I always find Chekov's contributions on Russia, her politics, culture, and national identity fascinating. Although I have travelled throughout Poland (which I love) the Baltic States, and the Balkans, Russia largely remains for me, in the words of Winston Churchill, a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma. Throughout my travels, however, I have seen examples of Russian culture, the beauty of Eastern Orthodox iconography being particularly striking. I firmly believe that too many Western statesmen fall into the same category as myself, namely, ignorant, vis-a-vis Russia, something which causes many problems in our world today.
In a previous addition to this blog, I noted the photos of the Moscow underground which I had last seen in pictures as a schoolboy. In a sense they are an allegory of the Stalinist regime during the 1930s until his death - with the gilded paintings covering what is, in reality, a grey and monolithic structure. I remember reading that much of the work was done by political prisoners, at high speed under extremely difficult conditions.
I managed to read Putin's speech on the Great Patriotic War, and do believe that it was significant that he seemed to repudiate the Nazi/Soviet Pact of 1939, and showed remorse for the massacre of Katyn, for which the USSR denied responsibility for decades. While he did not do so unequivocally (as we perhaps should not expect him to), it was at least a nod in the right direction. While there are limits to the worth of historical opinion when discussing the origins of World War II, the Western Powers were at least partly blameworthy for this Pact, since both Stalin and Molotov appeared to believe that it was the only way in which to gain time to prepare for a Nazi attack, which was, in truth, inevitable. Had the UK and France offered a lifeline to the USSR in the form of an alliance between the Munich Agreement and the invasion of Poland, then, quite conceivably, Hitler could have been contained. Churchill and others wanted this approach to be adopted, but were rebuffed by an increasingly arrogant and blinkered Chamberlain.
As far as Putin's article is concerned, there can be no quibble over the contribution which the indomitable Russian peoples made to final victory over the Nazis in Europe. Again, citing Churchill, Russian troops "tore the guts out of the German armies", and this does not include the immense sacrifices made, and privations suffered, by Russian civilians themselves. The "Great Patriotic War" was a defining moment in Russian history, and the courage which this country showed should be honoured unequivocally. To this extent I agree heartily with Chekov. Russians can, and should, feel great pride as well as sorrow for their role in World War II.
However, this leaves vast room for discussion over Stalin's role in the lead up to the Great Patriotic War, and Soviet behaviour towards other non-Russian nationalities towards the end of the war and after. It is possible that the USSR would not have suffered the early setbacks which they did against the Finns and Germans had not the paranoid dictator robbed the Soviet armed forces of some of their best brains in his pre-War purges. There can be no moral justification for the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, which also constituted an act of unmitigated and unnecessary aggression. A decade ago, on a visit to Warsaw, I saw the monument to the Polish uprising against the Nazis in 1945, and it galled me to think of all the ordinary courageous Poles who could have been saved had Stalin allowed his troops to relieve the city. Instead, the Russian armies stood back and watched as the Nazis slaughtered Polish citizens and tore Warsaw asunder. Two years ago I stood before the statue of President Edvard Benes in Prague, who died in lonely internal exile after the Soviet Union had engineered the takeover of his country and stifled democratic government in Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe through murder, subterfuge, and rigged elections. Before Christmas 2007, with some friends, we came upon a tenement building in Budapest still pock-marked with bullet holes along its front, a remnant of the 1956 uprising. I still find the creation of the “Iron Curtain” in post-War Europe difficult to accept as genuinely necessary for the safety of the USSR, and think that Russia has much to answer for in its treatment of Central and Eastern European non-Russian nations.
Yes, it is true that Russia should be treated with appropriate understanding of her historical sufferings, idiosyncrasies and culture, and it is obvious that Russia now feels under threat and surrounded, but understanding is a two way process: the motives of those central and eastern European nations who have either joined NATO or seek to join the organization should also be put in context and understood. They are anxious about the intentions of their giant and powerful neighbour, and given some of the messages sent out by the Kremlin, and the strangling of proper democracy and free speech in Russia over the past decade, who can blame them? These are countries which, having experienced Soviet rule at first hand (and in some cases before this, Tsarist Russian rule), have at least as much fear about Russian domination as Russia has about being “corralled” in by NATO countries.
I believe that it is important that the West, while showing sympathy and understanding to Russia, should say what it means and mean what it says, and do so in a firm manner. After all, Khruschev only took the US seriously after Kennedy demonstrated that he was prepared to use force over the Cuban missiles in 1962. I believe that Russia both respects and, indeed, expects, a firm and forthright approach to be adopted by Western statesmen in their dealings with this vast nation.
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
In a radical departure for ‘Three Thousand Versts’ I am publishing the first ever guest post (control freakery you see). Phil Larkin has kindly emailed a response to my article about Putin and WW2. It is much too well argued to be consigned to my inbox and Phil has kindly agreed to let me reproduce it here. I will respond to some of the points which it raises in due course.