Archive for August, 2009

Update: Medvedev’s Historical Truth Commission

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

According to Itar-Tass, Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev’s historical truth commission held its first meeting on 28 August.

No surprises.  The emphasis is not actually on getting better access to documents or promoting scholarly analysis of the past, but instead on scoring political points.  The entire exercise is intellectually incoherent, and so it’s no surprise that what’s come out so far makes no sense, at least in terms of its ostensible purpose.

Naryshkin specifically said that the historical approach he’s fighting “aims to revise the geopolitical results of the war.”  But what does that mean?  What are the geopolitical results of the war that might conceivably be revised?  SOVIET borders moved west from what they had been in August 1939, but those borders are now well west of RUSSIA’s frontier, with the limited exception of the Kaliningrad enclave. If the real concern were revising the results of World War II, then we’d be looking at a tussle between Poland and Belarus.  Instead, Belarus-Russia relations have cratered in the last few months.  If anyone outside of Europe’s wingnut right is seriously suggesting the revision of the borders established as a result of World War II, I’ve missed it.  Let’s not forget that the Helsinki Accords, AND Helmut Kohl’s declarations at the end of the Cold War, drew a line under territorial revision in Europe.

In addition, Naryshkin declared he’s dealing with foreign threats–that “Russia, as historic successor of the Soviet Union, is provocatively blamed for events and tragedies of those years, which prepares a base for making claims against our country: political, financial and territorial.”  The remedial actions that he proposed, however, were all internal: how history is taught inside Russia.  That suggests what seems to me to be the true goal of this operation–tapping into Russian nationalism, not actually promoting historical truth.

Eleven Songs about Russian History

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Inspired by GlavKom Scott Palmer’s list of Ten Songs about Airplanes , I have decided to catch up and overtake him with Eleven Songs [Loosely] about Russian History. Limiting myself to English language and rock / pop, I apologize in advance if the link seems somewhat tangential. Not too much to work with.


Bending the needle on the irony detector . . .

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

From Interfax, courtesy of today’s Johnson’s Russia List . . .

Russian Communists protest against ‘one-party monopoly’ on TV 

Moscow, 20 August: About 1,000 activists from the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) and from some other left-wing organizations held a protest campaign (with the slogan) “No to an empire of lies” by the main entrance of the VVTs (All-Russian Exhibition Centre) . . . .

State Duma deputy Vladimir Kashin opened the protest and accused the “backwaters of Ostankino (TV and radio centre)” of brainwashing and misinforming the Russian people.

For his part, (Sergey) Potapov, secretary of the CPRF’s Moscow Committee, said that “a one-party monopoly can be observed on the majority of television channels”. . . .

The Baltics and Geopolitics

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Russian Front Commenter mab asked about a recent document release from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) on the Baltics in World War II.

I’ve finally had time to do a first read of the documents to see what I think they’re intended to show and what they actually do show.  The collection is entitled “The Baltics and Geopolitics” (Pribaltika i geopolitika), available in three parts on the SVR website, at present only in Russian.

No question that this release is connected to the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (early in the morning of August 24, 1939), and not surprisingly Russia’s SVR is releasing this document collection in an effort to shape interpretations of the events of 1939-1941.  This fits quite well, at least in the SVR’s public spin on the documents, with Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev’s efforts to fight what he sees as falsification of the Soviet Union’s role in World War II, efforts that I’ve discussed extensively at the Russian Front, most recently here and here.

According to the SVR, the documents reveal that the Soviet Union had no choice but to enter Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that Britain and France had abandoned any possible alliance with the USSR, and the alliance with Hitler was necessary to prevent German takeover of the Baltic states.

The document collection is quite interesting, but what it tells us is not what we’re told it tells us.  The conclusion that the Soviet Union was forced into an alliance with Nazi Germany simply does not follow from the evidence presented.  It reminds me of Emile Faguet’s parody of Plato (hilariously funny if you’re read the Republic–trust me):

“The whole is greater than the part?”
“And the part is less than the whole?”
“Therefore clearly philosophers should rule the state.”
“It is evident; let us go over it again.” (Hat tip: Will Durant)

While the documents don’t quite hold up to the weight put upon them, what we do learn is nonetheless quite significant.

Most of the pre-war documentation is either Soviet intelligence reports on the policies of the Baltic states, or actual government documents from the Baltic states.  It’s not surprising that the Soviets would have Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian documents, since they occupied those states and could comb their archives at leisure.  What’s striking, though, is that the Soviets seem to have had a VERY good agent in the Finnish foreign ministry, who got them lots of Finnish diplomatic documents in something like real time.  The actual Finnish documents include Soviet cover letters from the time; the Estonian documents, by contrast, have no accompanying covers that would indicate that the Soviets had access to them in 1938-1939 (doc. 26, for example), and so the Estonian documents were likely obtained after occupation.

The actual content of those early documents hits on a number of themes, many but not all of which fit comfortably with current Russian political priorities.  These include German commercial penetration of the Baltic, pro-German attitudes among large segments of the population, and anti-Soviet views, at least in Estonia and Latvia.  The implicit message here that the SVR would like us to take away is that Soviet occupation of the Baltics prevented them from becoming German satellites.  Maybe–one could just as easily argue that the Soviet threat pushed the Baltics toward Germany.

The oddity here is Lithuania–Russia today would probably prefer to paint all the Baltics with a single Nazi-sympathizer brush, but Lithuania followed a somewhat different line.  It shared no border with the Soviet Union, and was quite nervous about Poland, both of which made it more friendly to the USSR.  That didn’t make any difference–it got swallowed up like the others.

There’s an awful lot of documentation of the sovietization of the Baltics.  Two things strike me here.  First, we have a mental picture of the Soviet takeover as a sharp break: the Soviets move in, and everything changes instantaneously.  The process was, in fact, longer and more complex, as the documents show.  Second, the fact that the process of sovietization was not instantaneous makes it much like the later sovietization of Eastern Europe.   A comparative analysis of the process of Soviet takeover in the Baltics 1939-1941 and the Soviet takeover in Eastern Europe 1945-1948 would be quite interesting–twisting and complex paths to a foreordained outcome.

One of the things that’s most striking to me about the documents is what’s not included.  Nearly two-thirds of the documentation comes AFTER 22 June 1941, when the really significant part of the story is over.  There’s much less than I would have liked to see on the key 1939-1941 period.

Most strikingly, and I find this utterly staggering, is that there are NO documents on the period from July 1940 to November 1941.  One or two important things happen in there, but this publication tells us nothing.  If I were Viktor Suvorov (though I’m not), I would be jumping up and down and pointing to this omission as evidence of something to hide: namely Soviet intent to launch aggressive war in 1941.

Russo-Turkish War as World War Zero

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Nice to have John Steinberg as one of our frontoviki.  Welcome aboard, John.

On the issue Steinberg raises of World War Zero–it seems to me it happens quite often in history that  one historian argues “We think of X as the first example of category X; in actuality, earlier event Y is the first example of category X.”  The historian’s natural instinct in response to this (or at least MY natural instinct) is to go back to a still earlier event Z.

Let me throw out one of my favorites: the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War.

How does it measure up against Steinberg’s ten criteria?

1.  Imperialist competition.  Check.
2.  Began in a neutral country .  Check–here I have in mind the war’s origins in the Orthodox states of the Balkans, slowly moving towards autonomy / full independence from the Ottoman Empire.
3. Breakdown of government and humanitarian crisis.  Check–especially the latter.  Atrocities in the Balkans are one of the things that kept British public opinion somewhat more sympathetic to Russia.
4. Lethality of industrial warfare.  Check.  Bruce Menning’s Bayonets before Bullets is particularly good on the impact of breech-loading rifles and improved artillery on the battlefield.
5.  Mass casualties.  Check.
6.  Long battles.  Half-check–field engagements are relatively quick and localized, but sieges draw out at Plevna because of the lethality of modern firepower.
7.  Cost and financial difficulty.  Check, I think.  I don’t happen to know a great deal on the financial side of the war, but the Russian Ministry of Finance was always upset about the state of the ruble.
8. Widespread reporting.  Check.  The Pan-Slavs stir up Russian opinion and get Russian volunteers to the Balkans well before official Russian entry, and reporting of Ottoman atrocities in Western Europe gives Russia useful diplomatic cover.
9.  Peace of exhaustion and seeds of future conflict and 10. Future destabliization.  Emphatically check and check.

AND you can throw in as well that the Russo-Turkish War and World War I started over, to use Bismarck’s phrase, “some damn fool thing in the Balkans,” and even more specifically Serbian nationalism.

To be sure, my argument for the Russo-Japanese War as World War Zero, making the Russo-Japanese War World War Point Five, could easily be overturned by precisely the same method.   I’ll leave it as an exercise for the student to make a case for the Crimean War as the REAL World War Zero.