Friday, March 05, 2010

Katyn update

The Kremlin is gradually sorting out (or at least defusing) its historical rows with the ex-captive nations. First it was Putin's visit to Hungary on the anniversary of '56 (see this report). Then it was Prague for 40 years after the 1968 invasion see this one, in Russian. Now comes Katyn, with official confirmation that Putin and Donald Tusk (the Polish prime minister) will be visiting jointly on April 7th. That follows a path-breaking visit to Gdansk in September to mark the outbreak of WW2.

What to make of that? First, it is clear that Putin is trying to wrongfoot the Polish president Lech Kaczynski. He will visit Katyn later, on April 10th. So Tusk will reap the benefits of his softly-softly approach to Russia. Kaczynski, who comes from the other bit of Poland's divided conservative politics, is more abrasive.

Second, it is highly commendable that Russian television viewers will hear their prime minister publicly accepting that Katyn was an NKVD/Stalin/Soviet crime, not a Nazi one. The revival of "Katyn denial" has been one of the most atrocious features of the revisionist approach to Soviet history which has gained so much ground under the Chekist revival. Publicly accepting the truth about Katyn does not stop that process, but it certainly impedes it.

Thirdly, the Balts are next. It may be either Latvia or Lithuania which is first, but I suspect that the Kremlin will offer a deal in which it accepts that the "annexation" (not "occupation" happened against the will of the citizenry, without outright condemning it as illegal. In return, the Baltic side will have to drop claims for compensation. If that happens, it will put the remaining Baltic states (and especially Estonia) in a tricky position, with appeasement-minded western countries saying "oh please hurry up and bury your tiresome historical differences so that we can all get on with worrying about important things like gas supplies and warship sales).

My worry about this is that the regime is getting off lightly. In his speeches at these events Mr Putin accepts (in rather qualified terms) "moral responsibility". IE bad things happened and some of them were done by Russians, and although the Russian Federation now is not the same as the USSR, we are still sorry about it.

But he also relativises it. So Molotov-Ribbentrop was bad, not least because it was mistaken. But other countries (including Poland) did bad things to. In that way, the deplorable but essentially trivial Polish annexation of Teschen/Czieszyn/Těšín
somehow ranks along with the dismemberment of Poland, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is just the eastern version of Britain's shameful Munich agreement.

That seems to me to dodge two fundamental questions. One is the evil of the Stalinist regime, which is qualitatively different to anything else (except Hitler or Mao) in modern times. I am reminded of the late Jorg Haider, who used to denounce Nazism because it had brought bad results. That was true, but not the main reason for denouncing it. Putin denounces the Soviet Union mainly because it failed, rather than because it was based on lies and mass murder.

The second question that gets dodged is the way in which modern Russia still has not really dealt with the Stalin/Soviet legacy.

In an ahistorical age, where everyone cares a lot more about live deals than dead bodies, I fear that Putin is getting away with it. Scrutinise what he says at Katyn closely.
(Update). As Paul Goble highlights on his excellent "Window on Eurasia", the Russian human-rights organisation Memorial has urged Medvedev to condemn Katyn as a crime against humanity. And here , Memorial calls on the Russian president to declassify the Katyn documents, to renew the investigation of the Katyn case, and to rehabilitate by name “in correspondence with Russian law” all those who were shot by the decision of the Soviet leadership on March 5, 1940.

1 comment:

Bea said...

So yaeah, Katyn may become the worse and more regretable event than what was done to the more insignificant nations - the Balts. Like that there was no occupation before the annexation was done? Like that the annexation was as easy and supported by so many well-informed willing as the Austrian Anschluss was, because Balts were so goood friends of Russians that they were almost Russians?