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Putin's struggles with Soviet history.

Byline: Alexander Etkind Special to Gulf News

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's recent article for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza - written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland - expresses his determination to make twentieth-century European history a major part of the Russian government's business. That article reflects the deep, unresolved problems of Putin's era: the inability to distinguish between the Soviet past and the Russian present; an unscrupulous mix of political conservatism and historical revisionism; and indifference, bordering on incomprehension, with regard to the key values of democracy.

In his article, Putin did not mourn the collapse of the USSR, though he previously called it "the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century". Indeed, he even praised the democratic movements that buried the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence, and he expressed no sympathy for the twentieth century's revolutions, which he called "deep wounds" that humanity inflicted on itself.

What really worries Putin and his historical advisers is the memory of the Second World War. They regard the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany as the highest achievement of the state and nation that they inherited from the USSR. They also see this victory as the main counter-weight to the memory of the USSR as a reign of brutal, unjustified violence.

Not that Putin's version of history denies this memory altogether. This summer, he publicly instructed his education minister to include passages from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago in the high school curriculum. Rather, what concerns Putin is the balancing of the Second World War and Stalinism in Soviet history. Calling for a "contextual" and "causal" view of history, he acknowledges the Stalinist terror but interprets it as a response to the extraordinary need to defeat Nazism.

Putin summarises his understanding of the scale of the war by recalling the loss of "27 million lives of my compatriots". That number has grown over the years, as Soviet officials broadened the definition of wartime deaths to mean total "population loss", rather than direct military casualties. Official estimates of Soviet deaths during the Second World War thus rose from seven million (the figure put forth under Stalin) to 20 million (Khrushchev) to 26.6 million (Gorbachev), with civilian deaths accounting for at least two-thirds of Putin's estimate.

Unfortunately, Putin does not explain whom he counts as his compatriots. If he meant those who lived within Russia's contemporary borders, the number would have been much lower. Instead, he includes all citizens of the USSR who died during the war, including millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others. And, when the USSR annexed the Baltic countries, Konigsberg, parts of Poland, Finland, Moldova, and Japan, their citizens, too, became Soviet compatriots.

Moreover, because Putin's "contextual" history subordinates Soviet-era suffering to the purpose of fighting the Great Patriotic War, his number mixes those who died in battle fighting for the USSR with those whom the Soviets killed through mass murder, deportation, and forced labour. By this logic, one could also reclassify the victims of the terror, collectivisation, and famine of the 1930's in order to boost the number of Hitler's casualties in the USSR.

Putin connects two events that triggered the Second World War, the Munich Agreement of 1938 and the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in one causal construction. Both acts of collusion with Nazi Germany were immoral mistakes, writes Putin, but the latter was merely a response to the former. To be sure, Britain's Neville Chamberlain and France's Edouard Daladier signed a shameful treaty with Hitler and Mussolini in Munich. But when Hitler breached the treaty, both Chamberlain and Daladier lost popular support, and, by the start of the Second World War, neither was still in office. The dictators remained, however, Molotov and Stalin among them.

Moreover, while the Munich Agreement cynically blessed Hitler's dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, it was a public document that meant what it said. But the truly important part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was its Secret Protocols, which divided Europe into two imperial domains, Stalin's and Hitler's, without the consent - or even the knowledge - of the nations consigned to them. Molotov, who remained in power throughout the war and until 1956, denied the existence of the Secret Protocols until his death 30 years later. Democracies make shameful mistakes, but they eventually correct them, or at least apologise for them. And they dethrone those who got them into trouble.

It is wrong, and even immoral, to equate democratic and dictatorial practices. But this is the new Russian equation.

- Project Syndicate, 2009


Alexander Etkind, a Saint Petersburg native, is reader of Russian literature at Cambridge.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Sep 21, 2009
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