This morning, Vladimir Putin is meeting his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, in Smolensk at the site of the Katyn massacre, which is 70-years-old today.
In my next post, I’d like to survey the public reaction to and interpretation of today’s event, but – for now, until all the commentary is in – let’s look back at last year’s event in Gdańsk, where Putin met Tusk in Poland to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the German invasion. Though many in the media and thinkosphere will undoubtedly try to read into this year’s Katyn memorial some kind of Medvedevian thaw, I expect that Putin’s remarks will be largely consistent with those he delivered in 2009.
And what did he say a year ago?
In Gdańsk, Putin caused a stir by first apologizing for and then defending the Soviet role in the war. The reactions to Putin’s narration of events suggested two basic things: (1) WWII is alive and well as an issue that continues to inspire some extremely unattractive moral calculus, and (2) the West and Russia continue to remember the war in fundamentally different ways. I’d argue that we in the West appear to be interested mainly in projecting blame, whereas the Russians prefer to spread it.
Before Putin appeared in Poland last year, he published an op-ed in Wyborcza (translated here) laying out his views on history. Wyborcza’s chief editor rejected Putin’s comparison of the USSR’s invasion of Poland to the Polish Army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia the year before, arguing essentially that Polish occupiers are more historically absolved because they committed no massacres. Polish historian Bogdan Mushchal called it a “subtle provocation” to compare, as Putin did, the Katyn massacre to Polish POW camps in the 1920 Soviet-Polish War. These comments were reposted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which itself maintained that Polish-Russian relations are doomed until the Kremlin gives up its defense of Stalin. Oleg Khlebnikov listed the details of Nazi-Soviet military collusion in 1939, arguing that Stalin as good as joined the war against Britain, whereas Yaroslav Shumov accepted the various demonizations of Nazi-Soviet dealings, but asked, “Despite all the ‘buts,’ was [ultimate liberation] not beneficial for the Polish people?”
Notably, the word “tragic” appeared five times in Putin’s article. For him (and for most Russians), the Munich Agreement, together with the West’s ambivalence about realizing an antifascist alliance, justified the Soviets’ worst suspicions: not only was Western Europe aiming to sit out the conflict, but it was attempting to divert Hitler to the east. Added to this equation was a total disregard for the sovereignty of the small, buffer states recently emerged from the imperial ashes of the Great War. (Indeed, neither the Czechs nor the Soviets were invited to Munich.) The ‘logical Soviet reaction’ was to strike a deal with Hitler that would return his attentions to France and Britain. That this deal destroyed a handful of tiny, fairly new nations was hardly unprecedented, as Europe had only just sacrificed Czechoslovakia.
To some, this seems to equate Western appeasement with the far worse crime of Soviet occupation. “There’s nastiness and then there’s nastiness,” Kremlin-critic Leonid Radzikhovskii wrote. The tragedy for Putin, however, is not that Munich was as bad as the non-aggression pact, or that the Poles’ aggression against the Czechs justified Soviet aggression against Poland. The argument outlined by the prime minister, it seems to me, is that this chain of events is linked and that blame is horizontal.
It will be interesting to see how people receive Putin’s speech today.