70 years on, Nazi pact still troubles Russia

24th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

The pact, inked by the Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers, effectively carved up Poland and the Baltic States between the two powers and allowed Adolf Hitler to start World War II confident the Soviet Union would not intervene.

Moscow -- The Nazi-Soviet pact, signed on August 23, 1939 just a week before World War II, remains an awkward episode for modern Russia as it seeks full recognition for its contribution in defeating the Third Reich.

The pact, inked by the Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers, effectively carved up Poland and the Baltic States between the two powers and allowed Adolf Hitler to start World War II confident the Soviet Union would not intervene.

It is condemned by Western historians as a cynical bid by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to grab territory while staying out of the looming conflict but many Russian experts still praise the deal as an example of canny realpolitik.

Discussion of the pact remains almost completely absent from speeches on the war by Russia's leaders, who in the last months have lamented that the memory of Soviet heroism in World War II is being neglected in Europe.

Unsurprisingly, no mention of the pact was made when President Dmitry Medvedev met his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres this week and again lambasted attempts to "revise" the history of World War II.

The 70th anniversary of the pact on Sunday is largely being marked in Russia through media articles seeking to justify the decision to sign a pact with a regime that on June 22, 1941 would invade the Soviet Union.

Russian media and officials have portrayed the pact as a clever move that allowed the Soviet Union an extra two years to prepare for war and to protect Soviet cities from the invasion by shifting the Soviet borders westwards.

"The pact was opportunist, indispensable, legitimate in the conditions of the time and realistic in terms of strategic policy," said Yuli Kvitsinsky, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee.

"In Stalin's place, any Western politician would have done the same thing."

The Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) in a rare move issued a commentary on documents which it said showed the pact was needed to prevent Hitler gaining control of the Baltic States as a springboard to attack the Soviet Union.

"In the circumstances, the one possible measure of self-defence that the Soviet Union could make was an agreement of non-aggression pact with Germany," SVR retired Major General Lev Sotskov told the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily.

The government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said that "70 years ago, Moscow's diplomacy succeeded in delaying the start of the Great Patriotic War by two years," referring to the German invasion in 1941.

But for the Baltic States, later incorporated into the Soviet Union, and Poland, which lost swathes of its historic territory, the agreement is a bitter reminder of the excesses of Stalin's rule.

A controversial resolution approved by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe parliamentary assembly last month even suggested making the August 23 anniversary a memorial day for victims of Nazism and Stalinism.

For leading Russian historian Alexander Chubaryan, the pact is another example of a political cynicism which was also exhibited by the notorious Munich agreement signed by Britain, France and Italy with Hitler in 1938.

"I think it's important to talk about lessons," Chubaryan, director of the institute of world history at the Russian Academy of Science, said at a conference on the pact organised by the state news agency RIA Novosti.

"I think all the protagonists -- Britain, the Soviet Union and France -- thought more about their own national interests and clearly underestimated the utter threat of fascism for their own countries and the whole world."

The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty contained two main parts. One section -- which was made public -- pledged that both powers would do everything to avert war with each other and also vowed to increase bilateral trade.

However the so-called secret protocols of the pact have proved even more controversial as they divided the territory between the two states into spheres of influence.

Finland, Estonia and Latvia went to the USSR while Lithuania and most of Poland went to the German sphere of influence.

Hitler then invaded Poland on September 1, triggering World War II. In a lesser known military operation, the Red Army invaded eastern Poland shortly afterwards on September 17.

"I don't believe that history offers set morals but it does show what shouldn't be done," said Arnd Bauerkaemper, professor at the Berlin School for Comparative European History.

"The pact did not start World War II but it made Hitler's decision easier as it gave him the illusion that the Western powers would not intervene in favour of Poland."


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