Vladimir Putin likes to think of himself as a historian. Yet his recent essay – titled “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II” – makes it clear that he’s more of a pamphleteer.
The piece, published in mid-June in The National Interest, a Washington policy journal, is a classic example of how historical events can be twisted to serve contemporary political narratives. Instead of looking at Putin’s essay as a specimen of bad historical writing, it instead should be seen as the Russian president’s desperate effort to stop the progressive erosion of symbolic capital on which his country’s international prestige and global role have largely rested since the end of World War II.
The Russian leader focuses his 9,000 word treatise largely on the causes of the war. He finds the source of the conflict in the “grave injustice” of the Versailles pact that ended the first world war. He also lambasts the League of Nations for “turning a deaf ear to the repeated calls of the Soviet Union to establish an equitable collective security system.” (Putin omits not-so-minor details that would disrupt his “blame-the-Western-powers” narrative. Soviet Russia in the immediate post-World War I era was effectively an agent of global mischief, driven by both ideological inclination and a deep sense of insecurity.)
Putin claims the pivotal moment was the “Munich betrayal” of 1938, during which the Western powers tried to appease Hitler by agreeing to Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment. Putin also casts the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 as a purely defensive act, necessitated by the West’s abandonment of an anti-fascist coalition to contain Nazi tendencies. In doing so, he glosses over the secret provisions that covered Poland’s partition. He also goes on to justify the Soviet occupation of Polish territory in 1939 as a defensive necessity, while blaming Polish leaders at the time for bringing the invasion upon themselves.
He stumbles when describing the Soviet takeover of the Baltic states, claiming that it was “implemented on a contractual basis … with the consent of elected authorities.” What actually happened was that right after Nazi and Soviet forces occupied Poland, the Kremlin coerced the three Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – into signing “mutual assistance” pacts. These treaties allowed for the basing of Soviet forces on Baltic territory while guaranteeing the sovereignty of the three states. The Soviets unilaterally violated the pacts in mid-1940, annexing all three a full year before the Nazi-Soviet peace broke down and Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941. The fact that the Soviets detained and deported over 100,000 Baltic residents immediately after occupying the three states undermines Putin’s claim that annexation was consensual.
The article's aims are abundantly clear: Putin wants to focus global attention on the Soviet Union’s role in ending World War II, not in starting it. He assails as provocative a 2019 European Parliament resolution on the Importance of European Remembrance for the Future of Europe. That resolution, in Putin’s words, “directly accused the USSR together with the Nazi Germany of unleashing the second world war.” He added that such an interpretation sought to destroy the post-war order and discredit the Kremlin’s role in shaping it as a member of the allied coalition that defeated Nazi Germany.
Most professional historians are sceptical about the effectiveness of so-called “memory laws.” Yet the European Parliament resolution should be seen as a manifestation of a change in understanding that goes back at least 30 years. The tectonic shifts in European geopolitics caused by Communism’s collapse and the Soviet breakup in 1991 inevitably led to the changes in the European memory landscape. The unraveling of the Eastern bloc, the unification of Germany and subsequent EU enlargement had the effect of scrambling the historical consensus that existed during the Cold War.
It’s a truism that history is written by the victors. Accordingly, two main historical narratives about World War II dominated in Europe for decades after 1945 – one advanced by the Western Allies, the other by the Soviets. These narratives had quite a lot in common; both highlighted the glorious victory over Nazi Germany, successful postwar reconstruction and the long period of postwar peace and economic achievement. The ideological differences that set the capitalist West apart from the communist Eastern bloc served to drown out variations of these two basic historical narratives. But the end of the Cold War made it possible for some of Europe’s smaller “mnemonic communities” to reassert their divergent views of recent history.
Efforts by some new EU members to correct the memory map immediately drew Moscow’s ire because these versions called into question the Soviet Union’s/Russia’s self-understanding, prestige, and international status. Indeed, most Central European nations, in particular Poland and the Baltic States, now view the wartime and postwar period as a “useable past” – crucial for strengthening identity, giving a boost to populist nationalism, externalizing the Communist past, and casting their particular nations as hapless victims of two totalitarian dictatorships.
The traditional, boiled-down narratives concerning World War II characterized it as a global struggle between good and evil – with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan filling the roles of evil protagonists. In the evolving, new narrative, though, the picture is more nuanced: The war has come to be interpreted not only as a contest between good and evil, but also as a struggle between freedom and tyranny.
Accordingly, two notions particularly cherished by Russians, namely, the idea of the triumph of anti-fascist good over the Nazi evil and of the Red Army’s “liberation” of Central Europe and the Baltics – have come under attack. The new interpretations make little distinction between German fascism and Soviet communism and reject Russia’s claim to be a liberator of Europe. These new narratives go on to brand Soviet post-war policies in Central Europe as an act of occupation.
What is unfolding today is a clash of two very different notions of liberation. In the European Union (and, for that matter, the United States), the liberation of Europe after the defeat of the Nazis is inseparably associated with the concept of democracy. Such an interpretation presupposes that whatever the Soviet Union did in the eastern half of Europe could be described as anything but “liberation.”
Putin, in his essay, avoids mention of the ruthless methods that the Kremlin employed before, during and after World War II to build its “outer empire” in Eastern Europe. Instead, he accuses his perceived opponents “in the West” of “historical revisionism.”
Ultimately, the essay can be read as a cri de coeur by Putin, who longs for the Western powers to go along with a geopolitical update – a Yalta 2.0. Putin and other Russian leaders are probably worried, and perhaps rightfully so, that Russia isn’t keeping pace in the Digital Age and is losing international relevance. While Russia is obviously still a formidable military power, it is increasingly an economic lightweight dependent on the export of raw materials, especially oil and gas, to generate revenue.
Putin wants the rest of the world to overlook Russia’s present, diminished economic condition, and remember the country as the great power that drove the Nazis back to Berlin. He also appears to lack a compelling vision for the future: thus, a “glorious past” is the only symbolic resource he can rely on.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, Sweden.