Thu, 13 Aug 2020

It's an anniversary few in the Kremlin, or elsewhere in Russia for that matter, are keen to talk about -- let alone remember in some way.

Eighty years ago, on August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and Josef Stalin's Soviet Union inked a nonaggression treaty that ushered in World War II.

Commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, after Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, the agreement gave Adolf Hitler a free hand to attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Behind the scenes, it was later determined, Hitler and Stalin had established secret protocols dividing Central and Eastern Europe into their respective 'spheres of influence.'

The pact brought devastation to the states and regions that were carved up, resulted in the deportation and killing of thousands from those areas, and paved the way for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain after the war's end in 1945.

Russia has generally sought to minimize and relativize Stalin's decision to align himself with Hitler in 1939. Russian President Vladimir Putin once condemned the pact as 'immoral,' but has downplayed its significance on the few occasions he has mentioned it in recent years.

Discussion of the secret protocols -- which open up the issue of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Poland, just days after Germany's invasion from the west -- are a taboo topic.

(Left to right:) German diplomat Friedrich Gaus, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Sovet leader Joseph Stalin, and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in the Kremlin on August 23, 1939.

Russia has largely adopted the Soviet narrative: World War II began not with the widely held start date of September 1, 1939, when Nazi forces attacked Poland, but in 1941, when Hitler unleashed his forces on the Soviet Union.

'There's not much to be gained for Moscow in talking about 1939. Any focus on the pact contradicts the myth of the 'Great Patriotic War', which portrays the U.S.S.R. as a victim and lets the war begin in 1941,' explained Jan Claas Behrends, a historian at the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, near Berlin. 'If you put the spotlight on 1939 it deconstructs this essential narrative.'

Political Tool

Glorifying elements of the Soviet past and blurring the lines over Stalin's brutal legacy, critics say, has become a political tool for Putin, who has exploited nationalism to prop up his rule, now entering its third decade.

Efforts to whitewash Stalin's crimes have apparently also influenced Russians' views of the dictator, who was responsible for killing millions of Soviet citizens: a recent survey showed a record number felt he played a positive role in the country's history.

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Given all this, few are expecting Putin's Russia to embrace discussion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

In advance of this year's anniversary, Russian officials presented a trove of archive documents allegedly proving that it was Hitler, not Stalin, who pushed for the pact and that the Soviet Union -- well aware that Germany did not intend to uphold its pledge of non-aggression, and believing that the West was only interested in pacifying Hitler -- had no choice but to sign it in order to buy time and ensure its security.

After decades of Kremlin stonewalling and obfuscation, a historical institute recently published what it said were the original pact documents, not copies as released in the past.

'Shameful Episode'

Experts and historians say these new developments, especially the release of the alleged original Russian version of the nonaggression pact and its protocols, do not signal Russia is changing tack on interpreting this dark moment in its past.

'This is not part of an honest assessment of a shameful episode. Rather -- it seems to me -- it is a somewhat clumsy attempt to reassert control of the narrative of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a narrative that has been slipping from the Kremlin's grasp in recent years,' explained Roger Moorhouse, a British historian and author of The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941.

On the streets of Moscow, few Russians seem aware of the pact, or, if they are, didn't think Stalin did anything wrong in agreeing to it.

Alesksandr Gadin, a 60-year-old pensioner whose grandfather served in the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, brushed off suggestions that Stalin had committed a crime by endorsing the pact.

Sipping a beer, Gadin said territory seized by the Soviet Union under the secret terms of the deal -- the three Baltic states, a large chunk of Poland, plus parts of both Finland and Romania -- had long belonged to Russia.

'Those Eastern European countries, they think we occupied them,' he said, referring to a swath of the continent that belonged to the Russian Empire before being seized by the Soviet Union. 'But they were ours long before the war started.'

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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