Monday, 31 August 2009

What Putin wrote

A two-page article, written by premier Putin, appeared in today's Gazeta Wyborcza. Translated into Polish by the Russian embassy in Warsaw, the article sets the tone for Putin's visit tomorrow to Westerplatte for the official commemoration of the outbreak of WWII.

If you believe that the Kremlin plays a coordinated game, you will have witnessed in the Russian media over the past weeks a planned series of 'Aunt Sallies' set up to infuriate Polish public opinion. "Poland and Germany were plotting to invade the Soviet Union!" "The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a good thing for Russia!" "Poland to blame for WWII!" "Katyń - It wasn't us!"

Putin's article and tomorrow's visit seem at first sight to knock these specious arguments for six.

"Today" writes the Russian premier, "I propose that we, without any consideration, without any hesitation, admit that the one trigger of the second world war was the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 23 August 1939."

Well, that looks clear enough - no 'consideration' (zastanowienie) nor 'hesitation' (wahanie) needed for us to admit what the real cause of WWII was.

But the next sentence seems to negate this very proposal:

"Supporters of such a point of view do not ask themselves any elementary questions - whether the Treaty of Versailles which summarised the first world war did not leave in its wake many 'ticking time-bombs'?"

OK then, do we accept that Molotov-Ribbentrop was the 'one trigger'? Or do we ask ourselves 'elementary questions' first? Putin (his speech-writers and/or his translators) leave us deliberately unclear as to whether the Kremlin wants us to actually think.

The key thing to me in Putin's article is the sense of continuity between the 'rogue state' that was the USSR - and modern Russia. The Soviet Union was a 'captured nation' - indeed 15 captured nations - that had become terrorised from within by a band of ideologically-motivated gangsters. During this 70 period, Russia, by far the largest of those captured nations, extended its empire way beyond the borders of what the Tsars held sway over.

Returning to Putin on Molotov-Ribbentrop:

"I would like to remind you that in our country the immoral character of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was unambiguously assessed [as such] [on 24 December 1989, the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR passed a declaration condemning the pact from 1939]" .

In our country - the USSR? Or Russia? It is as if Chancellor Adenauer of West Germany were to justify his position on an issue by quoting a declaration passed by the Nazi Party in 1942.

Putin talks of Molotov-Ribbentrop in the context of other pacts and treaties entered into with Hitler by the West, such as Munich. Yet these were not preparations for the invasion of Britain and France, of say Belgium and Holland. Molotov-Ribbentrop was paving the way for the Soviet invasion of independent Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, eastern Finland, eastern Poland and eastern Romania. This was a land-grab on a far larger scale than what Hitler had managed to achieve through Anschluss, annexation and invasion from March 1938 to September 1939.

Putin talks about the lack of an 'Anti-fascist coalition'. Anti-fascism as a common bond between the West and the USSR is entirely specious. Stalinism had far more in common with Nazi fascism than with the democracies of Britain and France. Collectivist repression, Gulags and concentration camps, arbitrary persecution on ground of race or class, personality cults around the Leader, no freedom of expression. The list of similarities between Stalinism and Nazi fascism goes on and on. Two forms of poison.

Putin mentions "the 600,000 soldiers of the Red Army who gave their lives liberating Poland". Here we have a profound difference of view. "...Who gave their lives so that one tyranny could replace another in Poland" would be the way I'd have phrased it. These soldiers too are victims, let us not forget, driven west by Stalin in his quest to conquer as much of Europe as possible.

Putin also mentions Katyń. "The Russian nation, whose fate was misshapen by a totalitarian regime, understands well the sensitivities of Poles concerning Katyń. We should keep in our common memory the victims of this atrocity. The cemetaries at Katyń and Mednioye, as well as the fate of the Russian soldiers who became PoWs in the [Polish-Soviet] war of 1920 should become a symbol of common sorrow and forgivenness." [No mention of the fate of the Poles captured by the Bolsheviks in that same war, then.]

To enter into the Putin mindset regarding WWII, consider this part of his article.

"Because the war took the lives of 27 million of my countrymen [rodacy] and every Russian family feels the personal pain from those losses, from generation to generation, the pride is passed down, pride of the Great Victory, of the heroic deeds of our fathers and grandfathers who fought on the Front."

Again, continuity with the USSR. 27 million Soviet citizens (including those like my maternal grandfather who were Soviet citizens against their will) might have died (best academic estimate - 26.6 million). But of that awful, unimaginable total, Putin's Russian countrymen numbered 14 million. A horrific death toll by any human measure, but in percentage terms, Ukraine (6.8m) and Belarus (2.6m) suffered far worse than Russia-proper. And 2.5m civilian dead from the lands seized by the USSR as a result of Molotov-Ribbentrop. And up to 1.7m Gulag victims. By saying "27 million of my countrymen", Putin seems to be still considering himself Soviet. And the 'Great Victory' was, for the peoples of central Europe - the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the beginning of 45 years of another kind of totalitarianism.

The fact that Putin has come to Poland and is talking about Molotov-Ribbentrop and Katyń is a small step forward. But Russia needs to be more clear that it has separated itself from those 70 years of lawless totalitarianism. Maybe this can only happen when it is no longer ruled by those with the KGB mindset at the core of which is mistrust.

My thanks to Adthelad for this link to Norman Davies's article on the causes of the outbreak of WWII from The Independent.

And definitely worth reading this in-depth article by Charles Crawford, the former British ambassador to Warsaw, on the subtext of Putin's article.


adthelad said...

A chink in the armour perhaps? Hmmm...

Norman Davies's thoughts on the matter in today's Independent

news said...

I am quite surprised by the British media's lack of interest in the subject from a British perspective, with only a few opinion pieces like Norman Davies' piece and reporting of what Puting might say in Gdansk.

I remember 20 years ago on the 50th anniversary prompted an extravaganza of coverage. There were many documentaries on British TV and a dramatised mini-series of the build up. I can still remember the cynicism of the actor playing Hitler as he said ¨I like it¨ when the Gliwitz incident was proposed to him. I also remember him trying to find Memel on the map before decising to march in! Chamberlain was portrayed as weak, ineffectural Edwardian gentlemen given the run around by Corporal Hitler and the rather uncouth Ribbentrop.Stalin spoke with a Yorkshire accent and Churchhill was an almost frindless backbencher raving on and on about the dangers of Hitler.

Maybe in those cold war times the rights of wrongs of who was good and who was bad were more clear cut. Now, there are many more views ot consider.

It seems that the British have decided to try to forget appeasement this year. Indeed, it is appeasement that the Kremlin promotes as British and French guilt for the war. While the west has always highlighted Molotov-Ribberntrop, the Kremlin emphasises Munich as showing the guilt of Britain and France.

Anonymous said...

Badly written but I do agree with this part -

"Supporters of such a point of view do not ask themselves any elementary questions - whether the Treaty of Versailles which summarised the first world war did not leave in its wake many 'ticking time-bombs'?"

Having said that, there was no reason why the Germans and Soviets HAD TO come back and explode those ticking bombs.

Michael Dembinski said...


1) Germans lose WWI and are badly treated by the Brits, French, Americans, Russians etc. They start WWII.

2) Soviets lose Cold War. Treat Russia badly and it'll kick off the next bout of unpleasantness.

Pawel said...

Michael did you see Russian coverage of the 70th anniversary?

It seems like Poland and Russia are two worlds...
Interestig that Oksana Boyko uses the term "non-aggression pact" without indicating what it included... And the whole thing ends without a mention of Soviet attack of 17th September. This is a masterpiece. How much thought must have been given to how to do it! :)

Michael Dembinski said...

Paweł - I watched a few minutes of that sock-puppet and realised that there's just no meaningful dialogue possible with Russia until that country realises the enormity of the evil that Sralin represents. In the end I just got angry and switched off YouTube. I can't go on watching mendacity on this scale. We have a job to do - telling the west the truth.

Protik said...

"Supporters of such a point of view do not ask themselves any elementary questions - whether the Treaty of Versailles which summarised the first world war did not leave in its wake many 'ticking time-bombs'?"

Totally agree. When Britain and France passively encouraged Germany, they expected Germany to invade Russia, forgetting the humiliation Germany has to suffer in WWI. Of course, Germany took up the opportunity to reciprocate to the French and the Brits in kind. To suggest "Molotov-Ribbentrop" alone triggered WWII is ridiculous, to put it mildly. Blaming Russia even if their microwave breaks down is a popular fad these days among the Poles.

"Putin's Russian countrymen numbered 14 million."

Are we talking about the past? If yes, then USSR is relevant. If Russia can today be blamed for what USSR did, then why can't Putin refer to all Soviet Citizens as "his countrymen"? Moreover, wasn't Putin born in the USSR? Hence, Putin's countrymen did number over 26 million, and not 14 million.


Michael Dembinski said...

It's about making a clean break with the past. Which is difficult if Putin considers the disintegration of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the20th Century. The Germans had that break with the past forced upon them in 1945. In Russia, it's more ambiguous.

The USSR was a country created out of an absense of democracy, whereas the Germans actually voted for the Nazis.

I'd love to be able to love Russia - for its arts and culture, for its natural beauty. It has such huge potential. But until the Russian state and many of its people stop believing that Poles, Balts, Czechs and Ukrainians are somehow still their subjects, then that element of distrust will remain.