Russia: fighting historical lies

Vladimir Radyuhin

The Kremlin history commission’s task will be to trace and analyse historical untruths and draw up proposals for the President on how to counter them.

As the world prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II on September 1, 1939, Russia braces to fight a wave of western distortions on its role in the bloodiest conflict of all times.

President Dmitry Medvedev last month established a Kremlin commission “to counter attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests.” The decision provoked heated controversy, with some critics denouncing it as an “Orwellian Truth Commission” and a throwback to the Soviet times when dissent was not tolerated. However, barely two weeks after the commission was formed, western leaders gathered in France for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The event, unwittingly perhaps, showed that Moscow had good reason to feel concerned.

Neither French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who hosted the ceremony on the Normandy beaches, nor the United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown nor Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to the Soviet Union in their World War II commemoration speeches. This drew a protest from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said the Normandy ceremonies would not have taken place had it not been for the sacrifice of millions of Soviet soldiers.

U.S. President Barack Obama was the only leader in Normandy to mention “the Russians, who sustained some of the war’s heaviest casualties on the Eastern front.” But he too caused bad feelings in Moscow by suggesting that the western allies’ second front was pivotal to the defeat of Nazi Germany. “Had the Allies failed here, Hitler’s occupation of this continent might have continued indefinitely,” he said.

Russians, who lost 27 million lives in the Second World War, are deeply insulted by the attempts to belittle their decisive role in the victory over Nazi Germany. Nine out of every 10 Wehrmacht personnel killed in battle died on the Russian front. By the time the U.S. and the British forces landed in France, the Red Army was rolling across Eastern Europe and would have crushed Nazi forces anyway, with or without the support of its western allies. In fact, the only reason why the U.S. and Britain opened a second front against Germany in Europe was to stop the triumphant march of the Red Army, as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill frankly admitted in his memoirs. “First: Soviet Russia had become a mortal danger to the free world. Second: that a new front must be immediately created against her onward sweep. Third: that this front in Europe should be as far east as possible,” Mr. Churchill wrote.

Mr. Obama may be forgiven for not reading Mr. Churchill’s memoirs. But he should at least know that the Soviet Union sustained, not “some of the war’s heaviest casualties” but, by far, the heaviest human losses in the war. Soviet combatant losses alone — 13.6 million, according to the United Nations figures — were 16 times higher than the combined losses of the U.S., Britain and France.

The Normandy speeches reflected the dominant view in the western world that World War II was won by the Anglo-American allies. Some American textbooks of the war fail to give any credit to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, went as far as to blame the Soviet Union, along with Nazi Germany, for starting the Second World War. On a visit to the Baltic republic of Latvia four years ago, Mr. Bush said “the battle came here because of a secret pact between dictators” — a reference to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany. This claim reflected mainstream western propaganda, which obscures the fact that a year earlier France and Britain gave the West’s blessing to Hitler’s Drang Nach Osten allowing him to swallow Czechoslovakia under the notorious Munich deal and leaving Joseph Stalin with little choice but to sign a non-aggression pact with Germany.

In his recently launched videoblog, Mr. Medvedev said that efforts to cast doubt on the “heroic exploits” of the Russian people in World War II “are becoming more hostile, more malicious and more aggressive.” Russians view attempts to rewrite the history of the war as part of a new ideological war the West has unleashed on their country. While the Cold War ideological battles were fought along the capitalism-versus-socialism line, today the confrontation has shifted to history.

“Western ideologists have redoubled their efforts to twist history since the break-up of the Soviet Union and this is not accidental,” said Sergei Mikheyev, deputy head of the Centre for Political Technologies. “The Americans and their allies have sought to minimise and de-legitimise the role the Soviet Union played in global history in order to project the West as an ideologically superior civilisation, and thereby justify the West’s right to dictate its will to the rest of the world.”

Former Soviet states and some East European countries spearhead the western campaign to rewrite history. Nationalist leaders in the ex-Soviet bloc have politicised history to reflect a narrow nationalistic agenda and justify their anti-Russian policies. They claim that the Soviet Union, rather than Nazi Germany, was the occupying power. Red Army war monuments are being pulled down, while local Nazi collaborators are glorified. The Baltic states are demanding compensation from Russia for the years of “Soviet occupation.” Estonia has estimated its damages at $17 billion, Lithuania at $20 billion, while Latvia’s compensation bill may go as high as $200 billion. The unstated purpose of these claims is to portray Russia as a successor to a totalitarian empire, more evil than Nazi Germany.

Distortions of history are not confined to the World War. Russians were infuriated when Ukraine’s President Victor Yushchenko sought to portray the famine that killed millions in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s as an act of genocide directed specifically at the Ukrainians.

Two years ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution on “crimes of totalitarian communist regimes,” which effectively equated Nazism with Communism. In Russia’s view, it was an outrageous example of blatant falsification of history targeting Russia. The West further demonstrated double standards when it refused to support a Russia-drafted “Declaration on the Condemnation of Fascism and Fascist Collaboration” at the United Nations. The declaration was approved in November 2008, but the U.S. voted against and all the European Union states abstained. For Russia’s foes, the job of rewriting history is of far more than academic interest.

“If the Soviet Union is declared, in retrospect, to be the same kind of criminal state as Hitler’s Germany, then it can be subjected also in retrospect to a kind of virtual Nuremburg tribunal, and then doubt can be cast upon its signature on all the Yalta and Potsdam [WW2] decisions and ultimately, on the U.N. Charter,” says historian Natalya Narochnitskaya, a member of the new Kremlin commission. Russian experts think that a wave of historical falsehoods will peak next year when the world celebrates the 65th anniversary of Allied victory in May.

The Kremlin history commission will not have any legal power; its task, according to Mr. Medvedev’s decree, will be to trace and analyse historical untruths and draw up proposals for the President on how to counter them. One way to do this would be to open wartime archives. “It is high time we looked around and decided what kind of documents need to be dug up and published to debunk these false interpretations,” says Prof. Narochnitskaya.

For example, Soviet documents declassified last year proved an eye-opener for many in the West. The Kremlin papers showed that two weeks before World War II broke out, the Soviet Union offered to move a million troops to the German border if Britain and France agreed to set up an anti-Nazi alliance to contain Hitler. It was only after the western powers failed to respond to the Soviet offer that Moscow entered into a non-aggression pact with Berlin to win time.

Another way to fight historical lies mulled over by the Kremlin is to criminalise those who spread them. A denial of Holocaust, for example, is a criminal offence in Germany, France, Austria and 10 other European countries. A bill pending in Russian Parliament would stipulate fines and prison sentences of up to five years for questioning the outcome of the Second World War and rehabilitating Nazism and Fascism.

A recent survey showed that Russians, still reeling from the humiliation of the fall of the Soviet Union, would welcome punishment to those who belittle the Soviet victory in the war: almost two-thirds of those polled agreed that such deeds should be outlawed.

Apart from countering foreign falsehoods about Soviet history, the Kremlin commission will be called upon to combat a derisive view of Russia’s Communist past among its own people — a “national sickness,” as one analyst described it. “A generation has grown up in the 1990s fed with vicious pro-western propaganda that Russian history was all despicable junk,” said Dr. Mikheyev.

An unbiased and balanced view of the country’s history that the Kremlin commission should foster will help Russia shape its future, Prof. Narochnitskaya said. “If a nation is unable to come to a consensus on interpreting its own past, it will be unable to formulate its national interests.”