Tuesday, June 07, 2005

WIlder Europe June 2005

Imagine that a gang of thugs in your neighbourhood abducted and raped
your grandmother 60 years ago, stole and ruined your family property,
terrorised your family, and somehow got away with it due to some
failure in the law. Imagine that the gang's grandchildren—who claim to
be respectable citizens—now want to have normal neighbourly relations.
Fine, you might think—except that their version of events is
different. It wasn't rape, but marriage, they say. The property was
legally transferred. And everyone got along fine. So there's nothing
to apologise for.

That's pretty much how the Balts and Poles feel about Russia's
attitude to history. And for the British, these kinds of arguments
can seem rather enjoyable. It is quite satisfying to sit with east
Europeans, agreeing that the Germans have really done quite well
(although of course they will never quite redeem themselves); the
Austrians were worse than the Germans and never denazified properly,
so we can tut-tut about that. As for the Russians, they really are
outrageous, with their falsified, one-sided view of history. They
don't acknowledge properly the murder of thousands of Polish officers
at Katyn; they haven't really renounced the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact;
they even feel nostalgic about Stalin and ignore their own gulags. No
wonder their democracy is skin-deep and everyone hates them.

But just to puncture the smugness, there is another side to British
history which is particularly on my mind at this time of year. That is
the dreadful events of 1945-47, when British and other allied forces
returned hundreds of thousands of Russians and Yugoslavs to their
death at the hands of the Soviet and Yugoslav Communists. These people
had surrended to the British and American forces because they knew
what fate awaited them if they fell into the hands of Stalin and Tito.
Admittedly they included Soviet forces who had switched sides and
fought for the Nazis, in some cases with exceptional brutality and
enthusiasm. In any event, they deserved war crimes trials, and some of
them, no doubt, the death penalty. But others had committed no
atrocities. Some anti-Communist Yugoslavs had actually been on our
side in the war -- at least until we cut off supplies and backed their
Communist adversaries in Yugoslavia's civil war.

British officials insisted—and sometime still insist—that they had
honour to the letter the agreements made with Stalin at Yalta and
elsewhere. Conditions were chaotic in 1945, with half the continent
starving, tens of thousands of British prisoners-of-war still in
Soviet hands, and Stalin extremely popular in both Britain and
America. But the story is still a dreadful one. British soldiers and
officials continued repatriating Russians and Yugoslavs even when it
was clear they were being murdered on arrival. They--we if you are
British—continued even when these people were killing themselves and
their families rather than be deported. We included people such as
Russians born outside the USSR, who were clearly not "Soviet citizens"
and therefore not covered by the agreement.

There's not much to be done about it now, apart from mourn and
remember. Most of the people who suffered as a result of Britain's
shameful behaviour are dead, so there is nobody left to rebuke us. But
when Brits endorse criticism of Russia's historical amnesia, their
censure carries most weight when they also recall that by this time in
June sixty years ago, the first of many tens of thousands of Cossacks
and other Russians, who had entrusted their lives to the British
authorities, were already dead.

Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist

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