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Molotov-Ribbentrop: 70 Years On, Russians Loyal To Their Version Of Events

  • Kevin O'Flynn

German and Soviet troops at the so-called "Border of Peace," the demarcation line set up by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in September 1939.

German and Soviet troops at the so-called "Border of Peace," the demarcation line set up by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in September 1939.

MOSCOW -- The past is a controversial subject in Russia. And the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is no exception.

The nonaggression pact, signed on August 23, 1939, by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, included a secret protocol that divided up Northern and Eastern Europe into Nazi and Soviet "spheres of influence."

In the run-up to the anniversary, Russia's state television and newspapers pushed a version of historical events that saw the pact as a logical extension of the pan-European negotiations that preceded the start of World War II in 1939.

It's a bitter anniversary for the Baltic states, Poland, and the other countries where peoples' fates were committed overnight to decades of Soviet domination. But on the streets of Moscow, the pact is seen differently.

Many people say the pact was necessary to buy the Soviet Union time to prepare for what was seen as an inevitable war with Hitler. Many are unaware of the secret protocol that divided up Eastern Europe between Russia and Germany.

'It's Political Intrigue'

Soviet officials refused to acknowledge the secret protocol until 1989. However, even those who know about the deal -- like 32-year-old Aleksei -- feel little sympathy for the people caught in the middle.

"If the Baltics think that we are invaders, it's a mistake," he said, "We saved them. They were a poor country that we raised up from nothing. It's political intrigue. You can't listen to that seriously."

Map of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact area, in Russian (click to enlarge)
Resentment over the pact and its secret protocol remains vivid in the former Soviet "sphere of influence" -- particularly in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, where relations with Moscow have grown increasingly antagonistic in recent years.

Estonia in 2007 sparked a diplomatic row with Russia by relocating a World War II-era Soviet monument away from a central Tallinn square. The Soviet Union suffered staggering losses in the war, and authorities in Russia today staunchly reject any assault on the USSR's role in defeating Nazi Germany.

Continued anger in the Baltics over Molotov-Ribbentrop is a sore point for Tatyana Nikitina, a 55-year-old music editor, even as she concedes those countries should have been consulted in 1939.

"I think the way they're acting now isn't right," she says. "It's very narrow-minded and egotistical."

Polls reguarly show that close to half of all Russians remain unaware of the secret protocol. In a July survey by the Levada public opinion center, 61 percent of Russians said they did not know that Soviet troops invaded eastern Poland in September 1939.

Ignoring History

Denis Volkov of the Levada center say such figures show a tendency among Russians to willingly ignore awkward chapters from their Soviet past.

Pensioner Rufina Galiullina said she doesn't know the full details of what was agreed 70 years ago.

Soviet originals of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (click to enlarge)
"I don't know how they took half of Poland. We were small then,|" said Galiullina. "When the war started, I was only 3 years old. What could we understand? It was only later that the papers started to write and write and write about it."

Nowadays, most Russians get their news from state television, which is rigorously controlled and steers clear of negative aspects of the country's Soviet past.

On the occasion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop anniversary, TV stations began promoting a view of the pact as a rational and defendable move by Soviet policymakers eager to postpone a conflict with Germany.

A news show recently reported that the pact was similar to how Western countries dealt with Germany at the 1938 Munich Conference, when Czechoslovak territory was offered to Hitler for annexation by British and French leaders seeking to appease the Nazi leader.

"In 1938, the leaders of Britain and France -- [Neville] Chamberlain and [Edouard] Daladier -- came to Munich to give Czechoslovakia away to Hitler," said the program,

Historians from Russia's foreign intelligence service, or SVR, this week released a book defending the pact.

One of the authors, Major General Lev Sotskov, told the "Komsomolskaya pravda" newspaper that Moscow "had no other way of delaying war."

He also said the governments of the Baltic states at the time invited Soviet troops into their countries, but made no mention of the fact that pro-Soviet regimes had been forcibly installed in those countries before the request was made.

Kremlin officials in recent years have made a priority of burnishing the nation's history, ordering an overhaul of academic texts and using the media and state events to glorify even dubious chapters of Russia's past.

'Why Are We Defending Stalin?'

Opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov says he finds the current revisionism baffling.

"I don't understand why we are defending Stalin, why we are debating the fact that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact played a key role in the start of the Second World War," he said, "I don't understand the motivation, apart from maybe a personal sympathy to Stalin and the Stalinist regime."

Twenty-two-year-old Vadim Veterkov is a member of Nashi, the nationalist Kremlin-backed youth group. He says he sees the pact as an admirable attempt to prevent a Soviet-German war, even if it ultimately failed.

"[The pact] was in some ways the only way out after the Munich Agreement," he said. "But as history has shown, no matter how positive its intent, [the pact] proved ineffective, for understandable reasons."

Only 6 percent of Russians in the Levada poll in July condemned the pact outright.

Valery Volkov, a 36-year-old musician, said he supports the nonaggression pact itself but criticized the secret protocol.

"The pact should have taken place in any case, but the conditions in the agreement weren't right," he said. "It gave Russia an imperial aspect to its future development. That, in my view, wasn't right. We needed to be a different kind of country."

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