While May 1945 brought the end of World War II in Europe, it did not bring freedom to all of Europe. Following the Soviet “liberation” of Central and Eastern Europe, these countries remained under the rule of oppressive communist regimes for almost 50 years. On May 8, the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, CEPA hosted a panel discussion on Russia’s current campaign to distort memory. CEPA president and CEO Alina Polyakova moderated, and the ambassadors of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine to the United States weighed in.
Key takeaways from the discussion (paraphrased and condensed for clarity):
While most of Europe celebrates Victory Day on May 8, Russia continues the Soviet tradition of celebrating on May 9. The introduction of Russia’s contrasting commemoration date under Stalin birthed Russia’s myth of the “Great Patriotic War” and delineated the Soviet Union’s opposition to Western democratic states.
Today the Kremlin’s politics of memory replicate the Soviet paradigm of history. The “Great Patriotic War” myth is fundamental to Russia’s national identity and serves a propagandistic purpose. It was the Soviet victory in World War II that elevated the USSR to superpower status; now Russia’s sacralization of its victory legitimizes its great power aspirations and foreign policy agenda. In 2014 the Kremlin labeled Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests as an “illegitimate fascist coup” to justify its annexation of Crimea. As with the to Soviet “liberation” and annexation of the Baltics, the Kremlin claims that its actions in Crimea were to protect its ethnic Russian population.
This is not the first time the Kremlin has utilized narratives claiming historical grounds to justify their actions in Ukraine. It pushes the narrative that Russians and Ukrainians constitute “one people” who have been artificially separated and are in need of unification. Such statements work to deprive Ukrainians of their statehood and sovereignty, as it challenges Ukraine’s prewar history in favor of its history under Soviet occupation.
Russia has also made efforts to distort World War II memory in the international community. In December of last year, Putin accused Poland of being responsible for World War II, after Poland pushed a European Parliament resolution holding both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union accountable for the war’s outbreak. The “Russianization” of the Katyń memorial has also served to mask Soviet responsibility in the tragedy. Likewise, in April of this year Russia announced that it would consider filing criminal charges against representatives of other countries where World War II memorials commemorating the actions of Soviet Union are being demolished.
Often in history, it is the victor’s side that gets remembered. Russia uses that reality to their advantage. We cannot deny that the Soviet Union faced the brunt of the war, and played a major role in its victory. However, the Soviet Union (let alone modern Russia) did not “liberate” Europe. This term is misleading and allows Moscow to whitewash its past crimes, while continuing to stand on a moral pedestal.
The Kremlin clings to the Stalinist interpretation of history for one primary reason: the truth of Eastern and Central Europe’s postwar history is an existential threat to the Putin regime. Putin understands that only if the Kremlin continues to deny its own horrors of World War II can Russia accept Putinism, a regime so similar to the country’s authoritarian Soviet past. Only with acceptance, can Russia make strides towards democracy.
This does not mean we should ignore the Soviet Union’s contributions to World War II. Every country has its own narrative of history, and oftentimes those narratives clash with one another. We must work to find a platform where every country’s interpretation of history can be shared and acknowledged.
Krystyna Sikora was an intern at CEPA.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.