History: Condemning totalitarianism of all colours
21 August 2009
The 23rd August is "European Day of Rememberance for the Victims of Nazism and Stalinism", to condemn totalitarianism. A noble cause perhaps, but one which has provoked controversy in Russia, where Stalin is still a national hero. They point out that Russia in fact saved many lives threatened by Nazism. Yet the Russians remain cagey about their Soviet Union archives, a stumbling block for ex-Soviet states to really understand their totalitarian pasts.
In Vilnius in July, 20 years after the collapse of communist regimes in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) passed a resolution entitled "Divided Europe Reunited." The OSCE document, which was hardly reported by the press, acknowledges "the uniqueness of the Holocaust," and notes that "in the twentieth century European countries experienced two major totalitarian regimes, Nazi and Stalinist, which brought about genocide, violations of human rights and freedoms, war crimes and crimes against humanity." It further recommends that member countries "clearly and unequivocally condemn totalitarianism" (one of the stipulations of the 1990 Copenhagen Document), on the basis that "an awareness of history" will help "to prevent the recurrence of similar crimes in the future." It was adopted by large majority of delegates – 202 of the 214 present – in spite of vehement opposition from Russia.
The OSCE initiative parallels the European Parliament resolution on "European conscience and totalitarianism" passed in April, which chose to establish a "European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Nazism and Stalinism" on 23 August – which also happens to be the the anniversary of the signature of 1930 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. It is not a coincidence that the EU has decided to honour the memory of the victims of deportation and mass extermination on a day that establishes a link between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Placing Nazism on the same level as Communism is identified as an important step in the "European conscience and totalitarianism" text, which also calls for the opening up of secret police and intelligence agency archives, and the adoption of wide-reaching measures to facilitate research and the re-examination of the past.
Russia "against falsification of history" refuses to open archives
Russia reacted strongly to the "A Divided Europe Reunited" resolution, which a spokesman for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs described as "an unacceptable attempt to distort history for political goals." The Russian parliament also issued a statement condemning the resolution as "a direct insult to the memory of millions of Russian soldiers" who "gave their lives to liberate Europe from Nazi domination." For the Russians, Stalin is still a real hero. For the peoples of Eastern Europe, he is responsible supporting communist regimes with blood on their hands.
Russia's outrage at the equation of Stalinist and Nazi regimes reflects a reluctance to come to terms with its totalitarian past, which is also evident in the revival of the Soviet tradition for the organisation of massive military parades. Among other post-communist states, Russia has also been the one that has made least effort to take responsibility for the crimes of communism (and that includes Stalinist communism) – on the contrary the current administration has even sought to reinforce the structures of the former KGB and their control of the political process. It also responded to what it perceives as academic aggression with the establishment of a "Commission to counter the falsification of history to the detriment of Russia's interests" in May 2009. It is on this basis that the Russian Academy of Sciences has now sent an official order to the directors of its institutes in its history and philology section demanding an annotated list of cultural-historical falsifications in their fields of study and proposals for the scientific confutation of the falsifications in question.
With its call for the opening of archives, the OSCE resolution draws attention to the policy of Russia, which has yet to grant access to its secret police records. Not only does this situation affect the work of Russian historians, but it also hampers the research of their colleagues in former Soviet republics. When they withdrew in 1991, KGB staff took all of the most important documents from the former Soviet republics back to Moscow, and in so doing, denied the citizens of those countries the right to understand their recent past. Since its independence, post-communist Estonia has only had access to secret police catalogue files, but no access to the reports to which they refer. The catalogue files list names, but do not specify if the people concerned were informers or surveillance targets – and a critical need for access to further data is highlighted by the fact that a number of politicians' names have been discovered in these catalogue files. In Lithuania, the KGB removed almost all of the archives from Vilnius, but historians have been able to conduct research using documents from other KGB document sources outside the city. Notwithstanding these differences, all of the Baltic states would benefit from a better understanding of their history if they were granted access to the Soviet archives in Moscow.