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Commentary

History And The Politics Of Blame

In some post-Soviet states, current interpretations understate Russia's sacrifices in defeating fascism.
In some post-Soviet states, current interpretations understate Russia's sacrifices in defeating fascism.
By Peter Lavelle
The past is never really in the past as long as it pervades our present. And recent history is very much with us.

This is why Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has established a commission to protect against "falsification of historical facts and events aimed at damaging Russia's international prestige." This move has sparked considerable controversy both in Russia and in Western mainstream media. This is as it should be; history matters.

Medvedev's history commission is a reaction to the way history, particularly events before, during, and after World War II, is being reinterpreted and even rewritten in a number of post-Soviet and Eastern European states. This approach often undermines, or even denies, the role the Soviet Union played in the defeat of Nazi Germany. In some Baltic republics and Ukraine, Nazi collaborators are even honored as war veterans, while Soviet war memorials are moved or dismantled. Many in Russia consider this not only insulting, but also a dangerous rehabilitation of ideas that their countrymen paid such a high price to eliminate.

The hitherto accepted history of World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia) is undergoing revision. This should not surprise anyone; that traditional narrative was a product of the Cold War. The ideological conflict that pitted Soviet developed socialism against Western capitalism resulted in diverging, ideologically couched explanations for the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The Western take was that the Allies, specifically the United States, "saved the world from tyranny in the name of democracy and other liberal values." Soviet ideologists, by contrast, stressed "the defeat of a murderous and very aggressive ideology: fascism."

As long as the Cold War continued, these two renditions could coexist, although the West consistently understated the Soviet contribution to Hitler's defeat. All of this started to change with the self-collapse of the Soviet Union.

Every country and every society needs a common history. National narratives bind a nation together and create a sense of community. All the new sovereign states that came into being with the end of the Soviet Union are very keen to establish new national histories. But in doing so, most of them have to address specific episodes related to World War II.

Warring Histories

As the successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia adheres steadfastly to the belief that it liberated a great swathe of Europe from fascism. To craft what they believe are coherent, if not self-satisfying, national histories, many in the Baltics, Ukraine, and some Eastern European states are challenging Russia's historical rendition. They claim that not only did the Soviet Union not liberate them from fascism, but that it replaced Nazi Germany as the occupying power.

Embedded in this claim is a double-edged sword. First, those who argue that the Soviets should not be credited with defeating fascism implicitly also deny the role of those in the Baltic republics, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe who sacrificed their lives to end Nazi rule. Second, there is also denial about how many Soviet republics, and even Eastern European countries, bowed to Soviet domination, but also benefited from it.

To be sure, there were those who didn't, and their grievances are legitimate and should be heard. However, history is not as black and white as nationalist historians and governments would like us to believe. For example, I lived in Poland during much of the 1980s when the free trade union Solidarity was enjoying its greatest popularity. At the time, Polish society was polarized; one-third of the population strongly supported Solidarity, and one-third the pro-Moscow regime, while the remaining third waited on the sidelines to see how the standoff between those two would end. And to this day, some Poles still have many good things to say about communist Poland.

What is very disturbing about historical revisionism when it comes to World War II is the attempt to airbrush from the record fascist ideas, groups, and individuals that infested Europe in the 1930s and '40s. The Cold War-era interpretation of World War II was a convenient opportunity to overlook nasty homegrown fascism all over Europe, particularly in the east.

After the war ended, few wanted to dwell on how fascism and gross right-wing nationalism -- very often anti-Semitic -- captured the imagination of the European body politic. Political imperatives were far more important, and so confronting the Soviet Union took precedence. It became acceptable to ignore unpleasant episodes.

This is still happening today. Instead of facing up to the sins of the past, it is all too easy to blame contemporary Russia for the real or imagined sins of the Soviet Union. Using this line of argument, Russia can and should claim it, too, was a victim of the Soviet Union.

It is unfortunate that a new discursive pathology has come into vogue. Many feel that the sole way to prove their historical legitimacy and virtue is by casting themselves in the role of victim. This is history gone wrong. All too often a person's national identity is defined by how someone else wronged him or her.

Today states blame other states for their own problems in the present because of a very specific, and again self-serving, interpretation of what happened in the past. Equally unfortunate is the knee-jerk tendency to blame "undemocratic" Russia for the woes of its neighbors. This is politics on the cheap and a contemptible attitude to what history should really be all about.

Denying the Holocaust is a legal offense in Germany. This is the case in many countries in the world, and is morally right. Consigning to oblivion the murder of millions of people is simply wrong. Russia wants the same to hold true for the 27 million Soviet citizens (at the very least) who gave their lives to defeat Hitler's murderous regime.

It is a real shame that Russia feels it needs a commission to monitor how others interpret history. History should not be used as a political tool to divide people and countries. In fact, just the opposite should be happening.

Germany and France embarked upon an open and honest discussion to reconcile their long-standing historical differences. What we see now is the opposite: history is being used to divide countries and peoples. These divisions in turn open the door for the worst possibility: the slow but very real rehabilitation of a new form of fascism.

Peter Lavelle is a political commentator for Russia Today television (RT) and is the host of the weekend program "In Context." The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RT or RFE/RL
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by: Alex from: Washington, DC
May 26, 2009 13:12
If Gerhard Schroeder is Putin's favorite German whore, then Peter Lavelle must be Putin's favorite English speaking political prostitute. Anyone even remotely familiar with 20th century history in Central and Eastern Europe should know that the Soviets did not liberate Poland, the Baltics, Czechoslovakia, etc. They merely replaced Hitler's horrific race-based totalitarianism with their own equally vile class-based version. The untold numbers of Eastern Europeans who were murdered, purged, or exiled by Stalin and his henchmen during and after the war put the lie to any claims of "liberation" by the Red Army. Speaking of which - the Red Army was incompetent and incompetently led until mid-1943 at the earliest. Their role in the defeat of Nazi Germany should not be overstated, had a lot to do with Hitler's own military mistakes, and owed Allied lend/lease a huge debt (ignored or downplayed by Russian historians). Moreover, it is simply immoral to enlist Russia's 26 million+ war dead in Lavelle's latest effort to whitewash the Kremlin. Many of the people who died in Russia during the war were not killed by Germans, but died from hunger, disease, privation, or at the hands of their own military or security services. Dies Lavele know about the NKVD blocking detachments and punishment batallions? How do we count Soviet soldiers who were shot down by their own side to keep them from retreating in the face of a superior enemy? How about political prisoners shot by the NKVD in their prisons as the Germans advanced? Finally, Lavelle's warnings about rehabilitation of fascism are hard to take seriously, given Putinite Russia's own support for an increasingly fascistic nationalism, Putin's creation of the Hitler Youth-analogue "Nashi" movement, and the growing support shown by authorities for openly fascist marches, rallies, and other public demonstrations by folks like "Slavyansky Soyuz," DPNM, etc. Look closer to your ideological home, Mr. Lavelle, before lecturing others about fascism. You are a disgrace.

by: oleg from: moscow
May 26, 2009 14:48
27 million, of which Stalin and the NKVD killed how many?

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
May 26, 2009 16:03
It is hard to deny that Soviet &quot;liberation&quot; of Eastern-Europe was not liberation just a change in the occupying force. <br /><br />But still it is also hard to deny that defeating fascist Germany is an act done most by the nations and people of the Soviet Union. <br />If one look at the numbers can see that German troops on the eastern front was 10 times higher compared to the western front. What does this mean? It means that the war was won by the Soviet Union alone not by the allied forces. The truth is that the Soviet Union could have won the war even without the help of the USA and Britain. (if even it would have been a bit longer...)<br /><br />Neither questioning Soviet efforts defeating fascist Germany nor labeling it &quot;liberation&quot; is correct.<br /><br />Truth is always at halfway like in this case. Stalinist Soviets were as cruel as fascist Germans. But no one should deny that fascist were crushed by Soviets. And without the help of Soviets the allied forces would have never achieved victory alone.<br /><br />Anyway the past neither legitimates nor discredits the present.<br />Current Russian leadership is authocratic and undemocratic. That is a fact. Re-writing history is wrong.<br /><br />But condemning everything Russia and Russians did in the past is also not the way ahead...<br /><br />I as somebody with Jewish origins have already forgive for Germans. I do not hate them but of course I still hate fascists and every form of fascism. But fascism and Germany and Germans are not the same!<br /><br />This is my advice to everybody: until you forgive your enemy you are unable to move ahead. <br />Armenians and Turks, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, Hungarians, Slovakians and Romanians, French and Germans, Baltic nations, Poles and Russians --all we need to forgive each other. Everybody have wounds from the past. The way forward is the way showed by the French and Germans - reconciliation.<br /><br />Peace!

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
May 26, 2009 17:04
Though name-calling and slander are impolite and unprofessional, I have to largely agree with the commentary by Alex from DC. I get the distinct impression from the few remaining independent voices in the Russian press I've read thus far, that this new commission has less to do with discovering/revealing the truth of what occurred during WWII, than with again convincing the narod that the enemy is at the gates. Enjoying questionable political legitimacy, the Medevdev-Putin tandem have vested interests in keeping the Kremlin version of WW II (i.e. the treachery, aggressiveness of the west, and the wise leadership of the vozhd') at the forefront of any discussion. However and alas, from an even superficial understanding of US history, I would counsel Alex to tone down the rhetoric before using words like &quot;prostitute&quot; or &quot;disgrace.&quot;

by: Myk from: Kyiv
May 26, 2009 18:50
Yeah, it's a strange symbiosis of reputable RFERL and Lubyanka's Russia Today. But after Schroeder's Gazprom career nothing should probably surprise us too much. Lenin had a nice name for these guys...

by: Karsten Staehr from: Tallinn
May 26, 2009 20:34
I do not understand why the RFE/RL webpage publishes comments from Russia Today. The outlet is an integral part of the Putin / Medvedev propaganda machinery and this comment, along with most other comments from RT I have read, is so one-eyed and propagandistic that it is almost funny. The article does not mention with one word the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty in which Nazi-Germany and Communist-Russia carved up Eastern Europe. The Second Wold War started in September 1939 when Nazi-Germany and Communist-Russia according to the Treaty. I have travelled all over Russia and I believe that Russia should take its place in Europe. Instead, as this comment nicely illustrates, the country has been developing into a banana republic where suppression of dissent, misinformation and military might are the order of the day.

by: Brazilian Man from: S&#227;o Paulo - SP - Brazil
May 27, 2009 08:25
What Lavelle’s analysis is trying to do is to “glue” the total Soviet military invasion and annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the partial invasion-and-annexation military campaigns in Finland, Poland, Chzechoslovakia and Romania with the “defeat of fascism”.<br /><br />We should remember that the three little Baltic countries were not Axis members when they were invaded back in 1940. In fact, the opposite was true: the Soviet Union and Nazi germany were allied through the Non-Agression Pact signed in 1939 to divide Europe into Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence.<br /><br />PS: in oficial Stalinist historiography, “nazism” is not mentioned because it is the abbreviation of “national-socialism”, and the Soviet Union history always claimed the monopoly of the socialist ideology.

by: Brazilian man from: S&#227;o Paulo - SP - Brazil
May 27, 2009 08:47
And we should remember that independent nations like Russia has no right to dictate interpretations of history over other independent nations like Ukraine, Ukraine or the Baltic states, even if these nations once were part of the Soviet Union.

by: Timo Haapanen from: Finland
May 27, 2009 10:47
Independent of whether I accept Mr Lavelle's opinions or not, I think it is a very good idea from the RFERL, in the name of freedom of speech, to also publish articles containing views the majority of readers don't agree with; this gives rise to interesting (and sometimes colorful) discussions.

by: Neli from: USA
May 27, 2009 18:32
Please understand that no one is denying that Soviet Union won the war, and with great human losses. That is clear to all sides and that is not the issue. The issue is what the Soviets did in the territory AFTER they won the war. Here's a quick reference list of what happened circa 1945-1955: executed political elites, jailed and tortured anyone with any ties to a foreign country, rounded up large numbers of civilians to be shipped to the Gulags (100 000 Baltic civilians in 3 days in one particularly efficient campaign), exterminated minor ethnic groups, a few mass rapes here and there, not to mention comparatively &quot;minor inconveniences&quot; like the imposition of dictatorships and complete wiping out of civil society.<br /><br />In the Stalin era these crimes were a systematic Kremlin-directed policy, carried out by the Red Army and/or NKVD. Eastern Europe still has millions of people who lost family members in the Gulags, including many children. And do you really expect Eastern Europe to celebrate the Red Army's &quot;victory&quot;?<br /><br />This big debate about history is not wheter the Soviet Union won the war, it's about what happened after the war and to what ends did the Soviet regime leverage its victory. The position of the free countries of Eastern Europe is that we should examine this period of terror, and say &quot;never again&quot;. The position of Russia is that we should not talk about it, and instead switch the subject to how much the Soviet regime sacrificed to win the war. This article is an example of this strategy. Nazi Germany sacrificed a lot too; the fact that there were great human sacrifices does nothing to make a regime more moral. By celebrating Stalinism and the Red Army as much as they do, Russia's regime is sending a message that is unfortunately quite the opposite of &quot;never again&quot;. Their message seems to be along the lines of &quot;we will keep the privilege to go on another genocidal rampage through Europe if we feel it's needed&quot;.
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