Be it Putin, Stalin or a tsar, Russia repeats its crimes and lies. That is why Moscow’s imperialism must end forever – on the occasion of the Victory in Europe write Members of the European Parliament Anna Fotyga, a former minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland and Rasa Jukneviciene, a former Minister of Defence of Lithuania, Anna Fotyga and Rasa Juknevičienė wrote in a commentary in Euractive.com.
In August 1939, the leadership of the Soviet Union and the German Reich signed an alliance with the aim to conquer and divide Europe and thereafter invaded their neighbours. Six years later Nazi Germany was defeated and their atrocities were revealed and condemned during the Nuremberg trials. The Soviet Union, from the war it started as an aggressor, ended the war regarded as an ally, rewarded with new territories, reaching far above those outlined in the notorious Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and subsequent German–Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty. Moscow accomplished what it was unable to do in 1920 when the Bolsheviks were stopped at the outskirts of Warsaw. It took fifty years for freedom to return to our countries and Russian soldiers to leave our territories. Nobody ever invited them and nobody cried when they left.
On the contrary, 8/9 May 1945 was never a day of freedom in our part of Europe. The Soviet Union and their local servants didn’t cease oppression. A hundred days after the end of the war in Europe, simultaneously with the Big Three conference in Potsdam, Soviet soldiers were perpetrating what was to remain Europe’s greatest post-war crime until Srebrenica in 1995. Soviet forces conducted a major pacification operation in the Polish-Lithuanian borderland, the Augustow Roundup. Hundreds of Poles and Lithuanians were never heard of again. Until now, the Russian Federation rejects any requests for legal assistance and denies access to the archives. Those brave historians, members of Memorial, who were searching for the truth, were silenced. An invisible link between Soviet GRU and NKVD and current Russian leadership is visible also in this community of crime. The legacy of genocide is transferred from generation to generation, regardless of state political order. The West needed the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler but wrongly decided to please its conscience with silence over Soviet crimes. There was a deafening silence about the Hitler-Stalin alliance and Soviet crimes, with the most symbolic one in Katyn. There were no Nuremberg trials for the Soviet Union’s unpunished crimes. They were allowed to call themselves the liberators of Europe, despite having committed the same horrendous crimes in the territories they occupied. The exact same narrative is repeated today in Ukraine; the same unimaginable atrocities follow. The Russian occupation and crimes cannot be unknown pages of contemporary history of Central and Eastern Europe.
The world should be aware that the anti-communist resistance never stopped. Hundreds of thousands of freedom fighters, including the ‘Forest Brothers”, “Cursed soldiers” and others opposed Russian rule in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania across territories of Ukraine and Belarus. Those were not sporadic or isolated efforts. Tens of thousands of Poles from different political and social backgrounds did not lay down their weapons when the war ended. Given the scale of the phenomenon, some historians even use the term “anti-communist uprising.” Lithuanian partisan movement had established a full governance structure, later recognised as the legitimate post-war government of the country. Jonas Žemaitis-Vytautas, the official leader of the Movement for the Struggle for Lithuanian Freedom, tortured and burned to death in the Butryka prison in 1954, has been officially recognized as the President of Lithuania. The resistance persisted across Soviet-occupied lands. Józef Franczak “Lalek”, the last of the Polish cursed soldiers, was killed in 1963. His beheaded body was buried in an unmarked grave, the same way leaders of the anti-Russian uprising in XIX century Kastuś Kalinoŭski were clandestinely buried by the Tsarist authorities on the site of a military fortress on top of the Gediminas Hill in Vilnius. They tried to strip freedom fighters of their dignity, but also their right to remembrance. They failed. In 2017, Kalinowski’s remains were excavated and identified, and solemnly reinterred in the Rasos Cemetery in 2019. It was a great manifestation of the spirit of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Contrary to the aim of Tsarist Russia, his spirit serves as inspiration for the brave people of Belarus and their fight for a sovereign and democratic country. These days, Belarusian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine formed a battalion named Kastuś Kalinoŭski. These struggles are primarily a struggle for values.
The decision to exterminate Polish soldiers in Katyn forests, but also those imprisoned in Kharkiv and Kyiv, was committed by the highest levels of Soviet leadership. Similarly, the decision to brutally exterminate the residents of Bucha, Irpin or Hostomel was made by Putin and his closest entourage. The way decisions are made, why they are made, and the way they are carried out, remains largely unchanged. The same forced deportations of Ukrainians to remote parts of Siberia and Central Asia remind the fate of millions of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles, Crimean Tatars or Romanians who were punished this way by Russian tsars or communists leaders. Just like the Red Army raped, tortured, and killed millions of women in Soviet-occupied areas, be it in Lviv, Konigsberg, Kaunas, Cracow or Budapest, so do the Russian soldiers rape and brutalize Ukrainian women and children today. Shocking pictures from recently liberated Ukrainian towns remind us of indiscriminate killings and mutilation of civilians by withdrawing troops nearly a century ago.
Answering Putin’s false historical narratives, we would like to remind the fate of Witold Pilecki, a Polish resistance fighter, who volunteered to go to Auschwitz to start a resistance, sent secret messages to the Allies, becoming the first to sound the alarm about the true nature of Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp. He was arrested by communist authorities in 1947, tortured repeatedly and executed as an enemy of the state the next year. We hear stories of Holocaust survivors who are being killed by Russian shellings, like Boris Romanchenko killed in Kharkiv or Vanda Semyonovna Obiedkova died sheltering in a freezing basement during the Mariupol siege. Russia’s dictator demonstrates his strength also against the Russian people Yelena Osipova, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War, for protesting against Putin’s war in St Petersburg.
Putin, in his aggressive speeches of 22 and 24 February 2022, which were filled with false historical narratives, portrayed their aggression against Ukraine as a pre-emptive strike against imaginary Western aggression and as a decisive battle to protect Russia’s imperial hold over Europe’s East. It recalls the most dreadful statements of 20th-century dictators and echoes the justification of Soviet aggression on Poland in September 1939. What was officially called in 1939 the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in fact, was a declaration of war. What Moscow called liberation in 1945, was in fact another occupation, and what Russia calls a special military operation in 2022, is in fact a war of aggression where the ‘Russian liberators’ turned out to be rapists, bandits and looters.
Therefore, it is no wonder that Putin himself started campaigning to rehabilitate the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, distort historical facts and whitewash crimes committed by the Soviet regime. Perhaps it is ironic that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the only agreement Moscow kept and still feels obliged to fulfil. Putin’s path and decision, link the Kremlin with the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia with its obsession with imperial dominance. In the European Parliament, we were successful to reject his lies. Our resolution of 19 September 2019 on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe sent a clear message that we won’t accept any attempts to manipulate history. Societies of the free world reject Putin’s justifications of aggression against Ukraine.
Has Russia changed? Are there any differences between the atrocities of Stalin and Putin? Do the mass graves in Katyn not reflect what we see in Bucha?
A key component of Russian imperialism has been to exterminate other nations that refuse to be assimilated or subjugated. Atrocities committed in Ukraine reveal the nature of Putin’s Russia, just as Katyn laid bare the real Stalinism. Be it Putin, Stalin or a tsar, Russia repeats its crimes and lies. That’s why Moscow’s imperialism must end forever. Peace in Europe, but also the well-being of the people of Russia, depends not only on the removal of Putin, and deviation from “Putinism” as a model of governance but also deimperialization. Any reconciliation is possible only between free peoples. It also requires breakthrough gestures, accepted not only by the victims but first, by the nation suffering under an oppressive dictator. Reparations and admission of all atrocities are essential for reconciliation. Today, “Never Again” must be real. History repeats itself when crimes are not recognised and evaluated.
The transformation of Russia into a democracy will depend on the determination of the Russian people to fight for a democratic Russia. Without such deep and lasting change, the ‘Victory Day’ celebrations for 8/9s of May will remain a hollow crib performed to renew imperial conceptions of a tsar, Stalin or Putin, for too long well known as a prison of nations.