Putin’s Take on the Past is Self-serving
In another context it would be called “gaslighting”: making the victim of persecution doubt their sense of reality. That is what Vladimir Putin is doing to the countries that suffered the brunt of Soviet imperialism. Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine have no cause for complaint. They should be grateful to their liberators and protectors. They should feel guilty for causing the war in the first place.
That is the real lesson of the Russian leader’s lengthy essay published last week in the National Interest. For historians, the essay is surprising, though not because it reveals anything about the past. It does say a lot about the way in which the Russian leader looks at it. He spends a lot of time highlighting well-known mistakes in Western diplomacy, but skates over the Soviet leadership’s failings. The attack on Poland on September 17, 1939, for example, is given this contorted justification: that the Soviet Union had been assigned an even larger slice of the country under its deal with Hitler. Yet it also argues that the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland was protective. So was the intervention bad or good? Moscow is silent.
Despite diligent research, Mr. Putin’s flawed methodology and evident bias means that his offering is unlikely to form the basis of a doctorate at a reputable university. For political science departments, it forms an interesting text, though not in the way that the Russian leader might like. Putin’s obsession with history has deep roots (Astrid Kannel, an Estonian journalist, provoked him to fury on the subject at a press conference in 2005 by asking him why the Soviet Union could not apologize for occupying the Baltic states). He outlined his main thesis at a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States last year. Western countries (and Poland) are hypocritical. The Soviet Union was in a tough position. The heroism of the wartime struggle legitimizes Russia’s great power status now.
The motivation in all this is fairly obvious. One aim is to set the stage for the delayed 75th anniversary celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Another is to stoke national pride in the run-up to the referendum on the constitutional amendments that would allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. The historical revisionism may also prompt some friendly echoes in the West, particularly among those who (like Putin) hanker for a return to the great-power diplomacy of the Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences.
The real question is how to respond. It is tempting to issue a meticulous, point-by-point rebuttal. The Munich agreement in which Britain and France colluded in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia was shameful, but it is not the counterpart to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Poland’s seizure of Teschen from Czechoslovakia is more complicated than it seems. The Anglo-Japanese deal in 1939 was about the particular issue of the Tientsin settlement: it did not give the imperial authorities in Tokyo free rein in China. And so on, down to the last dot and comma of diplomatic nuance.
But Putin’s aim is not to win an academic argument. It is to stoke a political one, setting the agenda in terms of slogans about bad Nazis and heroic Russians. These resonate among those who have no real interest in the historical facts. As well as legitimizing his rule in Russia, and Russia’s role in the world, the third aim is to delegitimize countries that see history differently. We do not counter that attack with historical footnotes, but with cultural diplomatic, economic, and social success stories in the present. Their scarcity in Russia is one reason that Putin turns to history.
June 22, 2020