Dec 8, 2013
Russia Has Trouble Escaping the Past
Posted on Jun 8, 2010
By Ivo Mijnssen and Philipp Casula
When downtown Moscow’s pavement trembles under the weight of tanks, and fighter jets roar overhead, Muscovites know it is Victory Day. Since 2005, when then-President Vladimir Putin revived the Soviet tradition of military parades, the Russian government has used May 9 to project the image of a powerful, united nation. Most of the time, the parades were accompanied by great-power rhetoric. Only a year ago, President Dmitry Medvedev emphasized the strength of Russia’s army and its willingness to defend the country against all enemies. This year, however, the parade sounded and looked quite different: Medvedev highlighted the common victory of the World War II Allies. The bear hats of the British Welsh Guards wiggled in the Moscow air, next to American and Polish troop delegations. Western nations in a Russian May 9 military parade? This would have been almost unthinkable even a year ago.
This celebration of unity between East and West in general and particularly between Russia and Poland is very surprising. During recent years, relations between the two countries were worse than merely tense—which put a damper on Russian-European relations as well. Among the points of contention were the Nord Stream pipeline project connecting Russia and Germany—and bypassing Poland. Polish politicians went so far as to call this project a new Hitler-Stalin pact. The Russian ban on the import of Polish meat prompted the Polish government to block a successor pact to the 1997 European Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. During the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia even threatened Poland with a nuclear attack: Commenting on the plans for stationing parts of a U.S. missile defense shield in Poland, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, then a spokesperson for the Russian armed forces, crudely explained that, in case of a military conflict, Poland, by hosting antiballistic missile systems, exposed itself to a nuclear strike—“100 percent.” The intensity of the quarrels and the frequent use of war rhetoric show that more was at stake than oil, meat or defensive missiles.
The entire field of geopolitics in Eastern Europe is still overshadowed by a mutual distrust rooted in World War II, which brings us back to Victory Day. For official Russian historiography, the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany is the keystone in the liberation of Europe. There is a widespread complaint that Europeans, particularly former Eastern Bloc countries like the Baltic states or Poland, do not appreciate Russia’s contribution and its enormous death toll. For many countries in Eastern Europe, however, “liberation” meant Soviet occupiers replacing the Germans.
Poland’s experience as an occupied country was particularly painful. The Hitler-Stalin pact divided up the country between Germany and the USSR. In the eastern part of Poland, the Soviets committed a war crime of huge proportions in 1940: In the forests around Katyn near the Russian city of Smolensk, the Soviet secret service murdered over 21,000 members of the Polish elite. For fifty years, the Soviets blamed this crime on Nazi Germany, and when they finally admitted it they did not apologize to Poland.
Recently, however, the Russian government has made some surprising gestures: On April 7, Russian Prime Minister Putin and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, paid tribute to the victims of the Katyn massacre. Although Putin did not utter a formal apology, he bowed his head to the dead and stressed that Stalin’s terror made both Poles and Russians suffer; he condemned as cynical lies all past allegations of German responsibility. After Polish President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash three days later, the Russian president and prime minister were among the only high-ranking international guests at the funeral, having made the trip despite a flight ban in Europe due to the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano eruption. The détente continued on the eve of May 9, when Medvedev handed over classified files on the Katyn massacre to acting Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
This episode highlights the dilemma at the heart of the issue: On the one hand, the Russian government uses Victory as a centerpiece on which to base the country’s national identity and as a source of pride for the population. On the other hand, Victory is inextricably tied up with the figure of Stalin. Russian official historiography faces the complicated task of breaking with its totalitarian past while contemporarily incorporating its Soviet heritage. Unlike the Yeltsin administration, Putin and Medvedev see the 70 years of Soviet rule, which inculcated in the population core values, not as a mistake of history. Most schoolbooks and the official media now present a rather uncritical image of the era, aware that leaving out the Soviet past would mean alienating entire generations. Authorities wanted to make sure that Russians could be proud again of their past in its entirety.
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