This past week, historical interpretations of the Second World War have again been making headlines in Russia. Parliamentary deputy Elena Yampolskaya demanded legislation to prohibit writings which claim that Nazism and Soviet communism were morally equivalent. President Vladimir Putin agreed. Russia, he said, should have laws like those in other countries which prohibit denial of the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, a regional Russian court declared the murder by German troops of 2,000 Russians in north-west Russia during the war to have been genocide. This was a first. The ‘g’ word had never previously been applied to Russian victims.
All this is a reaction to efforts by some in Europe and North America to paint the Soviet Union as equally guilty for the Second World War as Nazi Germany, in the hope thereby of discrediting modern Russia. I discuss all this in my latest article on RT, which you can read here. I won’t therefore repeat everything I said there, but I feel that it’s worth expanding on my conclusion, to explain my position more fully.
At the end of my RT article, I note that Russians are rightly sensitive about the memory of the Second World War, but that legal prohibition of certain historical interpretations is not the right way of dealing with the problem. Let me explain this a bit more.
A good place to start is the example Putin used – laws prohibiting genocide denial. I’m against such laws. If the law is specific – i.e. it prohibits denial of a specific genocide – then one has to ask why this particular historical event has been singled out and others have not been included. As I have argued before, the answer is inevitably political. Such legislation is often not really interested in historical truth, but in targeting a given nation whom a particular group wants targeted. When Ukrainian-Canadians, for instance, request that the Canadian parliament recognize the Soviet deportation of the Crimean Tatars as genocide, it’s obviously a political act, designed to worsen Russian-Canadian relations. It’s got nothing to do with history. I don’t see that this is productive.
The second problem is one of definition. What is genocide? And who determines whether a given case fits the definition? Many Ukrainians claim that the famine which struck Ukraine (and other parts of the Soviet Union, notably Kazakhstan) in 1932-33 was an act of genocide. Should we therefore ban Holodomor genocide denial?? I’d say not. The use of the term genocide in that instance is highly debated. Some historians agree with the label, but others insist that it is inappropriate. Do we really want to leave it to politicians to adjudicate historical disputes, determine which cases are genocide and which are not, and then punish those who disagree with them? As a historian, my answer is quite categorically ‘no’.
Do I think that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were equally guilty for the Second World War, and committed equally reprehensible crimes? As I’ve said before, no, I don’t. But does that mean that the Soviet Union was guilt free? No, also. Were Nazism and communism morally equivalent? Overall, I’d say not, but I do think that there is some value in considering similarities (as well as differences) and putting them both within some common context of a collapse of liberal institutions, an era of radical extremism, and so on. Legislation of the sort proposed by Putin and Yampolskaya would put a stop to quite legitimate historical discussion.
As usual, there is a domestic political element to all this. On Wednesday night, the Russian political talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ devoted a considerable amount of time to this issue, with one of the guests being Ms Yampolskaya herself. After she had reiterated her reasons for legislation to regulate historical discussion, the political analyst Sergei Mikheev had his say. Mikheev has joined Zakhar Prilepin’s new nationalist ‘For Truth’ party, and his comments give a bit of a flavour of how the Russian right thinks.
The problem, said Mikheev, was that the people who say this stuff equating communism and Nazism have a ‘roof’ – i.e. somebody in power is protecting them and allowing them to get away with it. A certain radio station was mentioned, without being named, but it’s pretty obvious that Mikheev had in mind the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio. Something needs to be done, Mikheev implied.
Host Vladimir Solovyov then named some names – Dmitry Bykov, for instance. Bykov praised Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, who joined the Germans and raised an anti-Soviet army. Yet newspapers still publish him. Why? Who’s protecting him? Film director Karen Shakhnazarov had an idea – it was the ‘comprador intelligentsia’ who were to blame.
This is where one begins to get a little worried. For legislation liked that proposed by Yampoloskaya could end up being used to reckon with political enemies, especially among Russia’s few remaining liberals. You can see how this could play out. Somebody on Ekho Moskvy says something which somebody interprets as contrary to the new law on historical interpretation. Ekho Moskvy then gets slapped with a big fine or closed down (unless of course, its ‘roof’ somehow protects it). And so, the room for debate in Russia gets even smaller than before. And that, perhaps, is the purpose. The legislation isn’t really about history. It’s about grinding Russian liberals even further into the dust.
You might say that the liberals deserve it, for adopting an idiotic and, it must be said, incredibly unpopular position on the topic of historical memory. But I say, let them suffer for it at the ballot box, as they surely will. There’s no reason to chuck the law book at them.
Basically, when it comes down to it, as a historian I think that these matters are best left to historians and to readers of history to decide. It’s not for politicians to provide cast-iron interpretations of historical events which all must legally accept, in fear of punishment if they do not. I guess that you could accuse me of narrow professional self-interest, seeking as I do to protect my profession from state interference. Well, so be it. I don’t want the state telling me what I can and cannot write. And I don’t think anybody else should want that either.