20 years under Putin: a timeline

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II—the war that has largely shaped the modern world order. As countries prepare to celebrate another year of peace in Europe, it is clear that unresolved political rifts, old and new, are pushing some leaders to revise the history of the war for their own political gains.

 

January 1945: Prisoners in the Auschwitz concentration camp (Poland) during liberation by the Soviet Red Army Photo: Auschwitz Memorial and Museum.

 

Today’s intellectual history has produced an increasingly popular view that history is not science—at least not hard science, like math or physics—which infers that historical narratives can change dramatically depending on who tells the story. This view can lead to narrative distortions, especially when it is curtailed to serve political interests. Recent revisionism of World War II on the part of the Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian elites offers an interesting insight on the trajectories of the post-Soviet development.

Russian revisionism

Russia engaged in the editing of history in the Soviet era. After the turbulent 90s, revisionism was revived in the 2000s, and Vladimir Putin holds a personal stake in the whitewashing of the darkest moments of Russian history. Over the last decade, he has repeatedly defended the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (most recently in December 2019, in response to the European Parliament resolution), regardless of the fact that Nazi Germany and the USSR became allies de facto, if not de jure.

He has also flatly denied the fact that both Germany and the Soviet Union started WWII. While on September 1, 1939, Nazi armies invaded Poland from the west, on September 17, the Soviet Union did the same from the east. Moscow justified its actions by citing the need to protect its ethnic kin—Ukrainians and Belarusians representing two constituent Soviet republics. (Nazi Germany invoked the same pretext to invade Czechoslovakia; indeed, in the Sudetenland, local Germans welcomed the Nazi troops as liberators.)

Today, the Kremlin claims that during the Soviet invasion of Poland there were neither Polish public administrators, nor Polish troops present on the occupied territory—this narrative essentially implies that the Red Army brought about order. This is not true: in April-May 1940, the Soviet secret police (NKVD) executed 22,000 Polish military officers in the Katyn Forest (known as the “Katyn Massacre”). For decades, this fact had been denied by Moscow, but in 2010 the Russian leadership finally acknowledged it. 

There are other facts that Putin may not want to remember. In 1939-41, the Soviet and Nazi regimes cooperated closely. One Soviet poster at the time depicted bomber aircraft of the two “brotherly peoples,” who would soon bomb London together. Taking advantage of its alliance with Germany, the Soviet Union annexed the then independent Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). It is also noteworthy that Lithuania likewise grabbed a piece of Poland (the Vilnius region) during the Nazi and Soviet invasions, mimicking Poland’s role in the partition of Czechoslovakia.

Soviet and Russian historiography continues to praise the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), as it is known in Russia, as the ultimate patriotic feat and sacrifice, utterly ignoring numerous facts that don’t fit this narrative, such as mass desertions, quick surrenders, mass rapes by Red Army soldiers, and the almost one-million-strong army of General Vlasov, which fought on the German side.

Polish revisionism

Poland was another country that started revising WWII early on. The shift emerged following the Polish elite’s strong disappointment in the post-Cold War order, under which Poland saw a rapid deindustrialization and growing foreign influence—primarily German—on its economy. By 2015, when Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party regained a parliamentary majority and formed a government, the country had lapsed into “populism.” The new government, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, revived the claims that Poland suffered the most in WWII and demanded from Germany, its neighbor and largest trade partner, $1 trillion in reparations. In 2018, the country passed the controversial “Holocaust law,” criminalizing the attribution of blame for Nazi crimes to Poland, causing a great stir around the world. 

To be fair, there is a certain validity to Poland’s grievances. The country lost six million citizens in WWII—possibly, the largest share of total population losses among all the war-torn countries. Half of those Poles who perished in WWII were Jews. Poland could indeed try and renegotiate its previous treaty with Germany (the 1991 Treaty of Good Neighborship and Friendly Cooperation) on the grounds that, at the time of its signing, Warsaw was still under Soviet control, that is, not free, and demand reparations from Germany. However, the decision to do so could open a can of worms bringing to light a number of unpleasant questions that Poland would wish to ignore.

First, after WWII a large chunk of Germany’s East Prussia province went to Poland, which means that Warsaw’s territorial claims could be reconsidered, given that the Polish borders were, too, demarcated by the old Soviet-era treaties. Second, Warsaw could be asked to issue compensation to the descendants of those Germans evicted from their Prussian lands. Third, Warsaw could be reminded that it had played a role in the partition of Czechoslovakia following the 1938 Munich agreement. Finally, issues could be raised regarding the way Poland dealt with its Jews. It is true that the Nazis were unable (or unwilling) to create Polish units of collaborators, as was the case with Ukraine, for example. It is also true that thousands of Poles risked their lives to save Jews. Still, many more willingly surrendered their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis. This sense of betrayal and deep alienation from the Polish population was conveyed to me by a Holocaust survivor at a conference in Warsaw many years ago. Having lived for over 40 yeas in Israel, he still harbored a deep hatred for Poland and found it extremely hard, emotionally, to go back to the place where he had been born and raised.

Ukrainian revisionism

Ukraine also struggled to find a “politically correct” WWII narrative. Ukrainians played a role in Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” (the plan to exterminate Jews), participating in mass murders. Today’s Ukrainian nationalists’ glorification of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist whose detachments had eagerly killed Jews, Poles, and Russians, put Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, a Jew, in an awkward position. He was unable to attend the 75th anniversaryof the liberation of Auschwitz, conscious it would antagonize the Ukrainian nationalists, for whom Bandera is a political icon

There was another problem. Zelensky’s presence at the anniversary would have forced him to acknowledge that it was the Red Army—or rather the Russian Army—that saved the Jews. This view hardly fits the current Ukrainian narratives that envision Russia as a villain and an aggressor through its entire history.

Western revisionism?

It is also notable that in the current political climate the West, too, often fails to set its facts straight when it comes to World War II. Western media prefer not to mention that it was indeed Soviet soldiers who liberated Auschwitz and won the war against Nazi Germany. Readers of most Western textbooks could easily conclude that the fate of WWII was decided on the beaches of Normandy, not in Stalingrad or Kursk

It seems that almost every country is now engaged in a deliberate distortion of history, depending on its present political needs. To a historian, this means that the real history of WWII and other events in global history are likely be written only several centuries after the events, when they have become mere abstractions, irrelevant to the current political discourse.

 

* Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor at Indiana University South Bend.

Russia under Putin

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