacrifice and heroism showed by the Russian people—and by many others in the Soviet Union—in defeating Hitler does not mean that we cannot mourn the victims and crimes of Stalinism both at home and abroad.
I represent the Russian Federation; I cannot take direct responsibility for the actions of another country. So I cannot apologise for the Soviet Union’s shameful and unprovoked attack on Poland on September 17th. I can certainly condemn it, and I do so now. I similarly condemn the illegal annexation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, just as I rejoice in their renewed statehood after 1991.
I should like to make special mention of the Katyn massacre. I deplore attempts in Russia to revive the Soviet-era lie that this was the work of the Nazis, or to claim that other tragic events somehow justify the atrocity. I am ordering with immediate effect the declassification of all files relating to this event, and look forward to the speedy judicial rehabilitation of the victims.
I would also like to clarify my much-quoted remark about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the geopolitical catastrophe of the past century. Like many Soviet citizens, I found the end of the life we had known to be shockingly disruptive and painful. The human, and particularly demographic, consequences of the stress and upheaval that it caused are with us to this day. But let me be clear on two things. The collapse of communism was a liberation for the Russian people, just as it was for the other—and I stress other—captive nations of the Soviet empire. Secondly, my government has no desire to recreate the Soviet empire. Any talk of a sphere of privileged interests must not be misunderstood: the privilege of close ties is a mutual one, based on mutual respect, not on old imperial sentiments.
We will never see history quite the same. Russian hearts will always freeze at the sight of veterans parading in SS uniforms in Latvia, Estonia or Ukraine, however much we may with our heads try to understand the impossible choices that led people to wear them. We may never quite see Hitler and Stalin as two sides of the same coin, as some of you do. But I hope we can at least agree to disagree in a spirit of mutual respect. I urge my compatriots, in public office, in the media and elsewhere, to join me in this endeavour.
[footnote--I do realise that veterans do not parade in SS uniforms in Latvia or other countries, though SS veterans do have meetings. I wanted to write this as the sort of thing that Putin could conceivably have said, so the slight error was to give authenticity. Sadly this seems to have set some hares running]
Sticks and stones. Russia needs to play nice
Dal BLOG di Edward Lucas, Aug 27th 2009, From Economist.com
NAUGHTY and tiresome children like insults (both overt and needling) as well as implausible and elaborate excuses. “He wouldn’t give it to me and it was mine anyway and also I was going to give it back so I hit him”.
As your columnist’s children grow up, the need to untangle their tantrums, feuds and nonsense is becoming pleasingly rare. Sadly, the same can’t be said for some grownups.
Start with the needling. As Paul A. Goble, a foreign-affairs analyst, noted this week, Russia’s president Dmitri Medvedev has pointedly used the preposition “na” [on], favoured during Soviet times, rather than the more recent “v” [in] when referring to Ukraine. That is the sort of thing that children do: habitually mispronounce someone’s name in order to irritate them.
Mr Medvedev’s prepositional condescension came during a scathing personal attack on the Ukrainian president in which he said Russia would not be sending another ambassador to Kiev (or Kyiv, as Ukrainians prefer it spelled). At a childish level, this is badmouthing a classmate and refusing to acknowledge his birthday.
The 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on August 23rd provided more opportunities for what until recently would have been seen as extraordinary behaviour. The same day, a film called “The Secrets of Confidential Files”, broadcast on Russia’s Vesti national television channel (meaning it had official endorsement), said that the pact was a necessary response to Poland’s signing of a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1934. That is like a child explaining a playground scrap on the lines of “Bill was friends with Phil so when Phil beat Bill up I joined in too.” Except that in this case the result was not a black eye and scraped knee, but the deaths of many millions of people.
This is not just nonsense, but revoltingly insensitive. It is rather as if German official media were casually blaming Jews for the Holocaust. And it is not a one-off. An article on the Russian defence ministry’s website in June claimed that Poland’s unreasonable behaviour towards Nazi Germany had justified Hitler’s attack.
These and other insults come as Poland is awaiting a visit by Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, to a ceremony in Gdansk on September 1st, marking the anniversary of the Nazi attack. Poland hopes that Mr Putin will at least express mild regret about the Soviet aggression against Poland on September 17th 1939. At events in Prague on the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion, and in Budapest on the anniversary of the crushing of the 1956 uprising, Mr Putin managed that, soothing his hosts while not engaging in what many Russians would see as unseemly breast-beating.
Poland hopes that the visit will bring some practical movement on what are tactfully known as “difficult issues” (diplo-speak, in this case, for mass murder). The biggest of these is the Katyn massacre. Paying compensation to the relatives of the 20,000 Polish officers and prisoners of war murdered in cold blood in 1940 is probably too much to ask. But it might be possible to reach agreement on, say, a joint documentation centre.
Even a chance of that modest prize comes at a high price. In order not to jeopardise Mr Putin’s visit, Poland has to swallow hard when its history is traduced.
As last week’s column pointed out, no country can look back on its history without shame, and modern Russia does not need to feel perpetually burdened by the crimes of the Soviet Union. But neither must it revel in them. Knowing how to end an argument by saying “sorry” nicely is a sign of a well brought-up child (and of a decent
No comparison. Criminalising historical investigation is wrong
Dal BLOG di Edward Lucas, Aug 21st 2009, From Economist.com
(Links to the material cited here are in the version on the website)
HOW far does context determine blame and praise? That is a question facing anyone who wants to pass a judgment or make an observation on Hitler, Stalin or the weather. Taken to one extreme, when every attribute is seen in complete isolation, morals and reason disappear. Hitler was nice to animals. Stalin loved children. Churchill drank too much. John F Kennedy was a philanderer. It is a cool day in summer, so global warming is a nonsense.
At the other extreme, when everything is connected, judgment becomes impossible for fear of leaving out some important comparison. Why complain about Stalin when you could write about Mao? What about the 19th century colonial empires? They killed millions more than the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Who are you as a British/American /German/Chinese/Russian commentator to say anything about Russia/Germany/China/America/Britain? That may be a good debating tactic, but it leads to mental paralysis: when everything matters, nothing matters.
The stormy response to a recent column about an OSCE resolution equating Stalin and Hitler highlights the issue. One line of attack goes like this: the article “forgot” to mention the crimes of the British. It is certainly true that Britain has much to be ashamed of before, during and after the second world war. The Munich agreement with Hitler to eviscerate Czechoslovakia is one (which the article mentioned); the deportation of Cossacks and other anti-Soviet forces to certain death after the war in Operation Keelhaul is another. A third was decades of denial that the Katyn massacre was the work of the Soviets, not the Nazis (that subject occasionally surfaces in this column too).
But the article was not trying to argue Soviet history is more (or less) wicked than Britain’s. Any such comparisons are fraught with difficulty, not least over how you measure wickedness. It does not come in convenient units (evils, giga-evils, tera-evils) that can be neatly added up to produce a balance sheet of murder and mayhem.
What can be said, quite clearly, is that Britain, like almost all other countries that claim to be civilised, does not criminalise investigation into its history. If you are an Australian who wants to research the genocidal treatment of Tasmanians, or an American who wants to write about the bombing of German civilians, you may even get a scholarship. Unlike in Russia, you certainly don’t risk a jail sentence. The resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe is chiefly admirable because it challenges the Kremlin’s attempt to put this area of inquiry off limits.
The OSCE resolution is open to legitimate challenge. John Laughland, a British historian at the pro-Kremlin Institute for Democracy and Co-operation in Paris, argued on the Russia Today channel that politicians make bad historians. Nobody comes out well from the run-up to the second world war. Poland, he noted, helped dismember Czechoslovakia, seizing the town of Cieszyn/Tĕšin. Hitler’s plan to attack Poland predates the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, so that deal, shameful though it was, did not provide the definitive go-ahead for the invasion. Mr Laughland also argues that Nazism’s central features were war and racial persecution, whereas Soviet communism was neither racist nor (under Stalin) expansionist.
These are indeed good subjects for historians. But it does not mean that politicians should ignore them. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is not a uniquely iniquitous event. Even Mr Putin (shown here speaking on the issue at a press conference on May 10th 2005) seems a bit hazy about the details. So the 70th anniversary of the Stalin-Hitler deal is a good time to raise it in discussion—particularly in countries where doing so runs no risk of prosecution.
Summer reading. Investigations, analyses and a rediscovered novel
Dal BLOG di Edward Lucas, Aug 6th 2009, From Economist.com
NOTHING happens in eastern Europe during August, save the odd war, coup or financial collapse, so people interested in the region have a whole month to catch up on good books, old and new. This summer brings a crop that should keep even a speed reader busy. “Revolution 1989″, by Victor Sebestyen, offers a digestible and colourful history of that miraculous year. Andrew Roberts’s “The Storm of War”, is a rare example of a British writer giving the second world war’s eastern front proper prominence. “Londongrad: From Russia with Cash,” (pictured below) by Mark Hollingsworth and Stewart Lansley, is a racy and alarming investigation of the effect of Russian money on Britain.
At the more specialist end of the spectrum, Tom Gallagher’s new book about Romania and the EU—subtitled “How the weak vanquished the strong”—gives a bleak and gripping account of how wily ex-communist bureaucrats bamboozled the outside world and swindled their own people. Those who read his previous book, the excellent “Theft of a Nation”, will know what to expect. Espionage aficionados will enjoy the densely written but convincing “Spies” by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, which tells the (true) story of KGB activities in North America.
Your columnist flirted with some ambitious ideas such as rereading Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, or finishing the Miklos Banffy trilogy about aristocratic life in pre-communist Transylvania. What he actually ended up packing was a newly republished (by Faber & Faber) edition of William Palmer’s neglected 1990 classic, “The Good Republic”. Good contemporary fiction about the region is rare (Tibor Fischer’s “Under the Frog” is an exception). Corny spy thrillers, littered with topographical howlers, unlikely plots and plonking sex scenes, are the standard fare.
Mr Palmer’s book set a standard for an east European historical novel that has yet to be matched—an especially impressive feat for an outsider.
It is mainly set during the Soviet takeover of the Baltics in 1939-40, so this year’s anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact makes it highly topical. Even more vivid than the deportations and executions are the descriptions of the swift decay of statehood and legality: the policeman trampled by pro-Soviet demonstrators, civil servants struggling to uphold the constitution, the sinister placemen issuing instructions, the president a prisoner in his palace. Then comes the Soviet retreat and the Nazi occupation—a sinister non-liberation, bringing a terrible fate to the Jewish population, and a moral abyss for those who directly or indirectly abet it.
All this comes as flashbacks, seen through the eyes of the young Jacob Balthus. At the start of the book he is a Baltic émigré in London, who has spent decades running the pointless and, by the 1980s, almost defunct “Congress of Exiles”. He returns at the invitation of the nascent pro-democracy movement in his homeland, where his father was a senior civil servant in the days of interwar independence.
The fractious and futile-seeming life of east European émigré organisations is well drawn, as is the trembling excitement of the late 1980s when once-forbidden contacts were first permitted and then flourished. But even better is the description of the (composite) pre-war Baltic country in which the young Balthus grows up, so solid from his point of view, so terrifyingly fragile for his wise, well-informed father.
Remarkably, Mr Palmer did not visit the Baltic states before writing the book; his research mainly consisted of reading transcripts of evidence given to congressional hearings by senior Baltic figures who had escaped to the West. It is a tribute to his novelist’s skills that anyone reading the book has the feeling of complete authenticity in both history and geography. Readers are left longing for a sequel.