August 23 marks the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression treaty between the two totalitarian powers of USSR and Nazi-Germany, as well as a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence between Hitler and Stalin.
In May 2009, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev authorized a commission to investigate cases of historical revisionism of the Second World War to the detriment of Russia. The move followed the approval a year ago of new school textbooks in Russia that reassessed the role of Stalin, acknowledging that he made some errors but noting in turn his achievements and successes, particularly in the war years. Taken together they symbolize the new Russian policy of identifying contemporary Russia with the former Soviet regime.
Last month, Russia responded furiously to a proposal by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to declare the date August 23 one of commemoration of the victims of Fascism and Communism. In Moscow’s view, it is not possible to equate the evils of Nazism with Stalin’s regime.
A recent article in Vesti Nedeli by Il’ya Kanavin (June 21) also focused on the Pact, citing historian Natalya Narochnitskaya’s view that by the terms of the Pact, the USSR was only regaining territories that were formerly part of the Russian Empire. Citing this same author, Kanavin maintains that Stalin was obliged to make a deal with Hitler for the following reasons.
First, it was essential to keep the German army as far from the Soviet border as possible as the USSR was at war with Imperial Japan in the Far East and could not be fighting on two fronts simultaneously.
Second, Germany and Poland to that point were in close collusion and could even be termed allies, based on the agreement of 1934, that contained secret clauses on mutual military aid. He emphasizes that such secret protocols were a staple of treaties in this period.
Third, with the removal of some 38,000 Soviet officers during the Purges, Stalin needed time to train new military leaders and produce more arms.
Fourth, Stalin was isolated because the only potential allies, Britain and France, had no intention of reaching an agreement with the USSR. A year earlier the two democratic countries had participated in the notorious Munich agreement that led to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia through the policy of appeasement. Only Churchill opposed Hitler but world leaders were allegedly more afraid of Stalin than the German dictator.
Lastly, Kanavin maintains that the Soviet Union should not take be blamed for permitting Hitler a free hand in his assigned sector of Poland. Stalin then had little choice but to sign the agreement, in full knowledge that he was only postponing the conflict.
These arguments can be questioned on a number of grounds, and not least because they distinguish between a rapacious Hitler regime and a defensive-minded and implicitly benign Stalin government that eventually would bear the brunt of the war.
The comment that Stalin was occupying only territories formerly under the Russian Empire is inaccurate. In the summer of 1940, for example, after forcing the Romanians out of Bessarabia, Stalin also occupied northern Bukovina (today it is the Chernovtsy Oblast of Ukraine) that had never been under Russian rule. When Molotov visited Germany late in 1940 he made several more territorial demands that reportedly led Hitler to accelerate plans for the invasion of the USSR.
Eastern Poland’s Volhynia region was part of the Russian Empire but Eastern Galicia had only been under Russian rule briefly during the First World War. It is hard to perceive acquisition of these territories as anything other than the westward expansion of the USSR.
But it is the assault on the annexed population that belies the arguments of Kanavin and Narochnitskaya, and particularly because there are several instances of collaboration between the two occupying powers. Both systematically eradicated the Polish population—the Nazis overtly and the Soviets through deportations and secret executions in forests such as Katyn. More than 15,000 Polish officers were executed.
Stalin, however, claimed to be liberating subject populations—Ukrainians and Belarusians—who wished to join the USSR. The Soviet advance only took place 16 days after the German invasion of Western Poland. In this way the Russian side did little fighting—only in Grodno did the Poles offer much resistance—and was able to pose as a friendly power.
However, having eliminated all vestiges of Polish rule, the new government organized mass deportations of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Jews in 1940 and 1941. A similar policy was deployed after the USSR occupied the three Baltic States in the summer of 1940.
President Medvedev and Russian historians have to face a few home truths. Even Kanavin concedes that the mass execution of Red Army officers weakened the Soviet military. But this action was part of the Terror that the Stalin regime applied both domestically and in newly conquered territories, committing mass murders on an epic scale. Today, the Baltic States consider the entire period 1940-90 to have been one of Soviet occupation. That is why their citizens initially welcomed the Germans in the summer of 1941. Large sectors of Western Ukraine remain alienated from Moscow today for the same reason.
By the agreement of August 23, 1939, two dictators acted in Machiavellian fashion. It is facile to suggest that Stalin should be regarded differently because he emerged as a victorious war leader responsible for the defeat of Fascism. His naïve trust in Hitler, manifested by the Treaty, also was responsible for the Soviet failure to respond in the first days of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ leading to the mass loss of territory and capture of millions of Soviet citizens.
August 23 was a dark day for Russia, as it was for the rest of Europe and that is how it should be remembered.
[This article first appeared in the Moscow Times, August 20, 2009]