“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
— William Faulkner, "Requiem for a Nun"
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
— Milan Kundera, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"
If there is one thing that Russians want you to know, it is that they did the bulk of the fighting in World War II and suffered most of the casualties. Commemoration of the Great Patriotic War, as they call it, is incessant, and clearly serves the political purposes of the Russian government. But that does not mean that ordinary Russians are insincere when they talk about its foundational importance.
The most credible recent estimates of Soviet war losses are 26 to 27 million dead, a truly staggering number. Compare that with roughly 400,000 fatal US casualties and one begins to grasp the disproportion. D-Day was the single bloodiest day of combat for US military forces, costing approximately 2,500 dead. Russia averaged almost that many dead, military and civilian, every day of the war for nearly four years.
American amnesia about the tremendous sacrifice of the Russian people is lamentable. But this general historical ignorance accounts as well for our failure to recognize how morally fraught and ambiguous the Soviet role in World War II was. It also intellectually disarms us when Russians make dubious claims of historical victimhood, as President Vladimir Putin has recently been doing. Among these claims are Soviet innocence and Western treachery in the period immediately leading to the outbreak of the war.
The fuse that lit the war, and Soviet complicity
This week is the 78th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, signed Aug. 23, 1939. This was the lit fuse guaranteeing that the Second World War broke out precisely when it did, where it did, and why it took on the geopolitical shape that it did. In less than a week, Hitler’s tanks rolled into Poland, igniting the bloodiest war in history.
Germany’s convulsive military expansion is, at least, a well-known chapter in world history, even for most Americans. Less recognized is the fact that only 16 days after the German attack on Poland, the Soviet Red Army invaded Poland from the east. German and Russian forces halted at the line of demarcation secretly agreed to in their treaty, Wehrmacht and Red Army officers then fraternized like old comrades, and the two armies held a joint military parade in Brest-Litovsk.
Within three months, the Red Army invaded Finland, which had been consigned by the Pact to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The following year, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, likewise condemned to be “liberated” by the Red Army, were forcibly incorporated into the USSR. Then eastern Romania suffered the same fate.
In all the annexed territories, hundreds of thousands of inhabitants assumed to be “counterrevolutionary elements” were shot out of hand, tortured, or imprisoned either locally or in gulags in Siberia. In order to suppress potential resistance in Soviet-occupied Poland, 20,000 captured Polish military officers were transported to a forest in Belorussia, shot, and dumped into a mass grave.
A Nazi-Soviet de facto alliance
What advantage did Hitler gain from letting Josef Stalin take over a large swath of Eastern Europe? First, he received a distinctly friendly neutrality from his fellow dictator while he unleashed the German Army against the Western powers. Second, he received a cornucopia of raw materials from the USSR that helped nullify the effect of the allied economic blockade against resource-poor Germany.
The German war machine received almost a million tons of oil products from the USSR, large quantities of manganese, nickel, and chromium (all of them vital hardening agents for armor plate and machine tool manufacture), and vast amounts of foodstuffs and textiles. With no access to world markets, the German war economy might have collapsed. In any case, the Third Reich was so short of hard currency that it would have lacked the funds to buy sufficient materials even if the British hadn’t blockaded German trade. Stalin was more accommodating, allowing the Germans to operate on barter or credit.
We all know the rest of the story. Once Hitler ran the Western allies off the Continent, his hands were free to settle old scores with the hereditary Bolshevik enemy. When the attack came, the largest invasion in the history of warfare, it was a shocking surprise to Stalin, even though Western intelligence, as well as his own spies, had been warning him for months. In one of the greatest ironies of all history, the Soviet dictator, renowned for his clinically paranoid suspiciousness, seemed to place a naive trust in only one man: Adolf Hitler. He even threatened his own intelligence officers with the gulag if they kept warning him an attack was coming!
Having failed to prepare (even to the extent of ordering the partial dismantlement of the Stalin Line, which might have slowed down the German advance), military losses under Stalin’s leadership were bound to be horrendous, quite apart from his profligate indifference to the lives of his own troops. Stalin even employed NKVD blocking units to machine-gun Red Army troops who retreated. Certainly, the Nazi war machine unleashed a unique savagery in Russia, but it was made worse by Stalin’s bungling and psychopathic indifference to human life.
That is the background of the Great Patriotic War, made possible and even more horrific by circumstances of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. What, then, was the lesson that Soviet citizens learned from all of this after the war?
It never happened! In the face of one of the most momentous diplomatic agreements in history, an agreement that was heavily reported worldwide at the time, of which there is massive documentary and photographic evidence (even a photo of Stalin yukking it up with German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop during the signing), the Soviet Union insisted right up until 1989 that the Nazi-Soviet Pact never occurred. Only with the USSR’s collapse did the successor Russian government produce archival material regarding the pact itself and related events, such as the Katyn Forest massacre of Poles.
Putin revises history: It’s all the west’s fault
Is this all just a historical controversy from our grandparents’ time, maybe important in its day but remote from present political concerns? No: The past is never past. Although archives opened and talk was freer for a few years, the pendulum has been swinging the other way in Russia for at least a decade.
Vladimir Putin is not exactly claiming the Nazi-Soviet Pact never happened, but he has settled on a halfway-house explanation. The Nazi-Soviet Pact was a good thing, allowing the USSR breathing space to prepare against invasion, and it was also forced upon the Soviets by the West’s behavior at Munich, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain acceded to Hitler’s demands for more territory in western Czechoslovakia.
The first rationale is simply a flat-out delusion, as we have seen, while the second has a veneer of meretricious plausibility. The Munich agreement was obviously a shameful capitulation (even Hitler didn’t expect the allies to agree to his terms), and Czechoslovakia’s sacrifice by the Western powers can in some sense be likened to the territorial robbery of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
But Britain and France were acting out of fear of war and an exaggerated feeling of their own weakness; within a couple of months after Munich, there was a widespread shift of opinion in the West that the agreement brought them nothing but a worsened strategic position, and that they had better increase the pace of rearmament. (As George Orwell said at the time, Neville Chamberlain was no traitor or monster, “merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights.”) Stalin acted out of sheer predatory greed, and did not regret the pact until the moment the Panzers crashed over his borders.
It also bears mentioning that the allies themselves did not territorially benefit from Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment, nor did they begin exporting war materiel to Germany, as the USSR did. And the sheer bestiality of Soviet behavior in the territories they annexed nullifies whatever moral claims Putin and his representatives might make.
Present-day Russian apologists for the pact also claim their country was forced into it by Britain and France’s refusal to enter into a mutual defense agreement with the USSR. While some officials in the allied camp were opposed to such a scheme on ideological grounds, practical considerations were more important. In order to get that agreement, the allies would have to obtain the consent of Poland for free passage of Red Army troops through that country, a condition the Soviets insisted upon. That consent from Poland not being forthcoming (for reasons obviously vindicated by subsequent Soviet behavior), the allies could not enter into any such agreement.
Again, why is rehashing this history of importance to the present? For several years, Putin has been constructing a tale according to which Russia has been historically aggrieved, and Russia’s current foreign policy is simply an effort to reverse these wrongs.
Although the precipitate expansion of NATO in the 1990s may have been unwise; George W. Bush’s abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia was definitely unwise; and the 2014 Nuland-Pyatt phone call in Ukraine was American fishing in troubled waters, Russia’s territorial annexations in Ukraine and repeated hacking and harassment of the Baltic states are hardly justified by adverting to the Soviet Union’s victim status in the Second World War. Nor did this status morally justify 40-plus years of despotic Soviet domination of Eastern Europe on the basis that the German Army passed through those territories to invade the USSR, especially because before that invasion Stalin was perfectly content to collude with the Germans while oppressing the local populations.
In Russia, It’s illegal to tell the truth about history
If any present-day Russian citizen were to say that, however, he would be in jeopardy of the law. It is now illegal to be too critical of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, as the subject falls under the aegis of Soviet wartime conduct, which can now only be discussed in laudatory terms. Anything too critical is considered “slander” against the Red Army and its dwindling number of wartime veterans. One blogger who posted a story about the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland was sentenced to a 200,000-ruble fine for his trouble. This whitewashing of the pact has been accompanied by a rehabilitation of Stalin. Unfortunately, this sort of hypocrisy about the war as a foundational myth of the current Russian state does not end with harassing a few history buffs.
It also has implications for the policies of both the United States and Europe. One of the justifications the Kremlin used for the annexation of Ukrainian territory was that the February 2014 overthrow of the Yanukovych government was staged by fascists and Nazis. Because a segment of Ukrainians favoring the overthrow were nationalists who commemorated Stepan Bandera, a World War II Ukrainian separatist who collaborated with the Germans, there was a grain of plausibility to the argument. But of course the Russian government exaggerated the theme with all the subtlety for which Moscow’s propaganda is noted, making it appear as if the Ukrainian government was the Third Reich reincarnated.
A strange foreign policy: Anti-fascist while supporting fascists
And here is the supreme irony. Even as Russia attempted to present itself as an anti-fascist bulwark in historical continuity with its World War II role, while tarring Ukraine as fascist, it began providing encouragement and assistance to right-wing extremist groups in both Europe and the United States. I have written about the ties of right-wing parties like the French Front national and the German Alternative für Deutschland to the Russian government elsewhere.
The Trump administration under whose burden intelligent Americans now groan was also an apparent recipient of the Kremlin’s assistance. (To what extent it improved Trump’s electoral position is not the issue; the assistance was clearly offered, and the joy in Moscow on November 9 was palpable.) Those torch-carrying demonstrators in Charlottesville whom Trump thought included very fine people did not seem to be bearing anti-fascist insignia. As much as those neo-Nazis are the genetic material of American social conditions and conceived in vitro by Trump, they appear also to have been midwifed by Vladimir Putin’s alt-right international.
Putin’s alt-right frankenstein monster
Putin is often regarded as a master strategist. He is certainly a clever tactician, but at the grand strategic level, and over the long term, his alt-right gambit may be comparable to Stalin’s two horrific blunders: the first in the early 1930s when he ordered German Communists to lay off the Nazi Party and instead attack the social democratic and bourgeois parties; the second by immensely strengthening the German Army and its strategic position with the 1939 pact with Hitler.
Getting Trump into power, to the extent Putin moved the needle, did him no good; he now labors under intensified economic sanctions, and Trump’s sheer irrational volatility is such that the risk of serious conflict with Russia has increased, not lessened. Who knows what Trump might do if he gets out of bed one morning and decides Putin played him for a sucker and is responsible for his political and legal troubles?
And what does Putin imagine will happen if one day, an extreme ethno-nationalist and revanchist party were to take power in, say, Germany? Is he so sure that a militaristic movement, seeking economic autarky, strategic elbow room, and validation of an imagined historical mission, wouldn’t turn its gaze eastward?
It is a fallacy to think that history repeats itself in a precise way, but as the saying goes, there are occasions when it rhymes.