14 May 2007

Not dead, not even past

In the wake of the Bronze Soldier crisis in Estonia, the Russian government is now apparently contemplating establishing special offices in its embassies in several eastern European countries for the purpose of protecting Soviet war memorials and graves in those countries. What specific actions these offices would be expected to take to this end is unclear, but it seems inevitable that such a step will be viewed by the target countries as a threatened encroachment on their sovereignty by the former imperial power whose rule they cast off less than two decades ago. Translation of a Russian TV report here, commentary by EU Referendum here.

I can understand how strongly the Russians feel about this issue -- just imagine how Americans would feel if there were threats to American war graves in, say, France or Britain. Yet I think if that were to happen, most Americans would prefer to see the graves exhumed and the bodies reburied in the United States. Perhaps the Russians should consider such an option.

One should also keep in mind that the Soviet monuments and graves in question were not placed in their present locations purely to commemorate the dead. After the Red Army drove out the Nazis from eastern Europe, Stalin's regime (hardly less brutal than Hitler's) ruthlessly suppressed self-determination and turned the "liberated" countries into satellite states. The graves and monuments were placed there partly as a physical assertion of dominance over the conquered people -- many of them (such as the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn) in the centers of cities, where they remain an uneasy reminder of Russian rule to this day.

It's also a little-known (in the West) fact that, because Stalin's regime was so murderous, at the time of the initial German invasion of the USSR in 1941, many people in places like Ukraine and the Baltic states (and even some ethnic Russians) actually supported the Germans, feeling that they could not possibly be any worse. There were also forces such as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which fought both the Nazis and the Soviets in the cause of Ukrainian independence. There has recently been a controversy in Ukraine over efforts, supported by President Yushchenko, to honor the UPA fighters as Ukrainian patriots; during the Soviet period they were utterly condemned in the official version of history. (Found via Mendip.)

The destruction of Nazism is an achievement of which Russia is justly proud. But Russia needs to come to terms with the dark side of that achievement and the way in which it was experienced by the rest of eastern Europe. Failure to do so will merely drive the country deeper into isolation and force its neighbors to view it as an alien threat rather than as the immensely valuable partner it could become. Yet the authoritarian Putin regime's aggressive stance, efforts to control its people's access to information, and insistence on reacting to disagreement with denunciation and intimidation, seem calculated to bring about just this result.

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Blogger Bill Yarbrough said...

I've learned a lot through your analysis -- bravo.

14 May, 2007 12:02  

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