President Vladimir Putin recently cleared the penultimate barrier to his staying in power indefinitely, by having Russia’s highest court rule in favor of amending the country’s constitution to remove presidential term limits. Under the new rules, Putin’s tenure could come to exceed that of Joseph Stalin—the dictator he has done so much to rehabilitate. If a nationwide referendum scheduled for next month passes (and who could imagine that it won’t!) we are likely to see Putin in power until 2036, virtually guaranteeing Russia’s continuing pursuit of revisionism, both geopolitical and historical.
As part of this revanchist agenda, Putin had this winter sent out invitations to world leaders for his military extravaganza in May to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Germany’s capitulation in the Second World War. The not-so-thinly veiled subtext of the events: to erase the historical fact that the war was jointly launched in 1939 by Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
Though now, with the coronavirus crisis in full swing, it is difficult to envision that the event will still take place, it is nevertheless important to take a step back and appreciate how brazenly authoritarians are playing with history and collective memory. Most of the popular press focuses on the stories happening in the present: China trying to reshape the coronavirus narrative in real time, for example, and Russia spreading rumors in Eastern Europe that suggest the outbreak is a CIA plot. But rewriting history is no less insidious an activity. Indeed, given how tenuous historical memory can be, especially in present-oriented modern societies, it is potentially far more effective than the disinformation strategies that merely seek to confuse by relativizing everything.
“Hitler and Stalin were allies,” said Russian pro-democracy activist Garry Kasparov at a conference in Toronto on the 80th Anniversary of their Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
They started World War II together with the goal of enslaving Europe between them. The Red Army attacked Poland as eagerly as did Germany, and they met as friends in the middle. On September 22, 1939, conquering Soviet and German forces held a joint victory parade in the Polish city of Brest-Litovsk . . . and less than a year later, the Baltic states were next to be occupied and annexed by the USSR. People who wanted only independence were trapped between two evil superior forces trying to destroy and enslave them.
In 1941, these predators became enemies when Hitler double-crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. The United States supplied Stalin with food, oil, and weapons, allowing the Soviet army to push the Nazis back to Germany. But Stalin never left and enslaved the countries between the two, behind his Iron Curtain, until 1989. This allowed Russia to do alone what the two planned to do together, and the Allies did nothing.
“The Allied betrayal of Eastern Europe at Yalta confirmed to Stalin that the U.S. and UK were too weak to stand up to him. Roosevelt hoped that by making these monstrous concessions, Stalin would join his new brainchild, the United Nations. And Stalin was happy to sign, knowing that he would never be bound by any international organization,” said Kasparov.
Ribbentrop was hanged after the Nuremberg trials for his crime, and the Nazis and their Gestapo were condemned and punished. But Molotov should have hung beside him, and Stalin and his KGB should have met the same fate. “Instead,” Kasparov said, “Molotov lived to the ripe age of 96, dying peacefully in Moscow in 1986. He died unrepentant for his actions under Stalin, and even continued to deny the existence of the secret protocol that he signed, revealed to the world after the war but officially denied in the USSR until 1989.”
It wasn’t until the Gorbachev era that the Russian state actually apologized for the USSR’s role in these atrocities. Then, in 1989, the Soviet Chamber of Deputies declared the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact null and void. But a Nuremberg trial was never staged to punish the Soviets and their KGB for their brutality, ethnic cleansing in the Baltics and Ukraine, wars, or brutal crackdowns in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland. The Allies, once again, failed to hold the Russians accountable, bringing the world to where it is now, afflicted with a former KGB agent called Putin who is a would-be Stalin.
Putin flouts international treaties, laws, and norms as he claws back territories lost in 1989. He targets democracies to sow dissension and elect autocratic or disruptive fellow travelers. He wages violent wars by backing thugs in Syria and Venezuela and by murdering Ukrainians weekly. He wages a propaganda war, which began with his invasion of Ukraine in 2014, to try and sanitize Russia’s image and actions, and to libel and damage enemies or victims. He falsely claims Ukraine abuses its Russian minority and meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, and accuses Poland of starting the war with the Nazis. He is trying to weaponize memory.
Both Ukraine and Poland have pushed back vigorously. After the 80th anniversary of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the Pact, as well as the two totalitarianisms that destroyed so much of Europe in the 20th century. These counterattacks have infuriated Putin.
“Remembering the facts and lessons of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are more necessary today than ever,” said Kasparov:
There is now a massive Russian misinformation campaign to rehabilitate the Pact as a brilliant strategy by Josef Stalin instead of what it plainly was: criminal collusion between two dictatorships that launched a world war. Stalin is promoted as someone to be admired, even his worst crimes forgotten, even his worst betrayals now celebrated. Step by step, Putin is rehabilitating the motives and actions of one of the worst mass murderers in history.
Ignoring Putin’s fabrications is not an option. No one should honor a country that helped launch the worst calamity in human history and that continues to flout international law at every turn.
Though the May extravaganza is unlikely now to take place, world leaders should, in lieu of RSVPing, issue a blanket condemnation of Russia’s predation and if anything increase sanctions on Putin and his corrupt cronies, who are holding the Russian state hostage. The truth is that lies are lies, murder is murder—and a pariah is a pariah for a reason.