OP-ED: by Janusz Bugajski, Director, New European Democracies program
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington D.C.
The Wall Street Journal Europe, London, UK, Thursday, June 11, 2009
As European democracies celebrate the 20th anniversary of their liberation from communism and the Soviets, Moscow seeks to restore its dominance over former satellites. Rewriting Russian history is part of this plan. The Putinist notion of a progressive Soviet system in the past is designed to provide justification for Russia's current assertiveness in the region.
Take Moscow's annual May 9 parade, which celebrates the "victory over fascism" on the anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender to the Allies. The entire exercise is based on a monumental national delusion fostered by the Kremlin. Although Russia was one of the victorious powers at the end of World War II, Moscow continues to disguise the historic record that the Soviet Union itself helped launch the war in close alliance with Nazi Germany. Through the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Stalin schemed with Hitler to carve up Eastern Europe.
Russia has recently intensified its revisionist campaign, claiming that it voluntarily gave up communism and the Soviet Bloc and that the Cold War ended in a draw with the West. Russia's state propagandists maintain that the USSR never occupied its neighboring states after World War II, but rather liberated them from tyranny. And they minimize the Kremlin's imposition of a totalitarian system over the region that stifled its political and economic progress for almost half a century. Unlike post-war Germany, Moscow has never paid reparations for Soviet crimes and expropriations in Central and Eastern Europe.
Moscow also disguises the fact that Stalin murdered more Russians and other Soviet citizens than Nazi Germany. Its official figure of 27 million war dead includes several millions of Stalin's victims during Soviet civilian deportations and military purges.
Instead of admitting that it was a perpetrator and an opportunist in the destruction of Europe, Russia, as the successor state to the Soviet Union, depicts itself as a victim and a victor.
Moscow took another step to revise its history last month when it formed a presidential inter-departmental commission to promote the Soviet version of history and to tackle alleged "anti-Russian" propaganda that damages the country's international image. The commission's mandate is to formulate policy options to "neutralize the negative consequences" of what they consider to be historical falsifications aimed against Russia.
This is in particular a response to steps by neighboring governments in Estonia, Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere to talk openly about Soviet repression and to remove monuments that glorify the Soviet occupation.
The committee has no independent historians, and is comprised of bureaucrats from government ministries, representatives from military and intelligence agencies, several pro-Kremlin spin-doctors, and nationalistic lawmakers.
The chairman of this "historic truth" commission, Sergei Naryshkin, is chief of staff in President Dmitry Medvedev's administration and a loyal supporter of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As Russian liberals have pointed out, this commission bears an eerie resemblance to Soviet institutions that established a monopoly over scientific and scholarly truths.
Additionally, legislators from the ruling United Russia Party have proposed amendments to the penal code that will make the "falsification of history" a criminal offence. If passed by the Duma, this could result in mandatory jail terms for anyone in the former Soviet Union convicted of "rehabilitating Nazism."
This draft bill is not designed to fight neo-Nazis or fascist ideology. Instead, it would allow the criminal prosecution of individuals who question whether the Soviets really "liberated" Eastern Europe toward the end of the war or whether countries such as Georgia welcomed their annexation by the Czarist Empire.
This would open the door to possible legal campaigns against political leaders in neighboring countries, including Ukraine, Georgia, and the three Baltic states, who challenge Russia's distorted version of history.
Last month's parade, where soldiers in Czarist-style uniforms carried the red flag with the yellow hammer and sickle across the Red Square, was an almost exact reenactment of Soviet-era self-glorification. The spectacle sent an unmistakable message to all formerly occupied territories that Russia remains the strongest military continental power and continues its Czarist and Soviet traditions.
During the May display President Medvedev warned unnamed adversaries who were supposedly contemplating "military adventures" against Russia -- a thinly veiled threat to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO. The Kremlin's new historiography of Russia as a proud, virtuous neighbor to those in its sphere helps provide an intellectual underpinning for such posturing.
Western countries, including the former Soviet satellites, can take steps to expose Russia's historical revisionism by sponsoring international conferences and symposia, by opening up all pertinent state archives to scholars, by educating the younger generation about communist crimes, and simply by talking openly about the Soviet era.
As Russia glosses over its dark past and flexes its muscles, the fear is that those who rewrite history may also be determined to repeat it.