By Marcus Kolga, Aug. 23, 2017
In many ways, Aug. 23 marks the 78th anniversary of the start of the Second World War.
On this day, in 1939, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin signed a friendship pact that included a secret protocol carving up Central and Eastern Europe between them. The treaty, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, formally triggered the start of the Second World War as it facilitated a collaborative joint Nazi-Soviet attack and occupation of Poland and later the illegal Soviet annexation of the Baltic States.
Anyone mentioning these historical facts in Russia today risks a fine and even imprisonment in the repressive reality that historians and journalists living in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are forced to endure.
In 2014, Putin signed a Russian law that criminalizes “the denial of the facts” and anything the Kremlin determines as the “dissemination of deliberately false information on the activities of the Soviet Union during the Second World War.”
In 2016, a courageous Russian blogger named Vladimir Luzgin was fined $3,887 by a regional court in Perm for having violated the law that criminalizes anything but the Kremlin’s version of history. Luzhin’s crime? Stating that “the communists and Germany jointly invaded Poland.”
Last week, the Russian ministry of foreign affairs accused Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, of historical “forgery” and “insulting remarks” when he commented about Soviet and Nazi collaboration when the two regimes attacked his country in 1939. Like Luzgin, the Polish minister could also be charged with speaking the truth about Hitler’s and Stalin’s cooperation and the terrifying darkness of Soviet occupation that most of Central and Eastern Europe was kept under until 1991.
Any mention of Soviet-Nazi collaboration conflicts with Putin’s version of Russian history. In Putin’s world, Stalin was the hero who liberated Europe and under whose leadership, the occupied Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus and other Soviet satellites, prospered thanks to Soviet benevolence. Putin has crafted himself as Stalin’s heir, and as such, there’s little room for the “truth” about the 30 million who were murdered by Stalin’s regime, let alone any other inconvenient fact about Soviet occupation or mass repression.
The core historical truths that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is central to represent the greatest threats to Putin’s manufactured history. From it follow the coordinated Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland in September 1939 and, shortly thereafter, the Soviet military occupation of the Baltic States. After staging referendums in the Baltic States to join the Soviet Union in August 1940, all three were swallowed into the Soviet Union without a single shot being fired.
The Soviet occupation dealt a devastating blow to Estonia’s ethnic minorities, whose rights were enshrined in its uniquely progressive constitution that gave minorities broad autonomous rights. Under Soviet occupation, ethnic and religious minorities, including Jews, were no longer allowed an independent voice; they pre-empted the future Nazi occupiers by liquidating and banning culturally autonomous groups and their organizations.
In June 1941, Soviet authorities rounded up tens of thousands of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians and deported them to distant Gulag slave labour camps. Thousands died in inhumane conditions as they were transported for weeks with little food or water across the vast Russian interior.
When Nazi forces invaded the Baltics and eastern Poland in 1941, the murderous repression that the Soviet-Nazi pact had imposed took on new symbols: the swaztika and iron cross, but little else changed.
As Stalin’s armies forced the Nazi retreat in 1944, hundreds of thousands of Europeans fled west, fearing the return of Soviet occupation. Nearly every family in the Baltic States was touched by Nazi or Soviet terror – many by both. The unbearable possibility of arbitrary detention, deportation, torture and even execution forced hundreds of thousands to flee to Sweden and areas in Germany, temporarily occupied by the Western Allies.
Unlike the western European nations that were liberated by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and their Allies, Eastern and Central Europe were forced to endure nearly 50 additional years of occupation, repression and terror at the hands of the Soviet Union.
Throughout the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of war refugees, fleeing Soviet and Nazi terror, found safety in Canada, where they and their families continue to make important contributions to the Canada we know today.
In Canada and the entire free world, we must fortify our resolve to recognize the Kremlin’s relentless attacks on facts and truth. On Aug. 23, we must reject Putin’s ongoing falsification of history and never allow the victims of Soviet and Nazi occupation and terror to be forgotten.
Marcus Kolga is a documentary filmmaker and a human rights advocate. An expert on Baltic Sea region and Russian foreign policy, he is the publisher of UpNorth.eu and is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Foreign Policy Centre.