Report No. 30: Putin, Power and History: Does the Past Still Matter?
Posted Date: 3 May 2010
Following last month’s joint Polish-Russian memorials to commemorate the Katyń massacre, and the outpouring of Russian sympathy since the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński and 95 others, CEPA Senior Fellow Edward Lucas offers a penetrating look at the politics of historical reconciliation in Central Europe.
In the aftermath of communist rule, a fierce moral debate ensued in the east that raised profound questions about the intellectual framework which shaped history and politics under the old regime. Did Russia’s new leaders really accept the enormity of what the Soviet Union had done or did they still regard it as a success story brought down by bad luck and bad leadership? Under Vladimir Putin, it would be incorrect to say that historical revisionism wholly dominates Russia’s dealings with its neighbors. However it would be equally wrong to view recent signs of reconciliation as a sincere change of heart on the part of Putin and his ex-KGB colleagues. Nevertheless, Russia’s efforts to blunt long-standing historical disputes with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland could lead to further attempts at reconciliation with Ukraine and the Baltic States. If successful, then the smoothing over of historical rows is potential game-changer for the region.
Accounting for History
Moral superiority and a sense of historical injustice have been the twin fuels of European politics since 1939. But what happens when truth intrudes, memories fade and differences blur? Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s presence at the joint Russian-Polish memorial service in Katyń on April 7, and the outpouring of sympathy in Russia for Poland since the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, raises profound questions about an intellectual framework that has shaped local and outside understanding of the European continent’s history and politics.
The story used to be simple. Totalitarianism was the continent’s curse in the past century. But whereas Germany atoned for its evil deeds, Russia (the legal successor to the Soviet Union) did not. From that blindness and moral laziness, all manner of ills flow and until they change, Russia will neither reconcile with the former Soviet empire; nor, so the argument goes, will it be able to shed its own burden of authoritarian rule.
It is important to state at the outset that this approach was always open to serious criticism. To illustrate that, try unpicking the version of European history that many people in the English-speaking world would count as the bare-bones version, which would go something like this.
The story starts with Nazi aggression in the 1930s. That was wicked, and Western collusion was admittedly shameful—chiefly in the Munich agreement in which France and Britain arm-twisted Czechoslovakia into submission. But then things got better. Britain bravely fought alone until the mad and evil Adolf Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and the mad and evil Japanese attacked America. Then the “allies” liberated Europe, with the landing on the Normandy beaches epitomizing the Anglo-American sacrifice in the cause of freedom. Yalta was a blot on the record (blame FDR’s illness, or Churchill’s weakness) but the Western allies soon regained the high ground, fighting the Cold War, epitomized by the Berlin Airlift (good) and the Soviet-built Berlin Wall (bad). The (good) Germans soon accepted how wicked they had been under Nazism and made amends. That contrasted sharply with the Soviet Union which was always tied up in knots about Stalinism. When the evil empire collapsed, we continued our stellar record, embracing the newly free countries in the east and bringing most of them (in some cases a bit too quickly) into the European Union and NATO.
Such versions of the past are not wholly false. But they are at best incomplete and at worst highly partial. They leave out huge chunks of what really happened, inflate the importance of sideshows and ignore causation and context.
When the entire picture emerges, the sunshine on the moral high ground dims. Take what many would regard as the central fact of the 1930s and 1940s: the transcendent wickedness of Nazi Germany. Nothing can take away from the bestial crimes committed by the Hitler regime. But the Nazis did not arrive on asteroids. Imagine that World War One had finished with a Marshall Plan, rather than the humiliation and punitive reparations imposed on Germany by the Versailles agreement, and the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Had hyperinflation not destroyed the middle classes, and without the multiple (and quite unnecessary) humiliations imposed on Weimar Germany by the victorious allies, Hitler would have remained a bar-room bigot and the Nazis a loathsome irrelevance.
Second, it is simply not the case that Britain and America went to war to stop the Holocaust. For most of the war they ignored the fate of the Jews or dismissed it as an irritant. Nor does the idea that the war was a crusade for democracy and freedom square easily with the decision to declare war on (democratic, free) Finland in 1940, and the enthusiastic alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union from 1941, let alone the determined refusal to see the horrors that regime inflicted on Russians and tens of millions of the empire’s other subjects. The reluctance of the British and American authorities to accept the truth about the Katyń massacre when the corpses were first exhumed in 1943 (and indeed for decades afterwards) is evidence of that.
That disgraceful episode in history undermines another myth: that the war was fought to save Poland and rescue Czechoslovakia. That was a fine point of principle at the start—but not one that Britain and the other allies adhered to as the war went on. Besides Katyń, other examples abound: foot-dragging in support of the Warsaw Uprising (imagine if the same thing had happened in Paris); Poland’s treatment at Yalta; derecognition of the London-based Government-in-Exile; and the decision to ban Polish forces from the victory parade in London in 1945.
The automatic response is to plead realpolitik or human error. What else could we have done? Voters in 1918 wanted revenge (“Hang the Kaiser”) on Germany and would not have accepted war any earlier than 1939 (in Britain’s case) or 1941 (for America). Munich bought valuable time for rearmament. By the time of Yalta, Poland was already doomed (“wrong place, wrong time, old boy, sorry”). Similar arguments are made on every other question where the moral foundations look soggy. So bombing of German cities was perhaps unnecessary or excessive or even mistaken in retrospect? War is full of mistakes; hindsight is 20/20. Handing the anti-communist Cossacks and Yugoslav royalist Chetniks back to be murdered in 1945 was terrible? Yes—but it was the price of getting back “allied” prisoners of war from communist clutches. Perhaps we should have done some things differently. But what matters is that we won and the Nazis lost.
Such arguments are wholly defensible. Nobody would argue that Britain should have simply surrendered because it could not stay on the moral high ground, or that America should have stayed out of the war in Europe because both sides were equally bad. Fighting to stop and defeat a potential invader requires no further justification. That you start late and finish badly is beside the point. But dodging so quickly and so often between principled and pragmatic arguments easily looks opportunistic and even propagandistic. It is a slippery basis for firing accusations against other countries in other ages, such as Russia now.
It is also odd when commentators criticize modern Russia for sentimental over-indulgence in wartime memories without mentioning their own countries’ predilection for exactly the same thing. Britain’s annual Poppy Day celebrations (when the guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) have largely lost the original haunting, somber tinge of personal tragedy and bereavement. Instead, they are a media-led bath of insipid (or worse, fetid) nostalgia and self-congratulations. It is easy to see similarities: two declining countries looking back on their glory days and reliving their defining moments of heroism (the Battle of Britain on one side, the Siege of Leningrad on the other). Modern politicians yearn to stretch their shadows to match those of the giants of yesteryear. It would be quite unfair to equate Churchill with Stalin in terms of character or deeds. But the unreflective way in which they are remembered by Britons and Russians respectively can be strikingly similar.
The self-centeredness is a shared sin. American films (“Saving Private Ryan” and “U-571”) grossly distort the historical record. Britain likes to say that it “stood alone” in 1940, conveniently forgetting the Polish Home Army, as well as Greek, French, Dutch, Norwegian and Yugoslav resistance. That is not quite as bad as the Soviet historiography that forgets the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and starts the war with Barbarossa in 1941. But Western critics of the Soviet approach all too easily overlook the failings in their own accounts of the past.
Nor does the simplistic version of the next chapter of history, the Cold War, emerge intact from scrutiny. To take just one example: denazification in West Germany was partial and incomplete. It was more important to preserve a functioning legal system than to sack all the Nazi judges. Nor could the Third Reich’s intelligence assets or rocket scientists be discarded: they were needed to build weapons and spy on communism. Both decisions are defensible on pragmatic grounds. The result was that the Federal Republic became a staunchly and admirably free society. Its success, both economic and political, showcased the Western system and helped win the Cold War. But the idea of unquestionable moral superiority does not fit easily with hiring Germans who had enthusiastically served the Nazi war machine, while sending to the firing squad the Chetnik Yugoslavs, whose only crime was to have fought the communists.
These flaws and blunders do not create the moral inferiority pushed by Soviet propagandists in the past, nor the moral equivalence promoted by Kremlin spin-doctors now. Everybody is not as bad as each other. The West emerged at the end of the Cold War as the victor and justly so. Welfare capitalism, the rule of law, political freedom and human rights (loosely labeled “democracy”) was a model yearned for by more than 200 million people in the east, freed from a system marked by atrocious economic, political and social failure.
The combination of Soviet failure and Western success brought a victory that was rather more resounding than deserved; it was unexpected almost everywhere, and it was even unwished for in parts of the West that liked having illusions about socialism, or thought Western Europe was well rid of the barbarians in the east.
But come it did, and in its wake a fierce moral debate in the east about history. The legitimacy of communist rule in Eastern Europe rested on lies, chiefly about the origins and aftermath of the war. It was necessary to paint the pre-war (“bourgeois nationalist”) era blackly and to overlook the dirty tricks and violence that allowed the Communists to take power between the Baltic and the Black Sea.
Once communist rule ended, the demand for historical truth was burning not only inside the former captive nations, but between them. A century’s worth of grievances had been concealed behind the phony façade of socialist brotherhood. Lithuanians and Poles wanted to talk about Vilnius. Hungary wanted to talk about Trianon. Germans wanted to talk about the Beneš decrees. And, with ghastly results, Yugoslavs didn’t just talk about how they ended up in six artificial provinces of an artificial country: they fought.
But the biggest issue was with Russia. Did the country’s new leaders really accept the enormity of what the Soviet Union had done or did they still regard it as a success story brought down by bad luck and bad leadership? Would they pay compensation (or at least give back stolen property)? Would they withdraw their troops from the old empire or leave them to protect their interests (whatever they might be)? Would they open the archives? The agenda was impossibly crowded. Czechoslovaks wondered if the NKVD archives might reveal the truth about the murder (or suicide) of the much-loved Jan Masaryk in March 1948. Estonians wanted their presidential seal and regalia, confiscated in 1940. Romania wanted its gold. Poles wanted more details about Katyń. And so on.
Many Russians regarded these concerns as tiresome, irrelevant or ungrateful. They wanted due credit (i.e., a lot) for their own suffering under communism and their role in its downfall. They felt they had given up, almost entirely peacefully, an empire that included places where Russians had lived for centuries. In Ukraine’s case, they had given up (from a Russian viewpoint at least) an integral part of their spiritual and cultural patrimony. It is rather as if the Third Reich had collapsed 1991, leaving a democratic Germany to be confronted not only with furious Poles, Czechoslovaks and Danes wanting justice and reparations, but also an independent Bavaria.
The new historical debate was comfortable and familiar ground for old cold warriors. Instead of bemoaning the Soviet Union’s misdeeds in dusty meeting rooms in west London and New Jersey, it was possible to visit the scene of the crime and discuss it with the victims and their relatives. History became a white-hot subject and a vital ingredient in nation building. Where Soviet propagandists demonized “bourgeois nationalism” as a hellish mixture of injustice and exploitation, the temptation after 1989 was to see the pre-war era as an idyll and problems such as authoritarian rule, pig-headed diplomacy and economic failure were set aside. At least, people argued, these mistakes were our own mistakes, made by our own leaders, in our own country. What came next had been qualitatively worse.
The chance to speak honestly about the past, after 50 years of totalitarian propaganda and lies, was necessary, important and right. In another article I dubbed it “therapeutic historiography.” But as time has gone on, the gloomy echoes of past betrayals and atrocities have faded. In 1991, the task of sorting out history was an urgent one. Now the present and the future look more compelling. Bilateral rows, unconnected with the communist era, have faded from being pressing political issues to the subject of academic debate (at one end of the spectrum) and name-calling in the blogosphere (at the other). Ten years ago, what really happened at the battlefield of Kosovo Polje in 1389 was a big issue between Serbs and their neighbors. Now it is becoming a (properly) remote one. The same goes for issues such as the Treaty of Trianon (which dismembered post-Hapsburg Hungary), or Żeligowski’s seizure of Vilnius (then Wilno) in 1920.
Some issues remain on the agenda: Lithuania’s squabbling with Poland about spelling remains a real nuisance. The Slovak language law really annoyed Hungary. The dispute between Greece and its northern neighbor about where the Macedonia label belongs and who can use it has paralyzed the expansion of the European Union and NATO, with dire results. But these arguments are increasingly seldom the central questions of real politics. And they are regarded with exasperation, not sympathy, by outsiders.
In the West too, public opinion began to rethink its view of Eastern Europe after 1989. Questions such as the fate of the Cossacks, the failed Anglo-American intelligence operations in the post-war Baltics, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Western silence over Katyń came onto the agenda. Western governments which had given Baltic gold reserves or embassy buildings to the Soviet Union paid compensation. Sweden, which had deported Latvians and Lithuanians to the Soviet Gulag in 1945, invited survivors back for an official apology and a meeting with the King. Countries that once regarded their policy of not recognizing the de jure Soviet annexation of the Baltic as an embarrassing historical relic started talking about it with pride. The idea that Stalin and Hitler were criminals of an equal hue sounded mainstream, not deranged. To some extent, even the heroic-sentimental self-image of the West changed. The British historian Norman Davies, and writers such as Timothy Garton Ash, deserve credit for their huge role in these changing perceptions. Another factor was daily life. Once, Eastern Europe was off the tourist trail. Now millions of outsiders have travelled to the ex-captive nations on business or on vacation, just as millions of east Europeans have gone to the west to relax, work or study. Their version of history has rubbed off on the Westerners, replacing or at least complementing the distorted and self-satisfied notions that used to be so widely accepted.
Behind that change is an even bigger conceptual difference. Western countries, on the whole, are not proud of their worst achievements. They are ashamed of them. And the discussion of history is not criminalized, or even politicized. The allied bombing of Germany has prompted agonized introspection from the middle of the war onwards. Britain contributed to the rebuilding of the beautiful Frauenkirche in Dresden and the Queen attended its reopening. That is in sharp contrast to Russian historiography, which is missing this mixture of atonement and sympathy towards the former adversary.
In the prevailing Russian version of history, as in the Soviet one that preceded it, the “fascist” enemy is demonized to the point of being inhuman. Even the most revolting war crimes, such as the mass rape of German and other women, are all but ignored. In Western Europe, taboos about the war have vanished. It is possible to discuss allied war crimes, the blunders of the generals, Churchill’s drinking habits. Roosevelt’s near-senility at Yalta, and even whether Britain should have gone to war at all without risking official displeasure or criminal prosecution.
Relevance and Relativism
But along with a wider perspective has come diminishing relevance. The generation with first-hand memories of the Second World War and its aftermath is dying out. The end of the Cold War has made history (especially European history) less relevant. The threat of nuclear annihilation made people want to know why we were in a military standoff with a totalitarian superpower. Now, the practical use of history is in understanding Islam and our relations with the Arab world. History is no longer a compulsory subject for British teenagers. Before they drop the subject, they learn little apart from a few anecdotes about the love lives of British monarchs, and a version of the Second World War that is even skimpier than the caricature with which this article begins. As fog descends on the public’s understanding of history, it is becoming similarly irrelevant for most policymakers.
In Russia too, interest in history has waxed and waned. In the 1990s, history was a national preoccupation. The crimes of Stalinism were one hot topic, the real history of the Russian revolution, and the missing history of the White (anti-Communist) Russians in exile was another. Much nostalgia for the Tsarist era remains—the popularity of Boris Akunin’s stories about the detective Erast Fandorin is a prime example.
But under Mr. Putin, the clock started to tick backwards in a more sinister way. His infamous remark that the Soviet Union’s collapse was the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the past century is well known. It came against a background of a new approach to the past that glorifies the Soviet Union, denigrates the West, and portrays the Yeltsin years as a period of disgraceful weakness and chaos from which Russia has now been rescued.
“Many school books are written by people who work to get foreign grants. They dance to a butterfly-polka that others have paid for. These books, regrettably, get into schools and universities,” Mr. Putin said in the summer of 2007. He demanded new history textbooks that “make our citizens, especially the young, proud of their country” and insisted “no one must be allowed to impose guilty feelings on us.” Those textbooks portray Stalin as a tough leader who made some bad mistakes, not as a monster. These ideas were quickly appropriated by the mainstream Kremlin-controlled media. In September 2007 Rossiiskaya Gazeta, an official government newspaper, cast doubt on the idea that the NKVD was responsible for Katyń. That was as shocking for Poles as if a German government newspaper said that the evidence for gas chambers at Auschwitz was flimsy. Russia also denounced Estonia and Latvia for “fascism,” particularly after Estonia moved a Soviet-era war memorial from the center of town to a military cemetery in April 2007. The central ideological plank of the regime’s ideology is the idea that wartime heroism and sacrifice bestowed an unchallengeable moral legitimacy on both the Soviet Union and on Russia. This idea is both conceptually flawed and open to devastating empirical challenge. But its assiduous promotion has had an effect. According to a recent poll, only 20 percent of Russians believe that the Katyń massacre was the work of the NKVD.
A second plank is anti-westernism. Mr. Putin and his colleagues believe (or affect to believe) that Western moral superiority is nonsense based on hypocrisy. Western countries do not really believe in international law and human rights. They just pretend to — and use these notional moral frameworks as a way of constraining Russia. What really matters is power politics and the pursuit of market share. The same applies to history. Granted, Stalin was bad; but no worse, Mr. Putin has argued, than dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Western imperialism, the near-extermination of Native Americans, slavery and so on balance Russia’s presumed and alleged historical sins. Moreover, Russia has no direct responsibility for the Soviet Union.
That argument has some force. But it is not conclusive. The huge difference is that Britain, America and other Western countries do not celebrate the darkest parts of their history. They are ashamed of them. They certainly do not conceal them. Schoolchildren learn rather a lot about the bad side of European expansion into Asia, Africa and the Americas (some might think they learn too little about the good side). What is missing in Russia is an understanding that past imperialism had a dark side that was bleak indeed. To this day, many Russians believe that their mission in the Baltic States was a civilizing one: “We found this place in ruins, and we have built it up. Now how they thank us,” said my (Russian) fixer bitterly in Narva in 1990. The fact that Narva had been obliterated by allied bombing and the Red Army in 1944, in a war in which Estonia was guiltless, escaped her (she also thought that Britain had been neutral during the whole of World War Two).
The ignorance extends not only to the crimes of Stalinist expansionism, but also to the conquest of the Caucasus in the Tsarist era. Had a Britain or America massacred the Circassians in the way that the Tsarist General Suvorov managed in the 1860s, it would be a matter of national shame and sorrow.
It would be tempting but wrong to say that this revisionist approach to history wholly dominates Russia’s dealings with its neighbors. Seen from the Baltic States or (under the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko) from Ukraine, the historical gap looks unbridgeable. Russia makes no secret of its detestation of figures such as the wartime Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. When Ukraine made him a national hero, Russia expressed disgust and outrage: in Russian historiography, Bandera and his followers were nothing more than brutal Nazi henchmen. Russia explicitly refuses to recognize the Baltic States’ version of their own history, in which they were occupied from 1940-91 and subject to “illegal immigration” by Russian and other Soviet migrants. Russia, by contrast, sees them as newly independent ex-Soviet republics, just like Moldova or Georgia.
But elsewhere the picture is rather different. That can come as a shock to those who see Mr. Putin and his ex-KGB colleagues as repellently unrepentant apologists for the Soviet era, and even for Stalinism. It would be overly optimistic to describe the shift as a sincere change of heart: nothing on the scale of Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung has taken place. But for all that, Mr. Putin has effectively damped down many of the most burning historical issues.
In 2006, as president, he visited Budapest to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising, where he told his Hungarian counterpart, “Certainly modern Russia is not the Soviet Union but I must tell you frankly that in our hearts we feel a certain moral responsibility for these events.”
On the same trip he went to the Czech Republic, endorsed (without repeating it) Boris Yeltsin’s apology in 1993 and said,
The only concern we have when talking about the tragic events of the past is that certain political forces use these events today to provoke anti-Russian feelings and try to give the impression that Russia is a somewhat incapacitated country. This makes us uneasy. But I must tell you absolutely frankly that while of course there is no legal responsibility here and indeed, there cannot be any, of course a moral responsibility exists. It could not be any other way.
In 2009, Mr. Putin went to Gdansk and uttered words on the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland that blunted the sharpest edges in Polish-Russian relations, “...one must admit that all the attempts to appease the Nazis undertaken between 1934 and 1939 by striking various agreements and pacts with them are inadmissible from the moral point of view and from the practical, political point of view are senseless, detrimental and dangerous.” He went on to say,
“Certainly, one must admit these mistakes. Our country has done it. We sincerely want Russian-Polish relations to be also cleared of this residue of the past, developing in the spirit of good-neighborliness and cooperation to be worthy of the two great European nations.”
At Katyń on April 7, Putin took a similar stance, saying:
We have been brought here today by common memory and grief, as well as common historical duty and faith in the future. Here lie Soviet citizens burnt in the fires of Stalin’s repressions in the 1930s, Polish officers shot by secret order and soldiers of the Red Army executed by the Nazis during World War Two.
Russia and Poland, and the Russian and Polish peoples, have suffered through practically all the tragedies of the 20th century like no other countries, like no other Europeans. They have paid a heavy price for the two world wars, the fratricidal, armed conflicts and the cruelty and inhumanity of totalitarianism.
Our people, who have lived through the horrors of civil war, forced collectivization and the massive purges of the 1930s, probably understand better than any other what Katyń, Mednoye, and Pyatikhatka mean to many Polish families, because the sites of massive executions of Soviet citizens are in the same mournful category.
(Stalinist) repression swept people away regardless of their ethnic origin, convictions or religious beliefs. Whole social classes became victims - Cossacks, clergymen, ordinary peasants, professors, officers…teachers and workers. The logic was simple - to sow fear, to awaken people’s basest instincts, to turn them against each other and to make them obey blindly and unthinkingly.
There is no justification for these crimes. In our country, we have passed a clear political, legal and moral verdict on the atrocities of that totalitarian regime. And this verdict cannot be revised.
It would be hypocritical to urge us all to forget, especially before these graves and the people who come here to honor the memory of their family members. It would be hypocritical to say that everything has sunk into oblivion.
No, we must preserve the memory of the past, and will do so, no matter how bitter it may be. We cannot change the past, but we can preserve and restore the truth and, hence, historical justice.
Russian and Polish historians, clergymen and representatives of the public have undertaken this laborious task. While studying the past they are working for the sake of the truth, and, hence, the future of our bilateral relations.
It is these concerted efforts to reflect on the past and heal historical wounds that can help us avoid misunderstanding, permanent stalemate and primitive interpretations dividing peoples as innocent or guilty, as irresponsible politicians sometimes try to do.
For decades, there were attempts to conceal the truth about the Katyń massacre with cynical lies. But to lay the blame for these crimes on the Russian people would be the same sort of lies and manipulation.
History written with malice and hatred is just as false and glossed over as history adopted to suit the interests of specific individuals or specific groups. I’m sure that this is increasingly understood both in Russia and Poland.
No matter how difficult it may be, we should meet each other halfway, realizing that it is impossible to live only in the past.
And so today we are here together. Here, in Katyń, at the commemorative ceremony devoted to the 70th anniversary of the Polish tragedy. And we were together in Gdansk as well, on the anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two. Our nations fought against a common enemy on the fronts.
I’m confident that we will also celebrate the anniversary of the Great Victory (in World War Two) together, which was primarily won by the soldiers of the Red Army, and which claimed the lives of thousands of soldiers of the Polish Army, the Armia Krajowa and the Anders Army, as well as lives of thousands of defenders of Moscow and Warsaw, Westerplatte and Smolensk.
The big breakthrough was that Putin accepted the Polish version of events: this was an NKVD crime, not (as the Russian government argues in a case in the European Court in Strasbourg) unclear; and certainly not the work of the Nazis. But he also relativized the crime, arguing that Soviet prisoners of war lay in the same soil (something that historians have not previously asserted). And he came out with an original argument that Stalin had ordered the killings to avenge the deaths of an even greater number (30,000) of captured Soviet prisoners of war in 1920. That is problematic for several reasons. First, the number of those prisoners’ deaths is disputed and almost certainly far fewer than Mr. Putin claims. Second, they died chiefly from typhus at a time when the Polish state was barely able to feed and care for its own people (not least because it had just been attacked in its infancy by the Soviet Union). To equate that with the deliberate massacre of captured Polish officers suggests an alarming degree of slipperiness and relativism.
What Mr. Putin did not do is condemn Stalin outright. Nor did he take the elementary steps that the Poles are asking for, in terms of opening the archives (noting that Britain has yet to open all the files concerning the death of Władysław Sikorski in 1943). He said that exposing the names of the perpetrators would be unfair to their surviving relatives.
Yet for many Poles, particularly those in government, the trajectory is enough. More patient diplomacy with the Russians will steadily produce more results. But hoping for a “big bang” is unrealistic. The Polish parliament, for example (stung by “Katyń denial”) has categorized the massacre as “genocide.” That is disingenuous. The scale is so vastly different from the Nazis’ mass killings that it looks self-absorbed. It offends Jews (and Armenians) who think that the label is theirs by virtue of much greater suffering. Perhaps Russia would have accepted that at the height of the Yeltsin years (when the then Russian leader visited Warsaw in 1993 he knelt at the Katyń memorial, laid flowers, and whispered “prostite nas, jesli mozhete” [forgive us, if you can]. But that era is past. For politicians impatient to make their mark on history, it seems better to take what can be gained now, rather than waiting for a future Russian leadership that might, perhaps, adopt a more radical stance.
A similar quasi-reconciliation is in the cards for Ukraine. The departure of Viktor Yushchenko has ended, at least for the next four years, the period in which a radical Ukrainian-centered view of history clashed head on with the Kremlin’s neo-Soviet version. No more bashing on about the Holodmor. No more glorification of Stepan Bandera and the UPA (Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army). No more arguments about Kievan Rus and who brought Orthodox Christianity to the Eastern Slavs. No more rows — probably — about the future of the Black Sea Fleet at its base in Sevastopol. With Belarus, the argument has never started. Moldova is too small and poor to matter (not to the Moldovans, of course, but to the outside world).
It is increasingly likely that he will make a similar overture to one of the Baltic States — most likely Lithuania. It would be easy to imagine Mr. Putin (or perhaps Mr. Medvedev) on a trip to Vilnius, making a somber but not penitent speech about history. It could go something like this:
In 1939 the specter of fascist aggression cast a shadow across the whole continent of Europe. The Western countries had failed to form a convincing anti-fascist alliance. Worse, they collaborated with the Nazis in the Munich agreement. Some circles in Baltic States were planning their own alliance with Nazi Germany too. To forestall that, and to buy time, the then Soviet leadership came to a temporary tactical arrangement under which the Baltic States came under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. That temporarily sheltered them from fascist aggression. In Lithuania’s case, it enabled the country to regain its historic capital Vilnius and some other territories. The incorporation [слияние] into the Soviet Union that then took place remains controversial to this day. Though it can be argued that it was technically in accordance with international law at the time, it clearly did not represent the freely expressed will of the Lithuanian people. That is a matter for regret as much for us as it is for you.
In return, Lithuania would drop its demands for compensation and for Russia to explicitly use the o-word (“occupation”). To ease the deal, Russia could agree to restore the oil pipeline to the Mažeikiai oil refinery, in return for a stake in it going to a friendly company (it is currently owned, but unloved, by the Polish PKN Orlen; Russia has cut off its supplies, claiming that the pipeline needs maintenance).
Such a deal would, it should be noted, leave the other Baltic States in a difficult position. Soviet rule in the Baltics during the occupation era was not uniform. Lithuania gained territory that it lost to Poland 20 years previously. In 1945, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Soviet Lithuania also regained Klaipeda. Under its long-serving (August 1940 to January 22, 1974) Communist Party chief Antanas Sniečkus, Lithuania avoided the Russification inflicted on its northern neighbors. The Soviet-era migration to Estonia and Latvia, and the citizenship and language laws adopted in response since independence, have raised legal issues, often poorly understood by outsiders, that do not concern Lithuania. In short: when Estonia and Latvia condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its consequences, they do so in slightly different terms.
Clearly a unilateral Lithuanian-Russian deal would be troublesome for Estonia and Latvia. It would therefore be nice to think that Lithuania would not even consider such a step without close consultation with the other two Baltic States. On the evidence of the past, that does not seem likely. On May 9, the Baltic States seem set to repeat the fiasco of 2005, when two presidents (Arnold Rüütel of Estonia and Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania) stayed away from the Russian 60th anniversary celebrations of victory in World War Two, and one (Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia) showed up. This year, Estonia’s Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Latvia’s Valdis Zatlers are going, and Dalia Grybauskaite is staying away (the result of a botched attempt to entice Dmitry Medvedev into coming to Vilnius for the 20th anniversary of Lithuania’s declaration of restored independence). If the Baltic States cannot coordinate their stance on something as predictable as an anniversary, what chance do they have when facing up to a serious Russian effort to play divide et impera.
This smoothing over of historical rows is potential game-changer. For 20 years, it has been an article of faith for people in the region and their friends that laying the ghosts of Soviet history was both a moral and political imperative. Those efforts have failed. Stalinist and neo-Soviet versions of the past have not died. They have revived, albeit in diluted form. The rest of the world —and many in the former communist world —seem increasingly ready to accept messy compromise, woolly words and half-truths in order to have normal relations with Russia. Resisting that tide is going to be tough.
It is worth it — not least because of solidarity with those Russians who do care about the past. Mr. Putin’s step is a profoundly important and welcome one. But it is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition for a real change.
 The Economist. The End of History, Revisited: The ex-communist states of eastern Europe are leaving their pasts behind. February 25, 2010, available at http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displayStory.cfm?story_id=15577511.
 “Butterfly-Polka” (Polka-Babochka) is, incidentally, an unusual choice of phrase straight from the Stalinist propaganda lexicon, when it was used to indicate something utterly alien. See this explanation by Pavel Felgenhauer, a hard-hitting journalistic critic of the Kremlin, available at http://www.jamestown.org/edm/article.php?article_id=2372256.