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Amid V-Day Festivities, Soviet Partisan Braces For War Crimes Verdict

Eighty-eight-year-old Vasily Kononov (left) with his lawyer, Mikhail Loffe
Eighty-eight-year-old Vasily Kononov (left) with his lawyer, Mikhail Loffe
By Claire Bigg
When he joined the Soviet partisans in World War II to free his native Latvia from Nazi occupation, Vasily Kononov had no doubts he was on the right side of history.

Highly decorated by the Soviet Union following the war, he never imagined his anti-Nazi activities would one day land him in jail for war crimes.

But in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Kononov's legal troubles began. Latvian prosecutors in 1998 indicted him for the murder of innocent civilians during World War II -- a charge he vehemently denies, insisting the civilians were in fact prominent Nazi collaborators.

The 88 year-old has since been tried six times and spent nearly two years in prison.

As veterans around the world prepare to lavishly celebrate the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe this weekend, Kononov is nervously awaiting a final verdict by the European Court of Human Rights.

And with the Russian press flush with rumors that the judges in Strasbourg have already voted against him, Kononov is not in a festive mood.

'Evil Must Be Fought'

"I'm upset, because I always fought for truth," Kononov says. "I started combating [Nazi] occupants when I was 18. Then I spent many years working in law-enforcement agencies, where I fought against murderers, rapists, and thieves. I always lived with the belief that evil must be fought and defeated."

Soviet partisan Vasily Kononov in a picture from the 1940s
For Kononov, whose life was shattered by the war, the war-crime accusations are a slap in the face. His partisan activities led to his father, mother, and aunt being sent to concentration camps in Germany. His parents survived but his aunt died. His uncle and cousins were killed in combat.

Kononov himself was wounded several times, suffered shell-shock twice, and had to undergo three operations after the war.

He is so far the only anti-Nazi Soviet partisan to have been convicted of crimes against humanity.

On May 17, the Strasbourg court is due to rule whether Latvia had sufficient grounds to jail him. The judgment, which cannot be appealed by either side, will mark the end of an almost 12-year legal saga that has pitted Latvia against Russia.

Occupier, Not Liberator

Latvia and other Baltic nations regard the Soviet Union as an occupier, not a liberator, and say the crimes perpetrated against the Balts under Soviet rule are no different than those committed by the Nazis. Justice is justice, they say, regardless of who won the war.

A memorial stone marking the place where 12 Soviet partisans were killed by Nazis in the Latvian village of Malye Baty on February 29, 1944.
"Why is it important to prosecute people who are considered to be guilty of Holocaust crimes -- namely, genocide?" asks Valters Nollendorfs, the director of external affairs at the Museum of Occupation in Riga. "Crimes have to be prosecuted and justice has to be brought. Justice not carried out is just as bad as the injustice that has taken place."

Russia, which suffered huge losses in what it calls the Great Patriotic War, regularly accuses Latvia of seeking to glorify its Nazi collaborators and belittle the Soviet Army's role in liberating the region from Nazi occupation. Moscow says a ruling against Kononov on May 17 will bolster what it perceives as Latvia's campaign to rewrite World War II history. It has thrown its weight behind the veteran, providing him with a Russian passport and funds to finance his defense.

Despite rumors of Kononov's imminent defeat in Strasbourg, the European Court of Human Rights has defended him in the past. Following a complaint filed by Kononov, the court ruled in 2008 that the Latvian judges' decision to jail him had no legal basis in international law. It condemned the "overly general and summary nature of the domestic courts reasoning" and awarded him 30,000 euros in moral damages.

The Latvian government appealed and the case was sent back to the European court's Grand Chamber.

Sentenced To Death

The charges against Kononov go back to an episode that took place in 1944 in Nazi-occupied Latvia.

In February, a group of 12 partisans that included two women and a baby stopped to spend the night in a barn in the village of Malye Batny. Hours later, German Nazi troops surrounded the barn and burned it to the ground, killing everyone inside.

Kononov in a Riga courtroom in January 2000
The massacre caused outrage within the partisan movement, whose tribunal sentenced to death several villagers who Kononov says were tricked into admitting they had tipped off the Germans. On May 27, a unit of partisans led by Kononov seized Malye Batny and killed nine villagers.

Latvian prosecutors claim the victims were ordinary civilians and accuse Kononov of war crimes because two of the dead were women, including one in her last month of pregnancy.

Kononov argues that the women, too, were armed Nazi collaborators and that partisans had not known about the pregnancy.

He also denies having personally participated in the attack on Malye Batny.

"I didn't take part in the operation," he says. "My father's village was close by and I stayed behind so that no one recognized me. After all, I spent my childhood in this area. That I was there is a pure invention."

Political Considerations

With the witnesses long dead, there is little chance the truth will ever be established about what happened that day in Malye Batny. The European Court of Human Rights will nonetheless have to settle the dispute, and some are worried that Russian pressure and political considerations may influence the judges.

Konstantin Kosachyov, an influential politician who heads the Russian Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, warned this week that a ruling against Kononov would be a "disgrace for Europe" and a "catastrophe" for the already strained relations between Moscow and the rights court.

The spokesman for Latvia's Foreign Ministry refused to comment for this story before May 17 but said the ministry will be closely watching the court's ruling.

While Kononov's case may have more to do with politics than history, some historians hope the case will help shed light on a particularly divisive period of history.

"Maybe this court case will encourage a calm, objective, historical analysis of this period," says Yelena Zubkova, a Russian historian specializing in the Baltic States. "It's high time to examine these historical events, including who partisans were. After all, it was a very mixed, ambiguous movement."
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by: moderateGuy from: world
May 07, 2010 21:30
He is a Russian criminal who participated in killing Latvians to help Russia occupy the country; he should be hanged and his "lawyers" and other helpers shot dead.
In Response

by: Johann from: USA
May 08, 2010 11:47
Latvia is famous for human right abuses. 30 present of the population has no right to vote, etc. the Russians. Homosexuals are beaten up on the streets. Neo- Nazis and skinheads are considered heroes.
What would the world say about The Great United States, if we would exclude 30 present of the population from voting, etc Democrats, or
Black people.
In USA, everybody has the right to vote. I am not excluded because I was born in Iceland. Igor my friend is not excluded, because he was born in Russia. In Latvia he couldn't vote like other Russians. Our kids and
grand kids can safely visit us in USA. In Latvia I wouldn't let my blond grandsons and my Italian born granddaughter,visit me, they could be beaten up by Latvian skinheads !!!
I think Latvia should be expelled from the European Union because of they are , like alcoholics, unable to manage their pocketbook, etc. finances,
and they discriminate against certain groups of people.
In Response

by: Asehpe from: Netherlands
May 08, 2010 23:44
You don't know much about the situation in Latvia. 30% of the populaton (the Russians) can have the right to vote as soon as they want: they just have to become citizens, which implies learning the language. They don't WANT to be citizens, that's a different problem. America doesn't do anything to people who don't WANT to vote; if they don't WANT, they don't HAVE TO. And I think we all can agree that's OK.

Homosexuals do have problems in Latvia, but they have problems everywhere in Eastern Europe, from Poland to Russia.

Both you and Igor can vote in the USA because you have AMERICAN CITIZENSHIP. This means you have satisfied the necessary conditions for acquiring that citizenship, and so you can vote.

How about the millions of illegal foreigners, mostly Mexican, in the US? Should they vote, too? They're the Russians there.

Latvia has problems with their economy? I think Greece is doing worse. And the austerity plan in Latvia, carried out by the Dombrovskis government, has attracted admiration from other countries. I don't think the Greeks should do that.

You're an Icelander. Just look at the mess in Iceland, because of your banking system. Latvia had the same problem. Now iceland wants to join the EU. If you don't want Latvia in the EU because their finances are bad, you should say the same about Iceland -- right?

Tsk-tsk.
In Response

by: Turgai Sangar from: turgai.sangar@mail.ru
May 09, 2010 09:51
BTW, why should the life and times of gays, a subculture primarily present among and promoted by farty urban-cosmopolitan elite groups, be a standard to judge a society and its people?

In Response

by: Johann from: USA
May 09, 2010 13:18
To Asehpe !!!
There is a difference. Russians are legally in Latvia.
Illegal Mexicans and Latinos are illegally in THE USA.
The federal government isn't enforcing laws on immigration, so individual states like Arizona have to take the matter in its own hands and enforce federal laws. Police in Minneapolis and St.Paul, Minnesota, have been banned by their Mayors, to enforce immigration laws, because it is not the business of individual states to do so.
In Iceland, citizens of EU, can vote in municipal elections, but not in parliamentarian elections, because they is not a Icelandic citizens.
In Narva a city in Latvia, mainly habitated by Russians the Mayor, is not elected by the people of that city.
In Response

by: Turgai Sangar
May 09, 2010 18:26
FYI, Narva is a city in Estonia, not Latvia.
In Response

by: Asehpe from: The Netherlands
May 09, 2010 23:30
To Johann from USA!!!

There are differences and similarities. You said the problem was Russians can't vote, not that they were there legally. Legal residents in the US also can't vote, and nobody has a problem with that. I was a legal resident in Texas for a while, and I couldn't vote. No problem there. Likewise Russians in Latvia. And again, IF THEY WANT TO VOTE, ALL THEY HAVE TO DO IS LEARN LATVIAN AND BECOME CITIZENS. Hundreds of thousands of Russians HAVE ALREADY DONE THAT AND CAN VOTE. The ones who don't, just don't want to. That's a different problem.

The SAME THING IS TRUE FOR RUSSIANS IN NARVA. They want to vote? They want to elect the mayor? Well, just apply for citizenship, learn the language, and go vote. More than 80% of the Russians in Estonia have already done that.

EU Citizens can vote in local elections in Iceland? Cool, so can they here, in the Netherlands. But they can't in Germany. Or in France. Are all these country wrong, are all of them "persecuting minorities"? No. Every country has different citizenship

I'll bet if non-Icelanders were the majority of the population in all main Icelandic cities; if they were against the Icelandic language (which they considered barbarian, ugly, etc.); if they thought Icelanders should be thankful for their presence (even though they had been there for only about 40-50 years, and not all of them) and acknowledge that; then maybe you would also think again before giving them automatic Icelandic citizenship.
In Response

by: sara
May 10, 2010 06:51
"BTW, why should the life and times of gays, a subculture primarily present among and promoted by farty urban-cosmopolitan elite groups, be a standard to judge a society and its people?"

Because it marks the prevalence of hateful bigots. Do you think homosexuality is a modern invention? How is life in your little world?
In Response

by: Turgai Sangar from: turgai.sangar@mail.ru
May 10, 2010 12:17
Ah yes, sara... I forgot that you lot in your little lofty world have moral superiority for rent for entire humanity. For the rest, life goes well, thanks.
In Response

by: Turgai Sangar
May 10, 2010 12:20
BTW, speaking about hateful bigots... ;-)
http://www.thepinkswastika.com/5294/index.html

by: Olgerts from: Aberdeen, UK
May 07, 2010 23:14
The morale is simple: mass murderers will always get away provided they are on the winning side.

by: Martin Bright
May 08, 2010 06:50
The soviets weren't nice people, and I understand that for baltics who don't want to be part of the soviet union it was a bad situation. But the nazis were clearly the worst guys at the time. To work for them was a bad decision at least. But it could be also that many were not only antisoviet but also share nazi ideology. After all, there were SS baltic divisions, and they were not simply wermacht soldiers, but the army of the nazi party.And there were nazi civil collaborators.

In almost all european countries, to kill the collaborators is not considered a crime, but a civic duty. And that is the same notwithstanding the place you were: France, Norway, Poland, Holland or Latvia. So, in this case, if Kanonov lose, lose also all the people like my father help to train underground saboteurs in west europe, people who like Kanonov killed civilian collaborators, and who are considered up to now as local heroes. Win the local Qislings.

And the paper is right, this is not only about justice, is also about politics: revisionist politics that try to tell us that, besides Hitler's direct entourage, most nazis were decent people. And that is a thing most people in Europe is againts. Latvian government is wrong in this case.
In Response

by: Ieva from: UK
May 08, 2010 10:42
(In reply to Martin Bright) The soviets weren't just 'not nice people'. Latvians had experienced deportation and murder by Soviet invaders before the Nazi invasion. They were hardly in a position to know that the 'nazis were clearly the worst guys at the time' because they were only being fed propaganda by both sides, not objective news. People reacted to the situation according to their prior experience. Bear in mind the history of the website we are posting on, RFL came into being because true freedom in the Soviet Union and its satellites was non-existent. Now the different sides of this argument still look at history through their own view of the world which will inevitably be biased based on their upbringing. And by the way, Ivan from Sofia, the Strasburg court is hardly unrecognised or fake. Perhaps you could try educating yourself a little instead of spewing hatred for western countries. You are not doing Russia any kind of a service by publishing your attitudes.
In Response

by: Historian from: Europe
May 11, 2010 18:19
(Also in reply to Martin Bright) That what you call "SS Baltic divisions" shared only the SS in their name with the army of the Nazi party. Those divisions were purely wermacht soldiers and many of those people were actually there against their free will. Nazi authorities organized illegal mobilization of local population and to hide the fact they made those divisions officially in volunteer Waffen SS (even not just standard SS but purely militaristic branch of it). They did that just because they could make up volunteers for wermacht, besides Hitler had restricted non-Germans from taking part in the German Army (wermacht). So get yours facts straight before accusing Balts in general of being Nazi collaborators.
Btw, none Baltic people couldn't be considered collaborators in the classic Western European sense just because collaborator should collaborate against something. In Western Europe collaborators collaborated with Nazis against their own nations, countries, legal governments in exile etc. But Balts couldn't do that just because the mere fact that their independence, government and statehood were already destroyed by Soviets before Nazi occupation came. So in the end they had nothing to collaborate against. Baltics were NOT legally part of Soviet Union, so joining sides with the Nazis against the Soviets WAS NOT COLLABORATION (collaborationism) in the sense how it was in the Western Europe.

by: Ivan from: Sofia
May 08, 2010 07:11
Who in his right mind would listen to the Strasburg neo-Nazis to dictate their ideas of justice. The USSR won WW2 and the comrade Kononov is a hero, not only for winners, but for all the civilized world. If it was not for great humans like him, the world could have easily spoken German now. But instead, what you see is the racist pigs in some fake, unrecognized, Western court try to judge someone who stands morally much above them. This is the corrupt western perversion of justice, surely dictated by the yankees, who can't admit that Russia is the winner and they are second-hand warriors. How about all the innocent civilians that the Americans killed with their bombings over Yugoslavia? Why don't they put Clinton in jail for war crimes? Let Kononov go free and instead put the judges from Strasbourg in jail for their crimes of ignorance, stupidity and infiriority complex. Venceremos!

by: esskay from: Armenia
May 08, 2010 07:35
Its true that Soviets were a bit harsh and many people suffered under their rule but majority of people got a good life for generations. In comparison Nazis were inhuman and outright evil. Its unfortunate that Latvian-Russian politics has led Latvians to condemn anything linking to USSR.....which in this case is clearly wrong.
In Response

by: John
May 11, 2010 22:48
10 million Ukrainians starved to death by Russians is not so bad, only a bit harsh
In Response

by: J from: US
May 11, 2010 23:18
Certainly Latvia was not bankrupt back then and Ukraine didn't have to worry every December if they were going to have gas or not in January.
In Response

by: Tron from: Norway
May 24, 2010 21:42
Well, Iceland and Greece were not Soviet republics (like Latvia) and got bancrupt anyway. There is crisis in Europe. And one of those suffering the most is Russia.
As to Ukraine, in 1933 7-10 million people there died of starvation. They did not need gas in December.

by: American Cicero from: U.S. of A
May 09, 2010 05:46
War is hell. I don't care about who is worse the Latvians or the Russians, every nation harbors its own national sins. The issue here is this man. A man who took up arms to fight an invader. War turns men into beasts. From what i read they may have been Collaborators they may not. The only people who know the truth have been dead for 65 years. In my opinion there isn't enough solid evidence to charge this man. If he didn't have full knowledge i am sure in his soul he harbors a deep pain and, if he did know, and yet still is unrepentant, there is another justice that awaits. The war is over let the veterans wave their flags, not fight another war. seek justice for the crimes but do not mock justice by having a witch trial based on probable cause. Enough blood has been spent on the account of the ghosts of wicked men.
In Response

by: Walcott from: USA
May 10, 2010 05:47
this sums the issue up rather nicely for me. Both sides of the conflict could be charged with doing terrible things, in all fairness the Nazi regime was unabashedly racist through easily obtainalbe publications and radio broadcasts whereas the Soviets hid their brutality behind the mantra of economic and social equality. All that matters is that Kononov fought an invader, that he thought at the right time he was doing the proper and morally superior thing, where many ex-nazis could use the tired old cliche of "I was just following orders", Kononov fought in this terrible war with a moral clarity and simplicity, and it seems to me he is being charged not with the crimes he may or may not have commited, but with the abuses the SOviet Union ravaged Latvia with beyond the war. They should let this man go, and let the dead bury the dead. Very well written comment.
In Response

by: Janka from: Latvia
May 11, 2010 18:26
To American Cicero... Would you say the same if the man (Kononov) was to be charged for Holocaust crimes? Would you still don't care and invite to forget about it?

by: J from: US
May 09, 2010 14:57
Latvia? Don't they forget it was part of Russia since 18th century? And Sweden before that. And of Poland before. Some modesty is in order for this Great Nation.
In Response

by: Turgai Sangar
May 09, 2010 18:35
OK and then what? The US were once part of a whole series of Native American territories and of the British and, some parts, French and Russian empires. And Russia was once part (or vassal) of the Khanate of the Golden Horde and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In Response

by: Johann from: USA
May 11, 2010 03:15
The founding date of THE USA is July 4 1776 , when 13 British Colonies united together to form The Union.
THE USA bought most part of its western territory from France 1803, called
THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE.
THE USA bought Alaska from Russia 1867.
TEXAS existed as a independent republic from 1836 to 1848, when they lost a war against The United States of America.
THE USA fought wars against Mexico and Spain to acquire FLORIDA and some of the South Western States.
In Response

by: texan from: tejas
May 11, 2010 12:58
Texas was annexed peacefully by the USA in 1945, bringing about the war with Mexico. Texas fought a war with Mexico, though, so you're almost right...
In Response

by: Asehpe from: Netherlands
May 09, 2010 23:33
J, believe me, they know that. But just like the Americans after they became independent from the British, they want to affirm their independence.

They're free now. No longer under the Russian/Swedish/German yoke. This hasn't happened very often in their history. Do you really find it surprising if they celebrate this for all it's worth?

by: Elisabeth Angel from: USA
May 11, 2010 21:28
If Kononov gets off, then so should John Demjanjuk, who is being tried in Germany just for allegedly working as a guard (he was a Ukrainian POW) at a so-called Nazi "death camp."

At least there are concrete charges against Kononov.

I think it's a good sign, that a former Communist "partisan" is being tried for murder. Perhaps Kononov was too young to understand what was really going on, but the bottom line is that "partisan" fighters against the German occupiers were -- aside from their murders and tortures of innocent civilians as well as of German soldiers just doing their jobs -- illegal from the start, and for good reason: they turned what could have been a peaceful, humane occupation into a bloody mess. They were usually controlled directly from Moscow, though many of the recruits probably did not know it.

Hitler made over 40 offers of peace in the first two years of the war, in which he offered to withdraw back to Germany, abandoning all the occupied territories. If Churchill had simply taken him up on one of them the war would have been over, and Latvia would have been free (free to be taken over by the USSR, that is). So there was no point in "partisan" activity against the Germans except to fulfil the plans of Stalin and other Allies who did not want peace.

When is an international court going to try the murderers who carried out "purges" after the war in France and elsewhere in Europe against people who allegedly "collaborated" with the Germans? (Actually most of the "collaborators" would have been --nunlike the "partisans" who slaughtered them -- law abiding citizens who were following the international law of the time.) The real purpose of the mass murders that occurred in many Western European countries after the war was political: to wipe out opposition to the Communists, who hoped to take over once the Germans were defeated. Within the "partisan" groups there were numerous psychopaths who got a sadistic thrill and feeling of omnipotence from murdering with impunity, and I suppose there must have been those who believed in what they thought they were doing.

When are there going to be trials of the torture-murderers who killed Germans after the war whom they were expelling from their ancestral home lands in Czechoslovakia, Poland and elsewhere, in the largest ethnic cleansing (that, too, illegal under international law) in history?

For example, is anyone ever going to be held accountable for hanging defeated SS soldiers upside down from sign boards in Prague, soaking them with gasoline and lighting them as living torches to welcome returning Czech leaders after the war? There had to have been so many participants, as well as witnesses to the hideous atrocities, that some must be alive today to take responsibility for them. It's way past time.
In Response

by: david from: berlin
May 12, 2010 09:11
Elisabeth, that is some of the most blatant revisionism I have ever seen.

"Perhaps Kononov was too young to understand what was really going on, but the bottom line is that "partisan" fighters against the German occupiers were -- aside from their murders and tortures of innocent civilians as well as of German soldiers just doing their jobs -- illegal from the start, and for good reason: they turned what could have been a peaceful, humane occupation into a bloody mess."

What a complete fantasy. The resistance was to blame for Nazi atrocities, huh?

I won't even look into your imaginary offers from Hitler to withdraw to Germany. In the unlikely event that has any basis in reality, he would have meant occupied Eastern Europe as "Germany."

"(Actually most of the "collaborators" would have been --nunlike the "partisans" who slaughtered them -- law abiding citizens who were following the international law of the time.)"

Now you're saying that the German occupation had the blessing of international law? That is insane. Whatever other points you may make that have some merit, these sort of pronouncements paint you as a Nazi apologist who cannot be taken seriously.

by: Ness from: NYC
May 12, 2010 04:12
Latvia is obviously suffering a little-man syndrome.
In Response

by: Aaron from: USA
May 18, 2010 23:12
And some seem to be suffering from false-flag syndrome, as yet another case of Germans being blamed for crimes they didn't commit. This individual and his unit wore German army uniforms when committing their crimes. First there was Katyn, now this, how many other crimes have been falsely blamed on the Germans?

by: Nauris from: Riga, Latvia
May 19, 2010 10:33
Does someone wants to read a story about a family in Latvia?

In 1898 a man buys land from manor. He then builds a homestead, has two sons and a daughter. WW II ends not in 1918, but ~1920 when the last communist fighters are defeated in Latgale (Where Maliy Baty (Or Small Bati) is).
In 1934 one of the sons pays the last payment for the loan taken to buy the land in 1898.
October 2, 1939 USSR demands mutual assistance pact with Latvia. And has ~ 500.000 troops on the border in case Latvia denies the demand. Population of Latvia was about 2.1 million at that time. It makes 1 Red Army soldier for every 4 people.
Latvia gives in to the demands. And USSR troops march into Latvia.
July 14, 1940. My grandmother at age of 5, and here father and mother are loaded into a cattle train and deported to Siberia.
Men are taken away from women.
My grandmothers father is executed lather that year, because the court decided he was "helping the international bourgeoisie ".
Then Germans push soviets back.
The holocaust in Latvia begins.
Then soviets defeat Germans and NKVD/KGB people start killing people. Some for a reason, some just because NKVD people were mostly criminals who had nothing sacred, because no normal man would do the atrocities committed by them.
In 1949 my grandmothers grandmother and grandfather are deported to Siberia. And their home given to someone else.
Those who survived in Siberia are allowed to return only in 1957.

Armed resistance to Soviet occupiers remained until 1956. But no help from West ever came. The last man came out of the forest in 1993.

Most of the Russians now living in Latvia are born to people who were brought to Latvia during soviet occupation to change the ethnic proportions. Latvia was a part of Russian Empire, but Russians were never even the second largest ethnic group in Latvia before WW II.

And there is no skinheads beating people on the streets. They are somewhere for sure. But they do not walk around beating people.

And there is no Nazi sympathizers allover Latvia. There are Nazi sympathizers for sure, just as there are Communist sympathizers. Both ideologies and accordingly, their symbols are forbidden in Latvia.

You know what is funny?
How Russians always say - Those who won can not be judged!

Well, they are wrong. If you commit a crime, sooner or later you will face a judgment.
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