Mentioning the war
Sep 3rd 2009
What Vladimir Putin should have said in Gdansk
Honoured Guests, Dear Excellencies:
My German counterpart Willy Brandt launched his country’s reconciliation with Poland by bending his knee at the Warsaw ghetto memorial in 1970. My aim today is less ambitious, but I would like to begin by stating unequivocally that my government regards the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, especially its secret protocols, as a crime, and a direct contributor to the Nazi attack on Poland that we are marking today.
Those were dark and shameful years for many countries. Out of deference to my British friends I will not mention the Munich agreement, and out of politeness to my hosts I will not cite the Polish land grab of Cieszyn that followed it. But many wrongs do not make a right. As a Russian leader it is my responsibility to ensure that my country acknowledges both the bright and black spots in our history. Our pride at the sacrifice and heroism showed by the Russian people—and by many others in the Soviet Union—in defeating Hitler does not mean that we cannot mourn the victims and crimes of Stalinism both at home and abroad.
I represent the Russian Federation; I cannot take direct responsibility for the actions of another country. So I cannot apologise for the Soviet Union’s shameful and unprovoked attack on Poland on September 17th. I can certainly condemn it, and I do so now. I similarly condemn the illegal annexation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, just as I rejoice in their renewed statehood after 1991.
I should like to make special mention of the Katyn massacre. I deplore attempts in Russia to revive the Soviet-era lie that this was the work of the Nazis, or to claim that other tragic events somehow justify the atrocity. I am ordering with immediate effect the declassification of all files relating to this event, and look forward to the speedy judicial rehabilitation of the victims.
I would also like to clarify my much-quoted remark about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the geopolitical catastrophe of the past century. Like many Soviet citizens, I found the end of the life we had known to be shockingly disruptive and painful. The human, and particularly demographic, consequences of the stress and upheaval that it caused are with us to this day. But let me be clear on two things. The collapse of communism was a liberation for the Russian people, just as it was for the other—and I stress other—captive nations of the Soviet empire. Secondly, my government has no desire to recreate the Soviet empire. Any talk of a sphere of privileged interests must not be misunderstood: the privilege of close ties is a mutual one, based on mutual respect, not on old imperial sentiments.
We will never see history quite the same. Russian hearts will always freeze at the sight of veterans parading in SS uniforms in Latvia, Estonia or Ukraine, however much we may with our heads try to understand the impossible choices that led people to wear them. We may never quite see Hitler and Stalin as two sides of the same coin, as some of you do. But I hope we can at least agree to disagree in a spirit of mutual respect. I urge my compatriots, in public office, in the media and elsewhere, to join me in this endeavour.
Friday, September 04, 2009