On Aug. 31, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin published an open letter in which, for the first time, he condemned as immoral the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided much of Eastern Europe into Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence. But despite this significant and surprising departure from Russia's old policies, rather than signal a new era of conciliation seven decades after Stalin's deal with Hitler, Putin's essay, recently republished in Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza, suggests a worrying remnant of Soviet thinking.
While his tone is softer than in the past, Putin never apologizes to the Polish people for Soviet actions in World War II. Indeed, his predecessor Boris Yeltsin's gestures of atonement were more significant. Putin instead suggests that the Soviet Union had little choice but to strike a deal with Nazi Germany and blames instead the rise of Hitler and Nazi power on the humiliation the Treaty of Versailles placed on Germany as well as France and Britain's earlier pacts with Hitler. As misguided as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier may have been, London and Paris were motivated by peace; Moscow by seizing land to expand Soviet territory.
For the first time, Putin acknowledged the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn. "Together [with the Polish people], we must keep alive the memory of the victims of this crime," he wrote. However, Putin then immediately diminished the true significance of this crime to the Polish people espousing a revised version of history. "Katyn and Mednoye memorials, just as the tragic fate of the Russian soldiers taken prisoners in Poland during the 1920 war, should become symbols of common grief and mutual pardon."
Equivalency between the episodes is unwarranted. The Red Army soldiers captured toward the end of the Russian civil war died in an epidemic, albeit one exacerbated by poor conditions in prisoner of war camps. The same epidemic killed many Polish soldiers. As deaths mounted, Polish authorities worked to improve conditions. The situation was far different from the Soviet secret police's (NKVD) deliberate slaughter of disarmed soldiers. True reconciliation cannot be built on historical distortions.
Alas, in the Russian leaders' recent statements, this whitewash of history has become the rule rather than the exception, even as analysts and Russians alike contrast Putin's new liberal tone of Putin with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's authoritarian one.
On Aug. 31, The Moscow Times reported that Medvedev proposed to introduce a standard history textbook. "There are many textbooks nowadays, and they give completely different views of history that can cause the head to spin," he explained, "This is bad because the result will be that schoolchildren's heads will turn to kasha."
Sergei Naryshkin, chief of staff in the Kremlin, leads a commission whose primary task is curriculum standardization. The Education and Science Ministry approved Anatoly Danilov, Alexander Utkin and Alexander Filippov "The History of Russia from 1945 to 2008 for 11th Graders." Not only does the textbook justify Stalin's crimes, but adoration for Soviet regime is a constant theme, as is the glory of Putin.
According to a Moscow Times op-ed by opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, a final chapter written by Pavel Danilin, a presidium member of Young Guard, the pro-Kremlin youth movement, dedicated to Putin's reign fails to find any faults of his time in power. Ryzhkov writes, "It is safe to assume that the Danilov book, with a circulation of 510,000 copies, will be read by the overwhelming majority of the country's 11th graders."
The Russian academy does not appear willing to defend academic freedom or critical thought. On Sept. 1, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that Alexander Danilov, director of the school of history of Moscow Pedagogical University and author of a series of school textbooks, believes students should be taught the "standard, if you will, state point of view the on the development of the country."
On Sept. 1, international media focused on commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. On the same day, Russian students began the school year. While world leaders marked the close of a dark chapter in history, Moscow dictates that the chapter not only remains open, but also rewritten and the lessons unlearned.