Friday, September 04, 2009

Putin in Gdansk

Russia, Poland and history

Mr Putin regrets
Sep 3rd 2009
From The Economist print edition

Russia bandages a wound in Poland

IT IS hard to imagine modern Germany haggling with Poland about opening wartime archives, let alone over who started the war. With Russia, it is different. Vladimir Putin’s visit to Gdansk, where a ceremony this week marked the first shots of the second world war in September 1939, was both a step forward and a depressing sign of continuing difficulties.

Polish officials struggled to stay polite before the Russian prime minister’s arrival. In June the Russian defence ministry website argued that Poland had caused the war by provoking Hitler. Last month a Kremlin-controlled television channel claimed that Poland had been conspiring with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Russian intelligence echoed this in a new dossier. And Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, denied that the Soviet Union bore any responsibility for the outbreak of war.

Poles find such talk outrageous. The liberation of Poland from the Nazis, in which some 600,000 Soviet soldiers died, is seen as a mixed blessing, as it led to 45 years of ruinous and sometimes murderous communist rule. The country’s president, Lech Kaczynski, spoke for many when he reminded Mr Putin that the Soviet Union had “stabbed Poland in the back” with its own invasion on September 17th 1939. He compared the wartime Katyn massacre of 20,000 captured Polish officers by Stalin’s secret police to the Holocaust. When the president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, was prime minister, such blunt talk put relations with Russia (and with similarly detested Germany) into the deep freeze.

Since he became prime minister in 2007, the emollient Donald Tusk has made friends with Germany and is now thawing relations with Russia too. He hoped that inviting Mr Putin to Gdansk with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, would make it impossible for the Russian leader to promote a Soviet-style version of history. Poland’s own account of its history may never quite chime with its neighbours’. But disagreements with Germany—chiefly over post-war expulsions of ethnic Germans—are manageable. With Russia, history is an open wound.

Mr Putin lightly bandaged it without admitting any responsibility. He called Katyn a “crime” and said that there were “good reasons” for condemning the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (secret protocols to that deal divided up eastern Europe). But he did not use the unambiguous language that Poles had hoped for. He said the pact was one mistake among many, likening it to the Munich agreement of 1938 when Britain and France bullied Czechoslovakia into accepting dismemberment (a dismemberment, Mr Putin spikily pointed out, in which Poland participated).

Today Munich is seen as a shameful low point in British diplomacy. Few Russians see the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that way. Indeed, no sooner had Mr Putin finished speaking than Konstantin Semin, a presenter on Russia’s official television station, said “we have nothing to repent of and we should not apologise to anyone: the pact was the only possible solution, which preserved the lives of Poles, among others.” He also doubted the authenticity of the pact’s secret protocols.

Even the hoped-for declassification of Soviet archives is proving inconclusive. Mr Putin said this would go ahead, but only on a strictly mutual basis. That may be tricky: Poland’s wartime archives are already declassified—and somewhat scanty, not least thanks to Russian visitors.


Bea said...

He compared the wartime Katyn massacre of 20,000 captured Polish officers by Stalin’s secret police to the Holocaust.
To be more precise, he said: Jews were murdered for being Jews, Polish officers were murdered for being Polish officers. That does not mean: Holocaust=Katyn by scale. It is a fair statement of fact, albeit it can result in bad speculations - karmeful to Poland - when going through Russian and other media. Therefore it was not a politically smart statement, not useful to Poland at all, but those who heard or read it didn't have to necessarily think that it was the outrageous full-equation. Only those interested in outrage at Kaczynski and Poland shall take the opportunity to express it.

Anonymous said...

It would be illuminating if you could report on and discuss attitudes towards the study and teaching of history in Russia, Poland and Germany. How much has really changed in the first two decades since the fall of communism? In Russia the population still seems to need top politicians to teach them their history, and, judging by the survey quoted in the Polish press last week, Russians are divided between several different myths. Here in Poland young people are often discouraged from reading history at university by parents who assume that it will lead nowhere (or to teaching!), and recruitment for the subject is increasingly difficult. Furthermore, it may be questioned whether the subject as taught in schools has made the full transition to evaluation and analysis, although the rote learning of dates may have declined. And this when Poland needs an informed, reasoned historical perspective for a new generation!