Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.

Enstad

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False equivalencies

The 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a few days ago had the Canadian press energized into one of its regular frenzies of Russia-bashing. These tend to be rather repetitive and unoriginal, and as such best ignored. But this time round it took a particular form which I think is worth some examination.

First out was former Conservative minister Chris Alexander in an article in the Globe and Mail. In this he told readers that Vladimir Putin’s goal was to ‘discredit democracy … [and] bolster dictatorship as an alternative’, adding that ‘no country has embraced this kind of trespass – warfare, really – with greater abandon than Vladimir Putin’s Russia’. What inspires Putin, claims Alexander, is ‘Stalinist nostalgia’. The Russian president and his acolytes look to a ‘world in which Stalin is a model … today’s Kremlin refuses to accept any criticism of either Stalin or Mr Putin. That’s because their actions have been so similar’.

Alexander continues that ‘Free historical inquiry into the Second World War has been all but shut down in Russia’. He then links this to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, claiming that this provides the model for Russia’s ‘invasions’ of Georgia and Ukraine. Thus,

Far from absorbing the lessons of Stalin’s deadly embrace of Hitler, today’s Kremlin is reprising it by illegally annexing territory, aggressively undermining democracy and vaingloriously touting a toxic cult of personality as a model for the world. The ‘end of history’ … has given way to the ‘end of logic’, with Stalin’s dark role now inspiring a widening tragedy under Mr. Putin.

Following in Chris Alexander’s wake, Canadian-Estonian activist Marcus Kolga had much the same to say in the Toronto Sun. Kolga has a real chip on his shoulder about the way that Russians misrepresent the Second World War, in particular their weird belief that the Soviet Union ‘liberated’ eastern Europe from the Nazis. Kolga wishes to disabuse us of this fiction, and to this end tell us, like Alexander, that ‘Putin has overseen an aggressive rehabilitation of Stalin’s bloody legacy, and the rewriting of history to officially erase dangerously inconvenient historical facts, such as the Nazi-Soviet Pact.’ To Kolga, fascism and communism were really one and the same thing. As he writes:

In a September 1939 editorial, The New York Times reacted to the signing of what’s become known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, suggesting that ideologically, the Nazis and Soviets were not that far apart stating that ‘Hitlerism is brown communism, Stalinism is red fascism.’ Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini shared that view, believing that Stalin had shifted the Soviet Union away from Bolshevism to a form of fascism in October 1939.

It’s not often that one reads someone quoting Mussolini approvingly, but there you have it. The Soviets didn’t liberate eastern Europe. They merely replaced one form of fascism with another. By claiming otherwise, ‘Vladimir Putin’ and others ‘distort history and truth’.

Canadian-Ukrainian professor Lubomyr Luciuk agrees. Writing in the Vancouver Sun, he informs us that not just Putin but also,

Moscow shills and their fellow travellers are more than duplicitous. They are dangerous. For they are trying to rewrite the history of the Second World War, to obfuscate not just the dates on which the war began, and ended, but to confound us about who the villains were. They are spreading fake news here, today, across Canada.

Most of those who died in the Soviet Union during World War Two ‘were not Russian’, says Luciuk. The greatest losses were in Ukraine and Belarus. More importantly, though,

We must not forget that the Soviet Union was not our ally when the Second World War began. On that date, Stalin stood with Hitler … we must never forget that Moscow’s men not only fuelled the Second World War but joined our side only after the holocaust they had stoked began to burn their empire down. Let us not forget that, at least not today.

As I see it, there are two things going on in these articles. The first is an effort to equate contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, in particular the Soviet Union under Stalin, by means of claims that Putin is ‘rehabilitating’ Stalin. The second is an attempt to equate communism and Nazism. Put together, the net effect is to equate contemporary Russia with Nazi Germany, and Putin with Hitler.

The problem with this approach is that it’s based on falsehood. As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, the idea that Putin is rehabilitating Stalin is entirely untrue. (There is more than enough evidence to prove this point, but rather than repeat it all here, I refer you instead to my recent post on the issue). More broadly, equating contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, let alone the Soviet Union under Stalin, is absurd. Attempts to claim otherwise can be the result only of either willful ignorance or deliberate deceit.

What then of the effort to equate communism and Nazism? Superficially, one can see the attraction. After all, both the Soviets and the Nazis engaged in acts of conquest in Eastern Europe, and their conquests were accompanied by widespread repression. But once you start looking at the matter more closely, you see that the comparison is devoid of merit. The Nazis came intending genocide; the Soviets did not. The Nazis sought to eliminate all the signs and institutions of statehood of the conquered peoples; the Soviets did not – while they absorbed the Baltic states and parts of Belarus and Ukraine, they preserved those states as autonomous entities within their Union, and likewise when they overran countries like Poland, Romania, and Hungary they maintained them as independent states. This was far removed from Nazi practice.

Furthermore, the Nazis came as colonizers. Not only did they aim to displace the existing population, but they were interested in their captured territories only in terms of extracting resources. By contrast, the Soviets invested heavily in developing the lands they occupied, creating industry, educating the population, and supporting cultural endeavours. It could well be argued that they didn’t do a very good job of it, but the difference in intent was enormous – the one overtly destructive; the other, at least in theory, constructive.

Alexander, Kolga and Luciuk all make reference to historical truth, which they contrast with Russian ‘disinformation’. In reality, though, they peddle a simplistic, propagandistic, and untrue story designed to inflame international tensions. Those who rewrite the past are ‘dangerous’, Luciuk tells us. On that at least, I have to agree with him.

A Tale of Two Museums

Back in June, my students and I had the good fortune to receive a guided tour of the Russian State Duma. The highlight for many of the students was a meeting with hockey legend (and Duma deputy) Vladislav Tretyak, but far more of our time was spent participating rather unexpectedly in an opening ceremony for a new institution – the Soviet Lifestyle Museum.

soviet life
Display case for Soviet Lifestyle Museum

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We’ll keep the red flag flying here

So, we’re watching the latest episode of Shadowhunters last night and when the action moves to Siberia we’re surprised to see a red flag flying. My first thought is ‘Don’t the Americans realize that Russia isn’t the Soviet Union anymore?’ And then my second thought is, ‘And, anyway, the flag’s flying back to front’. But then I look closer and see that it’s not quite the Soviet flag, as there’s a yellow circle around the hammer and sickle, which I think is meant to depict two sheaves of wheat. The only reference to such a flag I’ve been able to find is on a website called ‘incorrect depictions of the Soviet flag’. Would anybody care to tell me if there is such a flag, why the director of Shadowhunters might imagine it to be flying in modern day Siberia, and why it’s flying back to front? Is it a clever way of indicating to those in the know that the action isn’t taking place in our version of reality?  Or is it just what some people like to call an ‘epic fail’? Let know what you think.

red flag

Never-ending obsession

I don’t often read the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog, but today one of its commentators inadvertently pointed me in the direction of something quite striking. In a discussion of gun control, a comment provided a link to a 1981 article in the Finger Lake Times (a local newspaper in upstate New York) by the historian Paul Fussell (who wrote a very interesting book entitled The Great War and Modern Memory). As it happens, on the same page there is also an article by former Under-Secretary of State George W. Ball, famous for having been almost the only person in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson to have opposed escalating the war in Vietnam. Ball’s article bears the headline, ‘The obsession with Soviet Communism’, and it’s well worth a read. Substitute ‘Soviet Union’ with ‘Russia’ and you’ll understand why. Here are some highlights from what Ball wrote:

John Foster Dulles is alive and well and living in the White House. Once again we hear his passionate charge that the Soviet Union is the anti-Christ threatening civilization with a pernicious doctrine. The Soviets, we are told … are responsible for all our international troubles … Detente … is a deceit … Our only hope is to scar the desert with the MX and mobilize our allies for Armageddon.

So now once more, we shiver in the icy winds of the Cold War. Diplomacy is for sissies, a resolute America must build more and bigger weapons, while meanwhile arming any regime – no matter how corrupt or oppressive – that shouts anti-Communist slogans.

… Such an attitude is not a policy but an obsession. … Our incessant and quite gratuitous hectoring of Moscow is alienating our Western allies and encouraging the emergence of an ominous neutralism.

… The administration seems bent on persuading the Soviet Union that it foresees an unlimited arms race and has lost interest in peaceful working relations. … In its total effect, the administration’s current position denies all hope of a better future. … We have been lucky so far that we have not yet blown up the world but it is statistically absurd to think that such luck can last forever.

Some things never change, it seems!