Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Putin's article isn't a radical departure, it reflects Russia's take on World War 2

If you cannot bear to read Vladimir Putin’s Gazeta Wyborcza article, marking the 70th anniversary of Poland’s invasion by the Nazis, in patchy translation, the BBC website carries a selective synopsis of its contents. The Russian prime minister, as the report intimates, offers unequivocal condemnation of the ‘Non Aggression Pact’ which foreshadowed the occupation of Poland by German and Soviet forces, calling it ‘immoral’. However he is also quick to draw comparison with the 1938 Munich Treaty, which saw Britain and France attempt to appease Hitler at the expense of Czechoslovakia. Despite its eccentric English, in order to get a sense of the tenor of Putin’s critique, I’d recommend reading the translation which the PM’s website provides.

The 'Putinite regime' is commonly portrayed as if it were intent on overseeing Stalin’s rehabilitation, often with the implied aim of entrenching its own, purportedly authoritarian, project. As this weblog has consistently argued, the truth is more complicated, and the Kremlin’s attitude to history reflects, rather than engineers, the ambiguity which colours many Russians’ view of the past. Notoriously certain approved school textbooks in Russia now describe Stalin’s ‘managerial’ merits. However it is less frequently reported that the works of Solzhenitsyn also form an important component of the Russian curriculum.

Putin, in common with the majority of his countrymen, is not prepared to disown Soviet achievements in World War 2, or condemn every aspect of the USSR’s existence, simply because Stalin was a barbarous dictator. That position, however problematic one might find its maintenance, does not equate to the rampant neo-Stalinism, which western commentators are keen to insinuate. The piece which he has written, for a Polish readership, illustrates rather well the accommodation which Putin favours between Russia and its history, as well as some of the difficulties which this rapprochement entails.

The Great Patriotic War, as Russians refer to WW2, is pivotal to the country’s self-image. The Prime Minister estimates that ’27 million’ of his ‘compatriots’ lost their lives in order to defeat Hitler. It is hardly surprising, given its vast sacrifice, that Russia is eager that its contribution should be acknowledged without equivocation. However there is clear recognition in Putin’s article that Soviet actions during the period cause problems in this regard. He refers to ‘non healing wounds’ inflicted during the twentieth century, including the ‘ideological divide of the (European) continent’.

Those inclined towards intractable scepticism as regards Russia will find plenty to be churlish about in Putin’s piece. He talks about a ‘common history’ during which ‘no country can boast of having avoided tragedies, dramatic turning points or state decisions having nothing to do with high morals’. Those who insist that Russia must approach its Soviet past in ‘sackcloth and ashes’, replicating the enduring shame which marks Germany’s attitude to the war, will remain unsatisfied. Some will detect a hint of hypocrisy when Putin criticises those who seek historical ‘pretexts for mutual complaint’, then condemns the tendency in eastern Europe to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators as ‘national resistance’ fighters. Proponents of this type of revisionism are guilty of the same abuses of history as Stalin, he alleges.

Predictably most analysis will present Putin’s article as either a softening of the prime minister’s neo Stalinist stance, or a shameless attempt to rewrite history. The truth is that it is neither. Criticism of the Non Aggression Pact, or regret for what occurred at Katyn, or unfavourable analyses of Stalin’s tyranny are not new positions for Russian historians, or for the Moscow government. Neither are comparisons between Molotov and Munich uncommon interpretations of the genesis of World War 2, in Russia. In fact Putin’s piece is entirely consistent with his approach to the past, which is in turn reflective of his nation’s relationship with its history.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Would Chekov be interested in receiving a commentary which I have written on his piece about Putin's article? I discovered that I could not post it because it was too long for the comments section of this blog. I have it saved on microsoft word.

Phil Larkin

yourcousin said...

Those inclined towards intractable scepticism as regards to Russia will find plenty to be churlish about in Putin’s piece

I figure that's my cue to jump in on this one.

The problem with Putin's piece is that it relies heavily on whataboutery and well, lies. Certainly there are plenty of half truths in there but there are also some points which are just plain wrong.

Chief among them for me is the idea that Stalin lamented the loss of natural anti-fascist unity which took place with the Munich Treaty and that there was no going back to that time. Interestingly enough Stalin ruminated on this very subject and the BBC had a nice little article on it. What is flabbergasting about it is the fact that Stalin wasn't making a deal to stave off an invasion but that he was actively wishing for a German victory against Britain and France. So much for anti-fascist unity.

Also, the constant whataboutery that permeates the whole speech really could have been lifted off of some of the threads on Slugger. I understand that Putin isn't nessecarily an intellectual giant, but I do wish heads of state would sometimes rise to the call of their office, and not just when shooting tigers or riding horses without a shirt.

I mean Putin doesn't even get to his "unequivocal condemnation" (13th paragraph) before he starts blaming others (9th paragraph really starts it off proper). And whataboutery is a form of equivocation in and of itself. He can't even allow for the Katyn massacre without trying one up it.

His speech may be reflective of Putin's own relationship with the Soviet past, but I hope that half truths, propganda, myths and whataboutery are not so easily prescribed to the rest of the nation.

I won't even go into why Putin was there and Medvydev was not.

Chekov said...

Phil - I would indeed. Cuz - later!

Chekov said...

Phil - the address is

3000Versts@googlemail.com

Chekov said...

Chief among them for me is the idea that Stalin lamented the loss of natural anti-fascist unity which took place with the Munich Treaty and that there was no going back to that time. Interestingly enough Stalin ruminated on this very subject and the BBC had a nice little article on it. What is flabbergasting about it is the fact that Stalin wasn't making a deal to stave off an invasion but that he was actively wishing for a German victory against Britain and France. So much for anti-fascist unity.

Putin’s argument around this area is problematic and I certainly wouldn’t suggest direct equivalence between Molotov and Munich. I would say that the evidence around Stalin’s intentions is contradictory. There’s a decent amount of scholarship which believes that he knew that war with Nazi Germany was inevitable, but that his military was not ready (in part at least due to his own purges). It’s a contested area and to present it as sine qua non historically is not entirely fair.

Also, the constant whataboutery that permeates the whole speech really could have been lifted off of some of the threads on Slugger. I understand that Putin isn't nessecarily an intellectual giant, but I do wish heads of state would sometimes rise to the call of their office, and not just when shooting tigers or riding horses without a shirt.

I take your point. Although the crux of my article is that this defensive springs from an understandable root. Russia is justly proud of its part in defeating Nazism, it feels that its role is under constant attack.

His speech may be reflective of Putin's own relationship with the Soviet past, but I hope that half truths, propganda, myths and whataboutery are not so easily prescribed to the rest of the nation.

Clearly you’re not predisposed to recognise the difficulties which this history poses to Russians and Russia. The Federation’s predecessor took an inordinate share of allied casualties in WW2. Yet there is an unwillingness to accept Russia into celebrations of the Allies achievements. It is entirely understandable, on a psychological level, that Russians resent this (whatever your reading of history). It’s a response which might be unique to Russian circumstances, but it certainly isn’t a response unique to the Russian psyche.

yourcousin said...

Chekov,
You've acknowledged many points in your response to Larkin's post so I'll try to not to labor points you've already recognized.

It’s a contested area and to present it as sine qua non historically is not entirely fair

You may say it is unfair, but I don't see it as unreasonable being that the only thing I'm really bringing up are the man's own words.

Russia is justly proud of its part in defeating Nazism, it feels that its role is under constant attack

I think one of the big problems is that the Western Allies always presented the Allied victory as a victory for "democracy" versus totalitarianism. So a genocidal dictator doesn't really fit into that. Is that fair? No.

You deal with it rather eloquently in your other response but I think that the question of whether or not we can permit Russia to bask in the glory of WWII victory without noting all of the other things that stemmed directly from that is a good question and one which in fairness I don't think I can answer.

I would agree with your point on the fact that WWII was a defining moment for that Russian generation but I am also reminded of the stories from the first and second Chechen wars where old veterans would put their pins on their chests to show that they fought for Russia. This did little to stop or even slow abuse, robbery, murder etc. from Russian troops, only make it all that much sadder.

I suppose you could call it ironic, that in ressurecting the idea of the old Russia out of the shambles of Yelstin's mess they could render any connection to that selfless spirit that they claim to harken back to so meaningless by such callousness.

And that duality lies at the heart of our matter. Does Russian remembrance of Russian sacrifices during the Second World War serve a dual purpose as a tool for current Russian policy? And if that is the case then as odd as this may sound it does tie in to otherwise historical issues. Like Subway issue you brought up would reflect upon the libel case currently being waged by Stalin's grandson (I think) against a newspaper which accused Stalin of murdering his countrymen. That would in turn tie into the fact that 80% of African immigrants have been verbally abused in Moscow with some 60% having been physically assaulted. This being a reflection of a "Russia for Russians" mentality which could be argued to be taking succor from the very same pool from which the praises of WWII flow.

That also brings in the constant background chatter of "Putin is the real boss, Medvedev is a puppet". With this speech as another example of what fuels this kind of talk.

I for one buy into that line of history as policy (for everyone, not just Russia), but even if one didn't and history was simply history for its own sake I still don't know if we could seperate one set of acts from others that would in a single breath, praise and damn.

Clearly you’re not predisposed to recognise the difficulties which this history poses to Russians and Russia

I am predisposed to think Russians are assholes, that's it. Blunt but true. I am also reasonable enough to recognize that this isn't a fair position to take so I always try to work backwards from my starting point to a position that is more even handed.

I do think I'm capable of (if not quite disposed to) recognizing the difficulties which history and its ironies inflict upon all of us, Russians included.

Charles Crawford said...

I fear that the flavour of this analysis misses the key point, which is that there is a huge and flourishing 'class' of former security apparatus people in Russia who have a strong incentive to validate Soviet-era lying and crimes which have formed the 'Russian psyche'. Putin's unswerving adherence to this set of attitudes is revealing and depressing.

I have expanded on this theme here:
http://www.charlescrawford.biz/blog/putin-s-consistent-approach

Chekov said...

Thanks Charles. Interesting piece. Although it is my belief that emphasis on Putin's силовики́past is overegged. He was a relatively young, relatively junior KGB officer.