20 years under Putin: a timeline

During celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, saying it was meant to protect the USSR’s national security interests. IMR legal expert Ekaterina Mishina analyzes the pact, and the implications of its secret protocol, which are among the darkest and most shameful pages in Russian history.


The Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, also known as the Ribbentrop—Molotov Pact, was signed on August 23, 1939. From left to right: Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs; Boris Shaposhnikov, Chief of the General Staff of the Red Army; Richard Schulze-Kossens, Waffen-SS officer; Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Minister of Foreign Affairs; Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union; Vladimir Pavlov, First Secretary of the Soviet embassy in Germany. Photo: waralbum.ru


We want to see that Poland and Lithuania, Ukraine,
Finns and Baltic Latvians get back their absolute freedom
and the right to control their own destiny and have it their own way,
without any interference on our part, directly or indirectly.
M.A. Bakunin1


On May 10, at a press conference on the results of his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the following: “First, the [Molotov-Ribbentrop] Pact did mean to keep the Soviet Union safe. Second, I remind you that after the Munich Agreement was signed, Poland itself took actions to annex part of the Czech territory. It so happened that after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the partition of Poland, it ended up being a victim of the very same policy that it had tried to impose on Europe.”

Putin said this in response to the idea that Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky’s statement calling the pact “a huge success of Stalin’s diplomacy from the point of view of the interests of the Soviet Union,” would incite fear in Poland and the Baltic States. “Speaking of eliminating fear,” the president added, “it also comes down to the state of mind of those who are afraid. You have to overcome it, step forward, not live by the phobias of the past, but look to the future.”

To understand the true and chilling meaning his words, we have to consider separately the non-aggression pact between Germany and the USSR and the secret protocol to it, as well as the consequences of the signing of those documents.

According to the pact, the Soviet Union and Germany committed themselves to the following:

  • Both High Contracting Parties obligate themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other powers (Art. 1);
  • Should one of the High Contracting Parties become the object of belligerent action by a third power, the other High Contracting Party shall in no manner lend its support to this third power (Art. 2);
  • The Governments of the two High Contracting Parties shall in the future maintain continual contact with one another for the purpose of consultation in order to exchange information on problems affecting their common interests (Art. 3);
  • Neither of the two High Contracting Parties shall participate in any grouping of powers whatsoever that is directly or indirectly aimed at the other party (Art. 4);
  • Should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties over problems of one kind or another, both parties shall settle these disputes or conflicts exclusively through friendly exchange of opinion or, if necessary, through the establishment of arbitration commissions (Art. 5).

The wording of the pact is rather neutral, and no wonder: the signing of the pact itself was not concealed, but the signing of the additional protocol, as well as its contents, were kept a closely guarded secret. Below is the text:

“On the occasion of the signature of the Nonaggression Pact between the German Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the undersigned plenipotentiaries of each of the two parties discussed in strictly confidential conversations the question of the boundary of their respective spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. These conversations led to the following conclusions:

  1. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. In this connection the interest of Lithuania in the Vilnius area is recognized by each party.
  2. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narew, Vistula, and San. The question of whether the interests of both parties make desirable the maintenance of an independent Polish state and how such a state should be bounded can only be definitely determined in the course of further political developments. In any event both Governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly agreement.
  3. With regard to Southeastern Europe attention is called by the Soviet side to its interest in Bessarabia. The German side declares its complete political disinterestedness in the areas.
  4. This protocol shall be treated by both parties as strictly secret.”


Further political developments

The aforementioned “further political developments” immediately followed the signing of both documents by Molotov and Ribbentrop on August 23, 1939. What happened on September 1, 1939, has been long and well known by the Soviet/Russian people: Germany invaded Poland. This day is considered the official beginning of the World War II.

What happened on September 17 of the same year is far lesser known to the Soviet/Russian people: the Polish territory was invaded by units of the Red Army. On the same day, Vaclav Grzybowski, the Polish ambassador to the Soviet Union, was handed a note by the people’s commissar for foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov. This document is important enough to quote the text in full:

“Mr. Ambassador!

The Polish-German war has revealed the internal insolvency of the Polish state. Within ten days of military operations Poland has lost all of its industrial areas and cultural centers. Warsaw as the capital of Poland does not exist anymore. The Polish government has collapsed and shows no signs of life. This means that the Polish state and its government ceased to exist. Therefore, the treaties concluded between the USSR and Poland have been terminated. Left to its own devices and without leadership, Poland has become a convenient field for all sorts of accidents and surprises that could pose a threat to the Soviet Union. Therefore, the Soviet Government, hitherto neutral, can no longer remain neutral towards these facts.

The Soviet government cannot also be indifferent to the fact that consanguineous Ukrainians and Belarusians living in Poland are left to fend for themselves, left defenseless.

In view of this situation, the Soviet Government instructed the High Command of the Red Army to order the troops to cross the border and take under their protection the lives and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus.

At the same time the Soviet Government intends to take all the measures necessary to rescue the Polish people from this ill-fated war, into which it was drawn by its reckless government, and to enable it to live a peaceful life.

Please accept, Your Excellency, the assurances of highest consideration.

The People’s Commissar for
Foreign Affairs
V. Molotov”

Since 1939, it’s become tradition to maintain that whenever our troops cross a border and invade the territory of another sovereign state just because we don’t like what’s going on in that state at the moment, this does not necessarily mean we’re at war with that state.

It’s not surprising that in the Soviet Union, they preferred to gloss over this detail. And even less surprising is the fact that the Great Patriotic War was elevated to the most important and sacred war for the Soviet people. That war was different from the Second World War not only in name. The dates were different as well: June 22, 1941, to May 9, 1945. The fact that until June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union actually participated in World War II was hushed up. And there was indeed something to hide: the invasion of Poland was followed soon after by the Winter War with Finland.


Territorial and political rearrangement

Finland. The Winter War was preceded by a series of failed negotiations. On October 5, 1939, the Soviet government proposed that the Government of Finland send a delegation to Moscow for “an exchange of views on political issues.” This proposal caused concern not only in Finland, but throughout the world, as demonstrated by the letter U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt sent to the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Mikhail Kalinin, on October 11, 1939. In it, President Roosevelt expressed “the earnest hope that the Soviet Union will make no demands on Finland which are inconsistent with the maintenance and development of amicable and peaceful relations between the two countries and the independence of each.”

The importance of negotiations with Finland to the Soviet Union is evidenced by the fact that Stalin personally participated in the first two rounds. In the first round the Soviet Union offered to sign a mutual assistance pact, similar to those signed with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in early fall of 1939. Finland rejected the proposal. Gradually negotiations, including on the possibility of deployment of Soviet military bases on the Hanko Peninsula, came to a stalemate. Finnish Foreign Minister Vaino Tanner said his country could not grant a foreign country permission to deploy its military bases on Finnish territory. In a statement dated November 11, the Soviet news agency TASS said Finland had refused to accept the minimum requirements of the USSR and increased the number of its troops stationed not far from Leningrad, from two to seven divisions. On November 26 and 27, the two governments exchanged notes in connection with the Mainila incident, and on November 28, the Soviet Union denounced the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920, and the 1932 Non-Aggression Pact with Finland. This is how the Winter War started.

On December 14, 1939, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations for its aggression against Finland. On March 12, 1940, the Winter War ended. Political rearrangement was avoided, but territorial rearrangement was significant: Finland lost about forty thousand square kilometers of its land to the Soviet Union.

Baltic Countries. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were a bit more pliable than Finland: under mutual assistance pacts, the Soviet Union obtained the right to deploy troops on the territories of these countries, as well as set up naval and air bases. In mid-June 1940, all three countries were presented with an ultimatum by reason of their alleged failure to comply with the conditions of the mutual assistance pacts. Pro-Soviet puppet governments were established in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Territorial and political rearrangement was just the beginning for these countries: they were forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union. Long-prepared mass repression commenced.

On October 11, 1939, the day after the third mutual assistance pact with the Baltic States had been made, Minister of Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beria signed the secret NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) order № 001223 “On deportation of anti-Soviet elements from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.” On May 16, 1941, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR adopted a resolution “On measures to purge Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian SSR of anti-Soviet, criminal, and socially dangerous elements.” The document listed the categories of persons who had to “be arrested with confiscation of property, and sent to camps for a term of five to eight years, and after serving their sentence in the camps to be exiled in settlements in remote areas of the Soviet Union for 20 years.” These included “former policemen, gendarmes, landowners, factory owners, former high level government officials of the state apparatus of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia,” as well as their family members. Paragraph 9 of the resolution read, “The arrest and deportation operation in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia [is] to be concluded in three days.”

On June 17, 1941, People’s Commissar of State Security Vsevolod Merkulov submitted a memorandum to Stalin, in which he reported on the work done:

I. In Lithuania: <...> total of 15,851 people subject to repression.
In Latvia: <...> total of 15,171 people subject to repression.
In Estonia: <...> total of 9,156 people subject to repression.
II. Total of three republics: arrested — 14,467 people; evicted — 25,711 people; total subject to repression — 40,178 people.

During the first Soviet occupation of the previously independent Baltic States, 131.5 thousand people were deported.

These are the main consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocol—one of the darkest and most shameful pages in Russian history. Since 1939, it’s become tradition to maintain that whenever our troops cross a border and invade the territory of another sovereign state just because we don’t like what’s going on in that state at the moment, this does not necessarily mean we’re at war with that state. We’re just “defending ourselves,” and at the same time we take under our protection the lives and property of people in that state, randomly chosen as the objects of our protection. That’s a tradition we have.



  1. Op. cit.: Бакунин М.А. Народное дело: Романов, Пугачев или Пестель? / Избранные сочинения. Том III. — М.: Директ-Медиа. 2014. (M. Bakunin, Narodnoye Delo: Romanov, Pugachev, or Pestel).