Europe.view nr 178
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Apr 8th 2010
Russia attempts to resolve disputes with its neighbours over Soviet-era crimes
AS THIS column noted recently, the era of “therapeutic historiography” is drawing to a close in central and eastern Europe (with the odd exception). The Russian authorities are also trying to clean up, at least in part, their country’s most toxic historical debris.
One remarkable sign is that state-run Russian television has just screened Andrzej Wajda’s extraordinary film “Katyn”, which epitomises both Soviet atrocity and the lies that followed. Accompanying Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, at a commemoration ceremony to mark the 1940 killings (see below), Vladimir Putin even publicly expressed qualified regret, if not quite an apology, for the massacre—a huge shift given the disgusting falsehoods pushed in official and semi-official media in recent years.
That is part of a pattern. In Budapest in 2006, at the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising, Mr Putin said: “Certainly modern Russia is not the Soviet Union, but I must tell you frankly that in our hearts we feel a certain moral responsibility for these events.” On the same trip he went to the Czech Republic and said, of the 1968 Soviet invasion, “While of course there is no legal responsibility here…a moral responsibility exists. It could not be any other way.” In 2009 he told Poles that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was “inadmissible from the moral point of view and from the practical, political point of view…senseless, detrimental and dangerous.”
This is still a long way short of German-style Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past). Russia has paid no compensation to the foreign victims of Stalinism (and little to its own citizens). Rows over looted property remain unresolved. (Estonia’s presidential seal is one of many such “souvenirs” illegally in Russian hands). Shamefully, many historical archives remain sealed.
But mild regret and an appeal to pragmatism are a step forward. Czechs, Hungarians and Poles have accepted compromises over history in order to have normal relations with Russia. Ukraine, under its new president, Viktor Yanukovich, may strike a similar deal; Mr Yanukovich will find it much
easier to find a common language with Mr Putin than did his predecessor, the divisive and discredited Viktor Yushchenko. On the other hand, Mr Yanukovych, often seen as “pro-Russian”, needs to be careful not to appear a soft touch.
That leaves the Baltic states, where the demand for justice about the past is still burning. Their forcible annexation into the Soviet Union in 1940 was one of the clearest and most outrageous consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
But the ground is shifting. Russia is flirting with Lithuania, where President Dalia Grybauskaitė is convinced that her personal touch can bring a breakthrough in relations. A deal looks possible: Russia could express “regret” (not “apology”) for the “incorporation” (not “occupation”) in 1940, and offer a favourable trade deal. In return Lithuania could drop demands for compensation. If Latvia followed suit, Estonia would be impossibly isolated. If Ukraine goes for “normalisation” too, that would be game, set and match to the Kremlin.
Smugness and evasion over history are widespread in Europe. Britain, to take one example, habitually wallows in a nostalgic and misleading version of its own past. But it is hard not to feel that an opportunity is being missed. The horrors of Soviet rule, and the memory of its victims, deserve more than a convenient political fix. The greatest victims of Stalinism were arguably Russians—in more ways than one. Brave Russians who still demand that their rulers face up to the awful past may feel let down if others settle for half-truths.