The Kremlin is struggling to maintain normal discourse with its former subject states.
Russia’s announcement on 9 July that Moscow will hold a fireworks display on 22 September to celebrate the 75th anniversary of liberating Tallinn from fascist occupation was a painful and defiant reminder of the past and culminated with an official protest by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Two days later, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russian MFA, expressed astonishment at this, claiming that the fireworks celebrating the liberation of former Soviet states and certain European cities from Nazi rule had begun on 10 April and would conclude on 9 May 2020.1 In other words, this was a confirmation of the events being part of the major “our victory” programme discussed in the February 2019 issue of Diplomaatia.2 This marks the completion of another campaign by Russia/the Soviet Union celebrating the anniversary of their victory in World War II, organised on the basis of a decision made by Putin’s team in 2000.
Russia’s setting its victory apart from the shared Allied victory is based on the provisions of a UN resolution adopted in December 2004, as a result of which World War II remembrance and reconciliation days are celebrated on both 8 and 9 May. The campaigns last for three years (the previous triennia were 2003–5, 2008–10 and 2013–15) and the current one began in 2018. All the campaigns have begun with the celebration of an anniversary of the victory of the Battle of Stalingrad and continued with marking other significant victories, including with celebrations—which have taken place on the territory of the former Yugoslavia and even Austria, depending on the situation—and culminated with the Victory Day parade in Moscow. Putin himself has attended most of the celebrations and the campaign’s coordinators have always made a point of preventing the Kremlin’s official concept of victory from being tarnished or rebutted by other events.
The current triennium is the fourth, and Europe has detected differences in the sharpness of the Kremlin’s reactions during campaigns and in the years between them—a detail that is particularly evident in the case of the opening of “incorrect” monuments (e.g. the relocation of the monument in Lihula that ended with a scandal in 2004, i.e. in the middle of the first campaign, and a similar monument erected by Latvians in Bauska, which was put up relatively quietly in 2012—outside the campaign period).
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is highly flexible. For instance, nobody remembers the fireworks display held in Moscow in celebration of the 70th anniversary of liberating Tallinn from the fascists. The situation in 2014 was completely different—thanks to the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine—and the emphasis was clearly on other things, for example Kiev being governed by a “fascist junta”. Due to Russia’s international isolation, the Victory Day parade on 9 May 2015 was more of an Asian parade (with units from China, India and Mongolia, among others) rather than a European one. However, it still took place. In other words, the Kremlin can make rapid changes and adjustments, but the established campaign blueprint remains sustainable.
Going back to provocative fireworks displays, it must be noted that Moscow’s—or, more precisely, the Russian Western Military District’s—statement on the events, giving the full list of the 17 cities, including Vilnius, Kaunas, Chișinău, Riga and Tallinn, was made public only after the first displays (held to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Odessa on 10 April, Sevastopol on 10 May and Minsk on 3 July) had already taken place. The distribution of information in two parts was understandable, because Russia was trying hard to escape from international isolation and thus had to hide anything that could hold it back. The shift in international discourse in favour of Moscow took place on 25 June in Strasbourg, when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe decided to invite the Russian delegation back without Russia even apologising for the military occupation in Ukraine, let alone withdrawing troops from the region or elsewhere. Following this success, Kremlin propaganda continued with even greater intensity, because its concept of victory was criticised even more than before.
The narrative of World War II was born that differs from the Kremlin’s concept—naturally in a low-key way—in competition with the latter. Its public presentation and contrasting with Moscow’s interpretation began only after the end of the Cold War and gained momentum, for understandable reasons, in the summer of 2004, when a large group of Eastern European countries joined NATO. Since then, the successors of the countries occupied in 1938–41 have presented their own interpretation of past events with increasing intensity and systematicity. The debate escalated further in relation to events in Ukraine in 2014. As pointed out in the earlier piece in Diplomaatia, the Kremlin’s propaganda had created a specific background to justify the invasion by its forces and the support of separatists before the actual events (with claims that the tone of the Euromaidan, which began in November 2013, was set by fascists, that the coup transferred power in Kiev to a “junta”, and so on).
This was a shameless manoeuvre that has been used repeatedly in history. The wartime vocabulary used extensively by Russians in relation to a completely different enemy, though Slavic and kin, is today quite shocking. One must ask the Russians: if this is the case today, were they on the same side as the Ukraine and Ukrainians during the Great Patriotic War, and to what degree?
Strasbourg’s unconditional support for Russia led the delegations of Ukraine—plus Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia, all countries whose fates had been influenced by the secret protocol to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact—to leave the room. In the case of Georgia, which had been subjected to Russian aggression, it is also worth noting that only a week earlier (on 20 June) the action of a member of the Russian State Duma in addressing members of the Georgian parliament from the Speaker’s chair was sufficient for the cumulative grudge against Moscow to turn into several days of protests against Russian influence. Despite the saying about time taking its toll and injustices being forgotten, it was once again shown that nations’ historical memory does not fade and that the historical truth needs to be formalised. This naturally conflicts with the Kremlin’s narratives.
The political drama in Tbilisi and Strasbourg played its part in the Kremlin’s decision to be the first to show its hand. On 4 July, the Russian Military-Historical Society held a press conference in Moscow, the main speaker at which was the Chairman of its Board of Trustees, Sergei Ivanov, better known as a long-time Putin placeman in security structures, as Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister, Chief of Staff and currently a member of the Security Council of Russia and the president’s Special Representative on the environment and transport. The topic was “In Celebration of the 80th Anniversary of the Beginning of World War II: from Versailles to Gleiwitz”. This was a rather odd title, as the first place was the location of the peace conference that ended World War I and the decisions made there and the second is a small border town (today’s Gliwice in Poland) where the SS organised a provocation in order to create an excuse to invade Poland on 1 September 1939.
Ivanov justified his presentation to journalists by saying that a lot of falsified publications dedicated to the event were appearing in the run-up to 1 September claiming that the outbreak of war was due to the Soviet Union, which made an agreement with fascist Germany, and that Hitler was only partly to blame. Anticipating this line, Ivanov claimed, by producing archive material, that the then Soviet leadership could not have had any initial plan to divide Poland and invade the Baltic states because Moscow did not know what Germany was planning. The Poles, however, were supposedly keen on isolating and demonising the Soviet Union and the communist regime. As for the discussions held with the British and the French before 23 August, Ivanov claimed that the latter had been asked where the Red Army should be during the advance of German forces and they had been told to stay where they were, i.e. on the old border between Poland and the Soviet Union. He said the 1938 Munich Agreement caused the war. This was followed by his dramatic statement that, from the perspective of historical truth, the Soviet Union played no part in bringing about World War II on 1 September 1939. It had been the Germans, not the Soviet Union, who had organised the provocation.
Ivanov explained the Red Army’s actions from 17 September 1939 onwards by saying that they entered Polish territory once the country’s president had already left Warsaw and the government had ceased to function. He claimed that the deployment of troops had served only one purpose: to ensure the security and interests of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians and Jews, because they had formed the majority in the territory that Soviet forces had entered. As we know, Moscow had to date justified the division of Poland only by the fate of the Ukrainians and Belarusians. The addition of two other groups is part of dealing with the Russophobia that is prominently addressed in the current triennial campaign and in the continuing improvement in the relationship between Russia and Israel: since 2017, Israel has also celebrated Victory in Europe Day on 9 May.
In relation to the Baltic states, Ivanov made a significant admission, mentioning that the incursion of forces had indeed been unwelcome to some, because they considered it aggression and emigrated. However, they returned in the 1990s and some even became presidents and representatives of their country. Yet historical documents and films confirmed that the majority of the populations of those countries had been happy about their country joining the Soviet Union. According to Ivanov, this gave land to the poor people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the life of the middle class did not worsen and many representatives of the elite, including politicians, benefited from accession to the Soviet Union, because they now managed to secure senior positions. There is probably no need to mention who he was referring to in either of these cases.
Ivanov continued by saying that the eventual addition and accession of the Baltic states to the Soviet Union had not taken place by a simple vote. Soviet forces had initially entered the territories of the Baltic states under agreements; the Soviet Union had not occupied them. They had been occupied by the Germans, who had organised repressions against the local population, concentration camps and shootings. Ivanov ended this section by stating that there had been some repressions in the Soviet Union after 1939, but no concentration camps or mass shootings like those organised by the Germans and that it had been Hitler’s regime and not the bloodstained Soviet regime that had opened a concentration camp in Salaspils in Latvia. This was followed by a statement on compensation for damage caused by occupation, which Ivanov claimed the Baltic states had no grounds to demand.3
At the beginning of Ivanov’s address, he said it was intended to give his own precautionary assessment of new problems as messages—either direct or indirect. However, war reparations have not been as much of a problem for the Baltic states as for Poland, which is now submitting claims not only to Russia but also to Germany. This is being done by the government led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) that took office in 2015 and has prepared a claim totalling 800 billion euros. Warsaw’s bilateral actions and Berlin’s direct assistance in making Moscow a suitable partner again also led to a new approach to the war between them. At a press conference at the G20 meeting in Osaka on 28 June, Putin mentioned, in relation to invitations to the parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of victory, that the term “wartime allies” also included the “underground anti-fascist opposition in Germany”. The intended recipient of this unexpected statement became clear on 20 July, when Germany officially commemorated the 75th anniversary of the failed assassination attempt on Hitler conducted by a group of officers and intellectuals. The event was also attended by chancellor Merkel, to whom Putin had spoken in Osaka.
There was not much more for Putin to do after the adviser to the Polish president (NB: not the president and not even the MFA, who had supposedly expressed disagreement with the main message) had announced on 20 March that all countries that cooperate in the spirit of honouring international justice, the sovereignty of nations and their territorial integrity were welcome to attend the memorial service in Poland marking the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Since an invitation was sent to Germany but not to Russia, it was specified that the invitation was not based on history but the current state of international affairs.4
The Poles’ behaviour is no surprise, even if one has only rudimentary knowledge of the history of the relationship between the two countries and Putin’s contribution to it. You could say that the legacy of Stalin is constantly being blown out of proportion. Take, for instance, Ivanov’s statement about the demonisation of Russia and his denial of concentration camps and mass executions. The Polish officers imprisoned in 1939 were not taken to pioneer camps, and this was followed by the Katyn massacre. After all, the events concerned all Poles. The notorious resolution of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party and the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union of 14 May 1941 on the June deportations in Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine, for instance, listed nine groups of people who had to be sent to Siberia or the north. In addition to capitalists, policemen and kulaks, these included “6) persons with links to Germany; 7) refugees from former Poland …”. This wording makes it clear that the Soviet Union was already known to legally persecute and eliminate certain people, something that continued with the addition of new nations (Crimean Tatars, Chechens, etc.) to the lists.
President Boris Yeltsin apologised to Poles for what happened during the Stalinist era when visiting Warsaw in August 1993. Under Putin, the bilateral relationship with Poland began with the expulsion of a group of Russian diplomats in January 2000 and Moscow’s reciprocal action. When the first memorials to the victims of Katyn were opened in Poland and Russia in 2000 and 2001, Poland was represented at the ceremonies at the highest level, while Russia was represented by ministers. President Putin’s first visit to Poland took place in January 2002.5
Russia’s selection of a new national holiday became the breaking point in the relationship between the two countries. It is a topic that is not publicly discussed, but the contents are known to both parties. During the Soviet era, Russia’s biggest holiday was the anniversary of the October Revolution on 7 November, which can be interpreted as one part of one’s nation achieving victory over another part—in other words, a domestic victory. In 1996 Yeltsin, who was still on the democratic path, declared 7 November as the Day of Accord and Reconciliation. In December 2004, following the establishment of Russia’s “own” Victory Day by the UN General Assembly resolution (see above), the State Duma—at Putin’s initiative—rescheduled the holiday for 4 November and named it Unity Day.
Naturally, the new date was not chosen randomly; from 1613 to 1917 Russia celebrated 4 November as the anniversary of the liberation of Moscow from Polish invaders. This took place a year before in 1612, which marked the end of the so-called Time of Troubles in Russia and the beginning of a centralised state. Even though the official name of the day changed, it—like the date—still reminded people that it was the date on which Russia achieved a military victory over its once and current neighbour.
It is worth knowing another obscure fact about the tragedies suffered by Poles during World War II: a parade also took place in London on 8 June 1946 to celebrate the victory. The parade featured members of the British Commonwealth of Nations and other wartime allies of the United Kingdom. A total of 200,000 Poles fought on the side of the Western Allies, but—at the request of Moscow and the government in Warsaw that it controlled—those who fought for the UK (Polish pilots were particularly valued) were not allowed to attend. The Moscow and Warsaw governments did not attend the parade either.6
Other things happened to Polish fighters in the UK—as in the Soviet Union—during the war, which is why it is only natural that the above disputes about the course of the war that began after the expansion of NATO started with the 2004 conferences held to mark the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. As we know, the fate of thousands of Poles and Jews depended directly on the relationship between Stalin and Churchill, which left something to be desired, to say the least, and gave way to questionable narratives glorifying these two greats.
Attempts to reassess what British and Russian historians had already established ushered in the era of bold conclusions made by Polish historians and politicians, which continues today and has rewritten many pages in history. Among the most controversial messages, German concentration camps in Poland should be mentioned. The long-established politically correct practice of saying “Nazi” instead of “German” culminated in 2015 with FBI Director James Comey (who was later fired by Trump) mentioning “Nazis, Poland and Hungary” as being responsible for the Holocaust. This, and similar conduct by president Obama, caused Poles to amend a relevant law, the text of which made Jews fear that even the slightest out-of-line statement on the sensitive topic could result in three years’ imprisonment. This was followed by statements and demarches from the leaders of the US, Israel and Poland over several months.7 The events of World War II also serve as the background for constant mutual complaints in the relationship between Poland and Ukraine.
Since, in the opinion of many parties, several important issues caused by the grouping and regrouping of states and nations due to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact during World War II haven’t been fairly resolved to this day, the dispute over explaining and evaluating what happened during the war will continue. It is therefore logical to draw attention to Poland because, as the largest country among the victims of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, it plays a decisive role in changing concepts of the history of World War II.
As changes can mainly be expected in the assessments endorsed by Russia, Sergei Ivanov’s presentation is only the beginning. As mentioned, Vladimir Putin is also involved in updating the history of “our victory”. On 9 July—the day the fireworks display in celebration of the liberation of Tallinn was announced—Putin, who always stands out for his sharp memory and attention to detail, gave Russian journalists a real lesson on the history of Georgia.
As a preface, it is worth recalling Putin’s observation in his annual address of 24 April 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. It is worth noting that this statement was made immediately before the parade held to mark the 60th anniversary of the victory, which was attended by European leaders and US president George W. Bush, but not by Arnold Rüütel, Valdas Adamkus and Mikheil Saakashvili, the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania and Georgia respectively, who, according to Rüütel, preferred to celebrate the day among their own people. Putin later repeated his view of the collapse, including in reply to a student at the Sirius youth camp in 2017 who asked which event had had the most influence on his life. He also repeated it in his election speech in 2018, i.e. at the beginning of the current three-year period.
This verbal lament has been supported by the rejection of the Russian-Estonian border agreement and aggressions towards former Soviet republics. As time passes, it is becoming clearer that Putin cannot find the right recipe for communicating with people who used to be “his”. This translates into blatant hectoring of the current president of Ukraine and simultaneous controversial statements directed at Georgia, as well as deeds. It is a fact that, at the time of the anti-Russian sentiment that broke out in Georgia on 20 June, Putin himself (!) ordered air traffic between the two countries to be suspended and demanded an apology (just as he had done three years earlier from Turkey after a Russian aircraft was shot down). Subordinates were inspired by their leader and, when one Georgian journalist started to curse Putin indiscriminately on television, the State Duma was quick to propose new sanctions to punish Georgia. In order to put an end to the hysterics, Putin promptly made a speech to journalists (on 9 July in Ekaterinburg), the last sentence of which expressed his personal unwillingness to impose new sanctions on such a dignified nation.
This was, however, preceded by a lecture on the history of Georgia. Unfortunately, it was given solely from the Kremlin’s perspective and stated that in 1774 Ossetia had joined with Russia, followed by Abkhazia in 1810 … There had been no Georgia, only Tiflis Governorate … After World War I, the state of Georgia had been established, which had tried to swallow Abkhazia and had succeeded with the help of Germany, using such severe measures that it became a genocide, and so on.8
As readers may notice from this short presentation, Putin talked about the state of Georgia only after 1918, which poses the question: where does that leave Queen Tamar of Georgia and the others? As we know, the Kingdom of Georgia existed until 1555, after which it was divided into three spheres of influence and became a vassal state of Turkey. In 1817, the latter was beginning to be superseded by Russia. Some but not all the brutalities of the last so-called Caucasian war were described by Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy. Thus, it must be added that the Caucasus was the first testing ground for scorched-earth tactics, long before the US used them in Vietnam. In 1864, Russian troops forced 60% of the Abkhazian population to leave, to mention only a few of the details that Putin kept mum about. Tiflis Governorate, which he did mention, included South Ossetia and Abkhazia was part of Kutais Governorate—i.e. the two regions that Putin kept separate from Georgia in his history lesson were historically still part of Georgia.
The purpose of Putin’s history lesson was clear—to say that there has been no state in the region at all, so what is there for them to claim anyway? He said the same about Kazakhstan on 29 August 2014 (during the aggression towards Ukraine) at the National Youth Forum in Seliger, a camp for the next generation of top-level Russian leaders, and has since thought it wise to apologise occasionally for humiliating the Kazakhs. This detail in turn explained what has been claimed several times before: that there has been no Ukraine, that Crimea and Malorossiya were simply Russian governorates, and so on. Now (and always when getting annoyed, perhaps giving in to emotion) this has been supplemented by claims that only Tiflis Governorate existed and the state of Georgia was established in 1918. Putin’s rambling about Ukrainians and Russians—who have been divided in two by Poles and other baddies in the West, but whose unity is inevitable—as a single nation is also based on clearly imperialistic thinking. He also said this in a TV interview by Oliver Stone, which was shown on all Russian television channels ahead of the Ukrainian elections.9
Putin’s unexpected last-minute leniency towards Georgians is easily explained—the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the victory is based on the cooperation between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, and quarrelling with people who gave the world Stalin is completely out of the question at the moment. Unfortunately, words have consequences, and strong words spoken about neighbours are not likely to be immediately forgotten and forgiven. Putin has already been left out of the commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. In fact, there are interesting times ahead, because there is plenty of time before 9 May 2020. There is likely to be an extensive and high-level propaganda war in the name of a new and more truthful history of World War II.
1 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova”. Moscow, 11 July 2019. www.mid.ru/en/press_service/spokesman/briefings/-/content/id/3719228.
2 Toomas Alatalu, “The Lies Need to Be Answered”. Diplomaatia 185–186, February 2019, pp. 10–12.
3 Sputnik, “Eto chush yi naglost trebovat ot nas pokayaniya” – Sergei Ivanov o nachale vtoroi mirovoi, 4 July 2019. https://lv.sputniknews.ru/Russia/20190704/11979909/Eto-chush…
4 “Russia ‘bewildered’ by Poland’s WWII anniversary celebration snub”. The Times of Israel, 21 March 2019. https://www.thetimesofisrael.com/russia-bewildered-by-poland-wwii-anniversary-celebration-snub.
5 Peter Cheremushin, “Russian-Polish relations: A Long Way from Stereotypes to Reconciliation”. Moscow State University, 2003. https://ece.columbia.edu/files/ece/images/ruspol.pdf.
6 Anne Applebaum, “Poland in the Darkness of World War II”. The New Republican, 20 December 2012. https://www.anneapplebaum.com/2012/20/12.
7 Elisabeth Zerofsky, “Is Poland Retreating from Democracy?” The New Yorker, 30 July 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/07/30/is-poland-retreating-from-democracy.
8 The Kremlin, Vstrecha s rossiiskimi zurnalistami. Jekaterinburg, 9 iyulya 2019 goda. kremlin.ru/event/prezident/news/60962.
9 The Kremlin, Intervyu Oliveru Stounu. Moskva, 19 iyulya 2019 goda. kremlin.ru/event/president/news/61057.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.