Saturday, June 06, 2009

Europe view 134, history



Magistra vitae?
May 28th 2009

The fine line between disagreement and propaganda
FORGET gas, nukes or Iran. The deep divide between Russia and its western neighbours is about history. President Dmitry Medvedev has set up a commission to look at “falsifications of history that damage Russia’s interests” (he should use a comma: this phrasing implies that other falsifications promote Russia’s interests). A draft law in the Duma would criminalise equating Stalin and Hitler, or denying that the Red Army “liberated” eastern Europe from fascism. Whether out of cynicism or nostalgia, Russia’s rulers have resurrected the Soviet view of history, itself a product of the Stalin era. For the countries of central and eastern Europe, this is not just obnoxious, but threatening.

It would of course be foolish to expect complete harmony between Russian and western views of history. British and French textbooks seem to describe utterly different events when the many wars between the two countries are concerned (as a schoolboy in Britain, your columnist could never quite work out why the hardy and heroic English won victory after victory—but ended up losing to the supposedly far inferior French).


History is in the telling

Moreover, no version of history is final and nothing should be taboo. Plenty of questions about the past century remain unanswered, not least about Britain’s role. How far did Neville Chamberlain’s shameful betrayal of Czechoslovakia in the Munich agreement prompt Stalin to intensify his friendship with Hitler? And how should blame for the catastrophe of the Warsaw Uprising be shared between the Polish military leadership on the ground, the government-in-exile in London, the British and American authorities, and the Soviet Union?

Similarly, different forms of collaboration during the war deserve more study. Should, for example, the émigré Cossack leaders such as Pyotr Krasnov who fought on Hitler’s side be counted in the same category as the Russian Liberation Army of General Andrei Vlasov, formed by captured Soviet soldiers? Tens of thousands of Russians fought alongside the Nazis, with mixed motives: deluded, desperate and despicable. How might they be compared with the Estonians and Latvians who fought the Soviet advance in 1944? It is easy to paint the past in simple brushstrokes of evil black and brilliant white. But adding carefully chosen shades of grey creates a more informative picture.

Sadly, Russia is not looking for such nuances. Indeed, it is demanding that other countries abandon complexity and fit their history into the Soviet straitjacket. This may resonate inside Russia but it rings the wrong bells abroad, particularly as grim anniversaries approach: the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet attack on Poland, the annexation of the Baltic states and Western Ukraine, and the massacre of captured Polish officers at Katyn.

Soviet authorities found it hard enough to explain Stalin-era crimes convincingly, even with complete control over the media and the secret documents safely locked away in a Kremlin safe. It will be still harder for Russia to try to revive the same arguments now. Indeed, the more Russian propagandists insist, the more loudly other countries will shout their version. They may sound a bit hysterical to a western audience that finds history rather boring. But Russia will sound worse: bullying and mendacious.

Vladimir Putin’s remarks in Budapest on the anniversary of the 1956 Soviet invasion were a model of how to sound tactful and contrite without exactly apologising. That could have worked elsewhere. Poland has been trying softly-softly tactics on Katyn, hoping that it would make it easier for Russia to back down on issues such as opening the files. But the response was “What do we get in return?” Such an approach might be justified in trade negotiations. Applied to an unsolved case of mass murder, it sounds wrong.

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