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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- Fighting over the Past

Washington, 22 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Sixty years ago today Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, an event that sparked a war that continues to be the source of unity, pride, and even identity for Russians but the legacy of which frequently puts Russia at odds with her Western neighbors.

For Russians, the conflict that began on 22 June 1941, is perhaps the one historical event that all Russians agree upon. Not only did it restore a kind of normalcy to life under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, but its costs -- more than 25 million dead -- and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world power afterwards mean that the conflict that Russians still call the Great Fatherland War remains central to their lives.

In advance of the anniversary this week, a poll found that three Russians out of four believe that 22 June should be declared a day of national mourning. The media and scholars have focused on the Soviet -- and by implication, the Russian -- contribution to the war effort. Indeed, the Russian government on 20 June announced plans to begin organizing a celebration in 2005 of the 60th anniversary of Hitler's defeat.

For Eastern Europeans, in contrast, the eastern front of World War II between Germany and the Soviet Union has a very different meaning. Across this region, many people focus less on the conflict itself than on the prewar events that made that war possible -- and on the postwar settlement that left them under the control of Moscow for more than 40 years.

On the one hand, East European historians continue to focus on the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That accord, which allowed Hitler to launch World War II, also permitted Germany and the Soviet Union to divide up Eastern Europe, a process that cost the three Baltic countries their de facto independence.

On the other hand, these same historians and many Eastern Europeans focus on the consequences of the Soviet victory in Eastern Europe. That event in their eyes allowed the Soviets to replace the Germans as the occupiers of their countries. Because of that, many in this region have a somewhat different view of what the Soviet Union did at the end of that war than do many in Moscow.

Not surprisingly, Russians are often infuriated by the expression of such views by Eastern Europeans in general and by people from the three Baltic states in particular. Earlier this week, in an interview published in the Russian military newspaper "Krasnaya zvezda," Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev said that Russians today feel what he called entirely justified anger at the way some in Eastern Europe now discuss World War II.

Avdeev said that in those countries, there are now "influential forces" interested in creating an image of Russia as a country "not only with an unpredictable past but also with an unpredictable present and future" and as a country whose totalitarian and imperial past make it even now "incompatible with European values."

In the course of doing so, the Russian diplomat added, they go even further and imply that those living in these countries who fought against the Soviet Union on the German side were "freedom fighters," thereby attempting to defend as patriots people who in fact were traitors, and that "our warriors were occupiers" -- when in fact the Soviet troops were liberators.

In both Russia and Eastern Europe, history remains very near the surface and an active player in current history. Consequently, this debate about World War II is unlikely to be left to the historians for sometime to come. Instead, the passionately held convictions and beliefs of each side are certain to define their attitudes to, and hence relationships with, each other.

Like its Soviet predecessor, the Russian authorities continue to insist that with regard to World War II, no one will forget and nothing will be forgotten. They are certainly right to say that, but the inability of people to agree about the past almost certainly points to more disagreements ahead, despite the fact that both sides do agree that the defeat of Hitler was absolutely necessary.