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Historical Palliatives for the Phantom-Limb Syndrome
August 25, 2009
By Louis O’Neill
Gallons of ink have been arrayed and countless electrons rearranged with commentary over the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its secret protocols. Scholars, politicians, human-rights defenders, and historians worldwide have weighed in on this carving up of Eastern Europe which so dramatically affected the lives of millions, both during the Second World War and for two generations thereafter. Perhaps the most interesting voice, however, has been that of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR.
A week before the anniversary, the SVR claimed that newly declassified materials explain the Nazi-Soviet pact as the only realistic self-defense measure Moscow could have taken at the time. Not surprisingly given the ongoing diplomatic tensions between the Kremlin and London, the SVR in its publication “The Baltic Region and Geo-Politics” laid blame squarely on England for essentially “forcing” Moscow to seek peace with Berlin. The SVR claims that the UK, along with France, did this by signing the Munich Agreement in 1938 and subsequently “wrecking” the Moscow talks on an anti-Hitler coalition. Shortly thereafter, of course, the USSR was able to move its sphere of control far west into Finland, the Baltics, Poland and what was then part of Romania.
In an interview on Ekho Moskvy, the Russian writer and journalist Leonid Mlechin noted that “it is qualified historians and not Foreign Intelligence Service employees who should unravel issues of this sort.” He went on to suggest that it is problematic that the SVR “takes upon itself the functions of the Academy of Sciences and issues an historical verdict on the spot…I have never heard the objectives of the Foreign Intelligence Service as defined by law to include assessing historical events.”
Actually, this is not the first time that the SVR has taken a view on this particular historical happening. In November 2006, RIA Novosti reported that the SVR, again on the basis of “newly declassified documents,” said that the “Soviet Union was justified in annexing the Baltic states in World War II, as their governments supported Nazi Germany.” The SVR made the same argument then as it does now, that the “German-oriented policies conducted by governments in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia threatened to turn these states into staging grounds for a German invasion of the Soviet Union.” The SVR chief spokesman in 2006 also praised the “declassified…archives…as a comprehensive addition to historical knowledge about the situation in the Baltic region during the Second World War.” Given the similarity of the SVR’s interventions then and now, one wonders whether the “newly declassified documents” are identical as well.
One of the authors of “The Baltic Regions and Geo-Politics,” Lev Sotskov, went so far as to state in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda that the Baltic governments invited Soviet troops to occupy them. He failed to mention, however, that this “request” was made by pro-Soviet regimes that were installed after these territories were already occupied. In any event, his view squarely clashes with the SVR’s 2006 statement that the Soviet troops were justified in annexing these territories because their pro-German policies turned them into bridgeheads for Nazi aggression against the USSR. Either these states were a threat or they were friendly and invited the Soviets in, but not both.
After the Russo-Georgia war last year the same Sotskov praised the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact for allowing it to move its border to the West and gain some time for the preparations to repel the German aggression. This too is a curious declaration, given that the USSR ignored numerous warnings of attack and was highly unprepared for the Nazi invasion on June 22, 1941. Indeed, the destruction of the Red Army’s officer corps in the purges and Stalin’s pre-war complacency followed by his paralyzing disbelief that the attack had actually occurred allowed the Nazis to quickly occupy the Molotov-Ribbentrop territories and so terribly much more.
But what, one might ask, is a professional intelligence service doing injecting itself into such a charged political and historical argument? The answer is that once the central bureaucratic control that characterized the Soviet Union was lost in 1991, the SVR has waged a pitched battle with Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to shape Russia’s key foreign policy choices. When spymaster Yevgeniy Primakov seized the top spot on Smolesnskaya Ploschad’ in 1996, this signaled the Foreign Intelligence Service’s ascendancy, which it appears to enjoy to this day. An MFA transformed into a messenger delivering decisions taken elsewhere is not surprising in a government filled with and run by former intelligence officers.
Not by coincidence, the day after the Molotov-Ribbentrop anniversary, the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) published a book on historical interpretation of those events, combining the declassified materials with analyses by domestic and foreign contributors. It contained an introduction by President Medvedev and articles by Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Naryshkin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The book was issued in cooperation with the new Presidential Commission “for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests” of which Naryshkin is chairman. The Commission was established in May and the Duma is likely to consider adding criminal penalties for “bad” falsifications when it returns from its summer break. And in a move that has made Russia’s neighbors nervous, just this month, President Medvedev proposed legislation to give him the legal basis to send troops abroad to defend Russia’s interests.
All these efforts seem less about getting to the bottom of complicated historical events with a careful and nuanced interpretation or even protecting Russia’s “reputation” from slander and more about projecting power. Like much in today’s Russia, they appear to be about advancing a political agenda above all other considerations. Just as it has throughout its history, Russia still craves its spheres of influence and has declared its right to them. Perhaps it really sees them as the best guarantee of national security or perhaps they are the only pain-killer for the phantom-limb syndrome Moscow still suffers at the loss of the Soviet republics and super-power status.
Whatever the diagnosis, pumping up its claims to dominion in its neighborhood is why the Kremlin is striving so hard to seize control of the Molotov-Ribbentrop events by rewriting textbooks, establishing truth commissions, and confounding political agendas with historical analysis. Freeing Europe from the Nazi scourge is the one event in Soviet history that can be seen as an unalloyed good – at least as long as your little country didn’t sit somewhere between Berlin and Moscow – and as a true rallying point for unbelievable sacrifice, valor and success by a united nation. Now, in demanding respect for its “privileged sphere of influence” the Kremlin looks to link its current behavior and aspirations with that of a heroic, but rapidly receding, past.
Louis O’Neill was OSCE Ambassador and Head of Mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008.
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