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Reviewing a Nazi-Soviet Pact 60 Years On

Alex Constantine - August 20, 2009

By David Marples
The Moscow Times, Issue 4215, Opinion
August 20, 2009
The Moscow Times » Issue 4215 » Opinion

Sunday marks the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression treaty between the two totalitarian powers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, as well as a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence between Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.

In May, President Dmitry Medvedev authorized a commission to investigate cases of historical revisionism of World War II to the detriment of Russia. The move followed the approval a year earlier of new school textbooks that reassessed the role of Stalin, acknowledging that he had 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 to declare Aug. 23 a 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.

Reporter Ilya Kanavin recently focused on the pact on “Vesti Nedeli,” citing historian Natalya Narochnitskaya’s view that by the terms of the pact, the Soviet Union was only regaining territories that were formerly part of the Russian Empire. Citing this same author, Kanavin maintained that Stalin was obliged to make a deal with Hitler for the following reasons:

• It was essential to keep the German army as far from the Soviet border as possible because the Soviet Union was at war with Imperial Japan in the Far East and could not be fighting on two fronts simultaneously.

• Germany and Poland at that point were in close collusion and could even be termed allies, based on a 1934 agreement that contained secret clauses on mutual military aid. Kanavin emphasized that such secret protocols were a staple of treaties in this period.

• With the removal of some 38,000 Soviet officers during the purges, Stalin needed time to train new military leaders and produce more arms.

• Stalin was isolated because the only potential allies, Britain and France, had no intention of reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union. 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 Winston Churchill opposed Hitler, but world leaders were supposedly more afraid of Stalin than the German dictator.

• Kanavin maintained that the Soviet Union should not be blamed for giving 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, 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 Ukraine’s Chernovtsy region) 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 Soviet Union.

Eastern Poland’s Volhynia region was part of the Russian Empire, but eastern Galicia had only been under Russian rule briefly during World War I. It is hard to perceive acquisition of these territories as anything other than the westward expansion of the Soviet Union.

But it is the assault on the annexed population that belies the arguments of Kanavin and Narochnitskaya, 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 26,000 Polish officers were executed at three separate prison camps.

Stalin, however, claimed to be liberating subject populations — Ukrainians and Belarussians — who wished to join the Soviet Union. 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, Belarussians and Jews in 1940 and 1941. A similar policy was deployed after the Soviet Union occupied the three Baltic States in the summer of 1940.

Medvedev and Russian historians have to face a few home truths. Even Kanavin conceded 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 between 1940 and 1990 as 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 Aug. 23, 1939, the 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 naive 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.

Aug. 23 was a dark day for Russia, as it was for the rest of Europe. That is how it should be remembered.

David Marples, a professor of Russian history at the University of Alberta, Canada, is the author of “The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991.”

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