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Whose victory will be celebrated?

Posted by Helen Friday, May 06, 2005

No, this is not another analysis of what the election night may bring. I nominated my colleague some time ago as the blog’s election correspondent and that is what he is. He will report on election night as soon as he has recovered from it.

Looking ahead, we must recall that this week-end we shall be celebrating VE Day and on Monday Russia will be celebrating Victory Day (and that is what I call it, not Europe Day, thank you very much).

Victory Day always brings up one of the greatest problems modern Russia and its people face: an inability or a refusal to come to terms with the past. Although Russians are taught a great deal more about the Great Patriotic War, they know far less about it than most westerners.

They do not know about the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the help that gave the Germans against Britain. They do not even know that the war started in 1939. They do not quite realize the atrocities Soviet troops and the secret police inflicted on the Balts, Poles, Ukrainians and Moldovans in 1940.

There is no understanding in Russia about the way Stalin had abandoned soldiers to their fate and refused to sign the Geneva Convention or allow the Red Cross to help Soviet POWs. There is no knowledge of the SMERSH troops that stood behind the army, shooting all those who tried to retreat.

There is little understanding of the fate of the POWs who managed to come back or of the hundreds of thousands deported from various parts of the country after the war. Though the name Vlasov is known, it is not realized that there were more Soviet citizens in Nazi German uniform at the end of the war than any other non-German group (and there would have been more if the Nazis had allowed it).

Above all, there is a refusal to acknowledge that the liberation of Eastern Europe turned sour almost immediately through the behaviour of the troops, the secret police and the forty year long occupation afterwards.

Not only is this unknown but, recently, Putin has been making the sort of statements that do not encourage one to believe he is ever going to acknowledge Soviet guilt. After all, according to him, the end of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Speak for yourself, buddy.

By and large, western Europe has allowed the Russians to get away with their highly tendentious statements about the war and its aftermath. But things have changed since the accession of the former Communist states to the EU, in particular the Baltic ones, who had lost something like a third of their population in the two Soviet occupations of 1940 and 1944.

(It is worth remembering that one reason why troops could not be transported fast westwards in 1941 was that the trains were steaming to the east with their cargo of deported Balts, Poles, Ukrainians and others.)

This is all coming to a head with the sixtieth anniversary of the ending of the war. Western leaders are, naturally enough, going to Moscow to stand with Putin and honour the Soviet Union’s undoubted sacrifices and achievements in the war.

President Bush is going as well and he is unlikely to have time to raise the subject of democracy with Putin this time. Before Moscow he will visit Latvia and after it, Georgia.

Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, is insisting that President Bush is not sending anybody any messages. However, he has also said that the message was the celebration of the defeat of fascism and the end of communism. Alas, that is unlikely to be viewed with favour by President Putin. His friends in western Europe would rather such subjects were not raised.

The President of Latvia has agreed to go to Moscow but the Presidents of Estonia and Lithuania are staying away. They feel that President Putin should at least apologize for the devastation his predecessors had inflicted on their countries.

Far from apologizing, Putin and the Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov have been boasting. What would have happened to these countries, said Ivanov, if we had not defeated fascism? The point at issue is not what would have happened but what did happen.

Even the Nazi-Soviet Pact, according to President Putin can be understood in the context of history. In fact, it was probably a glorious achievement, though he has not said that yet.

President Bush wrote recently to the Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga:

“During this trip, I will mark the sacrifice of America and many other nations in defeating Nazism. In Western Europe, the end of World War II meant liberation. In Central and Eastern Europe, the war also marked the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the imposition of communism.”
No matter what Mr Hadley says, a letter like that does send a message, one that western Europe might like to endorse.