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Molotov-Ribbentrop: In Eastern Europe, Pact's Bitter Legacy Remains

  • Brian Whitmore

Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin

Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin

Valentins Trojans remembers the marauding bands of Red Army soldiers going from farmhouse to farmhouse in his rural Latvia, looting watches, shoes, and clothing.

Harijs Ruks recalls being interrogated by a sadistic Soviet officer who kicked him brutally with steel-toed boots.

And Elza Burkite recollects how occupying Russian forces seized a young mother, whose son had vanished into the Latvian forests to join up with anti-Soviet partisans.

"Do you know what they did to that mother? They tied ropes around her arms and lit them. They burned her, tortured her in many ways to force her to talk. But the mother said, 'I don't know.' And she lost her mind," Burkite said in an oral history provided to RFE/RL by the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.

"She had a black overcoat of some sort; they didn't have much to wear, just what they had on when they were seized. And the mother -- they were serving breakfast and she threw the overcoat onto the guard. They took her out and shot her. That's how they behaved."

Such bitter memories take on fresh significance this week, as Europe marks the 70th anniversary of the secret pact between Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler to divide the continent between them on the eve of World War II.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named for Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop, was signed on August 23, 1939 in Moscow.

Formally a nonaggression pact, the agreement also included a secret protocol dividing Northern and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet "spheres of influence."

The deal resulted in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Romania's Bessarabia region -- which is today Moldova -- suffering brutal occupations under both the Soviets and the Nazis.

It also led to much of the region being forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union after the war. (A sixth country claimed in the protocol, Finland, rebuffed a Soviet invasion but lost its eastern region of Karelia to the USSR.)

'Incomprehensible and Terrifying'

Valters Nollendorfs, the deputy director of the Latvian occupation museum and a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, says these small countries, sandwiched between two of the 20th century's most nefarious regimes, had two enemies and no place to turn.

"We were stuck in the middle. One thing that we could not fight for was Latvian independence," Nollendorfs told RFE/RL in a recent interview.

"The only time when the Latvians could fight [for themselves] was in the partisan war after [World War II] ended. And actually, into the 1950s, there was partisan activity in the Latvian forests."
When we approached the town there was pandemonium. People were flocking to the center from all directions. The streets were filled with livestock, carriages, cars filled with baggage

Seventy years later, Poland and the Baltic countries are independent states and members of the European Union. Moldova, while independent, continues to struggle as Europe's poorest country.

But a resurgent Russia has sparked fears of new "spheres of influence" -- with the Molotov-Ribbentrop anniversary emphasizing the acute anxiety these small nations feel about their fates falling prey to great powers with a hostile agenda.

The pact resulted in massive forced population movements as Soviet authorities deported hundreds of thousands of people from the Baltic states, Poland, and Moldova to Siberian labor camps.

Ethnic Russians later poured into these countries, dramatically altering their ethnic makeup and laying the ground for bitter disputes that continue to this day.

Indeed, many of the thorny ethnic problems that have plagued Eastern Europe since the 1991 Soviet breakup can be traced directly to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, including tensions involving Russian minorities in the Baltic states and between Romanian- and Russian-speakers in Moldova.

The prominent Moldovan writer, Aureliu Busuioc, was an 11-year-old boy when Soviet troops in June 1940 occupied Romania's Bessarabia region, which ultimately was joined to the Moldavian Soviet Republic and remains part of what is now Moldova.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, Busuioc described the chaotic scene in Chisinau as residents scrambled to escape ahead of the Red Army's advance.

"When we approached the town there was pandemonium. People were flocking to the center from all directions. The streets were filled with livestock, carriages, cars filled with baggage," Busuioc said.

"Some managed to escape. Some hastily left their homes with barely enough time to throw everything they needed into a suitcase. Some shouted and some cried. Something incomprehensible, and therefore frightening, was happening."

Busuioc said Soviet troops entered Chisinau a few days later. He said his mother later told him that "the Bessarabia we knew has become something different."

Shifting Borders

Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, taking back the territories ceded to Stalin less than two years earlier. During the Nazi occupations that followed, millions of the region's Jews perished in concentration camps.

The Soviet Union reoccupied the countries at the end of the war, sparking a fresh wave of reprisals directed against alleged Nazi sympathizers.

"The person who won from it was Stalin, of course, because he didn't have to become involved in a war with Britain and France -- and he was desperate to avoid war at that point," says Richard Overy, a professor of history at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and the author of numerous books on World War II.

"It also gave him, at last, leverage in Eastern Europe, which he'd not been able to achieve throughout the 1920s and 1930s."

After the war, the Soviet Union gained direct control over the Baltic states and Moldova. The Soviet-Polish border was also pushed westward, as much of eastern Poland was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine and Belarus.

Mykold Lytvyn, director of the Ukrainian-Polish Relations Research Center at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, notes that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact essentially united the Ukrainian people in a single territory, albeit at great cost.

Some 2 million people joined hands in 1989 to mark the anniversary of the pact
"We lost property that had been acquired over centuries: companies, shops, cooperatives that had been built by many generations," Lytvyn told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

"Farmers were pulled away from their land; we saw the establishment of communes and collective farms... We began losing civil rights. The fall of 1939 saw the elimination of large [Ukrainian] cultural societies. People were torn from their national roots."

On August 23, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will mark the 70th anniversary of the pact's signing with a series of events honoring the 1989 Baltic Way, or Baltic Chain, in which an estimated 2 million people formed a human chain across the 600-kilometer stretch linking Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.

That demonstration 20 years ago was considered essential in pressuring Mikhail Gorbachev and Soviet authorities to publicly acknowledge the pact for the first time, on December 24, 1989.

The countries have also used the anniversary to call attention to mounting concern over Russia's resurgent influence.

In an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, published in the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" on July 16, some 22 prominent thinkers and former officials from Eastern Europe called on Washington to pay closer attention to the region as Russia seeks to reassert its authority.

These is also deep concern over Russia's close relations with Germany today, especially in the energy sector.

"Certainly there has been apprehension," Nollendorfs said.

"Sometimes in the press you even find editorials and letters to the editor that express the notion that there is a new Hitler-Stalin pact in the making. I think that's overblown, but you can understand where it is coming from."

RFE/RL's Moldovan and Ukrainian services contributed to this report

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