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Russia: Past Imperfect -- Focus Remains On 'Bright Pages' Of History (Part 1)

  • Kathleen Moore

In Russia, many of the old Soviet-era historical taboos are long gone. But while Russian history textbooks tell stories unthinkable a few years ago, they're not always very probing in their discussions. While historians can more or less access what they want, publishing it is a different matter. And when less-than-flattering accounts are aired, reaction can be hostile. As RFE/RL reports, it all adds up to a patchy record on dealing with the murkier aspects of the Soviet past.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The period of glasnost began gradually to sweep away a lot of the Soviet-era historical taboos, a process that accelerated when the Soviet Union collapsed a decade ago. Many of Russia's archives opened, giving historians access to masses of previously secret documentation. And school textbooks have been purged of the Marxist-Leninist ideology that predetermined historic interpretation.

But shedding light on some chapters of recent history can still provoke anger in Russia, particularly if they are seen as sullying the record of the Soviet Red Army during World War II and the country's triumph over Nazi Germany.

One recent example is a new book detailing the widespread rape of thousands of German, Polish, and Ukrainian women by Red Army soldiers at the close of the war. Grigorii Karasin, Russia's ambassador to the U.K., denounced the claims in British historian Antony Beevor's book as "obvious lies and insinuations" and a "clear case of slander against the people who saved the world from Nazism."

Another recent such episode was the opening last year of a museum on the site of Germany's Sachsenhausen Nazi concentration camp. That caused controversy for highlighting the thousands of people who died there after the camp was taken over by the NKVD, or Soviet secret police.

Nikita Petrov is a historian with the Moscow human-rights organization Memorial, and a specialist in the history of Soviet-era repressions. He said the current attitude of many Russian historians is best summed up by a remark Russian President Vladimir Putin made two years ago. "He said we have bright and we have dark pages in our history. When you think about this, it's clear that he made a sign to people, that there's not only dark sides of our history we have to consider -- always mix it with some good or positive things like some great victory, or maybe some economic achievements," Petrov said.

Petrov said it's no problem nowadays for determined scholars to see archived files, thanks to a 1993 law requiring files not sensitive to national security to be declassified after 30 years.

But getting a paper on a sensitive topic published can be an altogether trickier matter, he said. No journal or book publisher is interested in hearing about Red Army crimes such as rape and theft at the end of the war. "A few years ago, they explained it's not possible to publish such kinds of things because it was the 55th anniversary of the great victory [of World War II]. Last year, they said it's impossible because it's 60 years since the start of the Great Patriotic War. And so on and so on," Petrov said.

He said that many historians therefore steer clear of such topics altogether. "They still keep silent, or they pay attention to more innocent subjects than this. This is a little bit hot for them, these crimes by the Red Army or NKVD troops in Germany," Petrov said.

Richard Pipes is a widely recognized authority on Russia and the Soviet Union and the author of several books on Russia and communism. He said it's not surprising many Russians find it hard to hear about past wrongs like the Red Army's wartime atrocities. He said if suffering is mentioned, it is always that of the Russians. "There have been books published on Soviet-German collaboration in military buildup in the '20s and early '30s. They have reported very accurately now on the enormous casualties taken by the Soviet Army in World War II: They were very frightening and the result of complete indifference to human life by the Soviet high command. But they all have to do with the suffering of Russians rather than the suffering of others. Of course, there are people who can confront it, but on the whole, Russians are unwilling to confront it because World War II was the one time when the people of the Soviet Union and their government were at one and had a common purpose," Pipes said.

Russian schoolchildren are now being taught from textbooks that have been rewritten to shed the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the past, but critics say there's still a lot of room for improvement: Darker events are often mentioned in passing, without proper context and with their far-reaching consequences glossed over.

Take the Nazi-Soviet "nonaggression" pact of 23 August 1939, signed by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov. This agreement effectively gave Adolf Hitler a free hand to invade Poland and begin World War II. And secret protocols divvied up parts of Eastern Europe into separate spheres of influence, setting up the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states.

For decades, the official Soviet line was that the secret protocols did not exist. Peter Duncan, senior lecturer in Russian politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies and University College London, explained: "What the USSR said was that Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians had joined the USSR of their own free will, that meetings had taken place that were constitutional in terms of the Baltic states, which had voluntarily decided that they wanted to join the Soviet Union. So [there's] no room for any kind of agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany about the future of these countries; rather, the line was that they had freely chosen to join the Soviet Union," Duncan said.

Since the original documents were declared "found" in 1992, they have even been on public display in Moscow. But the official Russian official is still that the Baltic states joined the Soviet Union voluntarily and in keeping with international law at the time.

Vera Kaplan has made a study of contemporary Russian history textbooks for Tel Aviv University's Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies. She said that most explain the pact as the response to the geopolitical situation of the time. And she said even the more progressive ones pay little attention to the Soviet repressions and mass deportations of Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. "As a rule, they try to very briefly show just the factual sequence of events. Very few authors speak of how there was a policy of repression. Even if they mention the repressions and forced collectivization that began in these republics, they underline that it was a continuation of the policy that was being carried out in the whole of the USSR. In other words, the national aspect is either missing or reduced to a minimum. And the issue that practically no author of textbooks has approached is that question of resistance, the issue of how the population of these republics interacted with an army which for them was an occupying force," Kaplan said.

But Kaplan noted one positive development: Textbooks now include documents, such as the pact with its protocols, to accompany texts. So students can find out more and make up their own minds. And she said, the review of history teaching is an ongoing process.

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