Thursday, April 16, 2015

Putin's skewed view of WWII threatens his neighbors and the West

Here's a key point from Lucian Kim's op-ed that most Russians and those who haven't spent time in Eastern Europe do not understand [emphasis mine]:

For most countries that emerged from the Soviet empire 25 years ago, independence from Moscow exposed messy, overlooked histories. The small nations of east central Europe had been pushed and pulled by the Nazi and Communist juggernauts surrounding them. From the Baltics to the Balkans, it was a story of collaboration and betrayal, resistance and subjugation. One and the same army could be viewed as liberator, conqueror and occupier. Loyalties were split, quartered and ground to pieces.

Complexity or inconvenient facts had no place in official Soviet historiography, where the Red Army was celebrated as the undisputed victor in the war against fascism. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that carved up Poland and ceded the Baltic nations to the Soviet Union was forgotten; the Holocaust downplayed; and the role of the Western Allies diminished. World War Two was remembered as the “Great Patriotic War” and didn’t start until the Nazis’ genocidal invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. There was no mention that Hitler and Stalin were allies before the attack. The Pacific war was a sideshow that the Soviet Union didn’t enter until Japan’s defeat was imminent.

Kim said it: complexity. There's no place for it in Soviet hagiography, er, historiography. Take Ukraine in WWII, for instance. Today most Russians and many "liberals" in the West decry Ukraine's national freedom fighters in UIA-OUN as "Nazi collaborators." Their history was complex, and messy. UIA fought with Nazis and against them; they fought Soviet occupiers and Polish forces.  But it's important to keep in mind that the Soviet Union had just recently killed over 3 million Ukrainians in 1932-33!  Today's Russians and 20/20-hindsight historians ignore Soviet genocidal mass murder in Ukraine, and instead express indignation that some Ukrainians would ever have chosen to ally themselves with Nazi Germany in the (probably vain) hope of achieving eventual national liberation from Soviet mass-murderers. 

And indeed, Russians conveniently overlook that their WWII hero Josef Stalin was the first to collaborate with Hitler with terrible, tragic results for both Russia and Europe!  

Coldly rationalizing it, we can understand why Stalin sided with Hitler, for much the same reason those subsequent "collaborators" in E. Europe did: to buy time before eventually turning on an "ally"; because his side was relatively weaker; and because both had common enemies. These things happened -- but in the awful context of world war. If we're going to judge these "devil's pacts" post facto, then we should judge them realistically and equanimously.

Unmentioned in Kim's article are the Soviet Cossack paramilitary units -- the true patriotic ones who today wear St. George's ribbons and say that fight Ukrainian "fascists" and "Banderovtsy" -- who went over to the Nazi side by the thousands, including, ironically, in Crimea. They served in the Russian Liberation Army that was directly commanded by German Nazi officers. (To see more, Google translate this article in Russian: ).  Germany officers never commanded guerrilla fighters in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. And yet Russians today view Cossack paramilitary units positively and UIA as worse than devils.

Kim also notes, as I and many others have, that today's Russians do not have much to look back at and take pride in. The Allied victory in WWII is one of the few events Russians in the 20th century that they can be proud of:

When Putin came to power in 2000, Russians were still reeling from a decade of nihilism that had followed the collapse of Communism. For a country that was beginning to pick itself up, the “Great Victory” against the Nazis presented itself as the ideal surrogate for a national idea to pull together Russia. Practically every family had suffered in the war, and the whole country knew the iconography from Soviet television and film. Putin couldn’t buy Russia a new identity for all the petrodollars in the world, but he could make Victory Day the de facto national holiday, celebrated with ever more gargantuan military parades.

Finally, I can echo the assertion that most Russians do not understand that there was a real war in the Pacific. To them, the war ended in Berlin when the Soviets seized it. (The Soviets' subsequent rape of Germany is another story....)  Regardless, it's important to Putin and his supporters today that WWII remains a Russian victory to defeat Fascism in Europe. 

By Lucian Kim
April 13, 2015 | Reuters