#25 - JRL 2009-155 - JRL Home
RIA Novosti
August 20, 2009
Russia should be open about pre-war Nazi-Soviet pact

RIA Novosti correspondent Dmitry Babich interviews Professor Alexander Chubaryan, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History, about the Russians’ attitudes toward the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Question: One sometimes gets the impression that modern Russia has an ambivalent attitude towards the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On the one hand, all the secret supplements to the pact were published as early as 1989, and more and more studies are being published on this subject. On the other hand, the moral evaluation given to the pact by a resolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, back in Mikhail Gorbachev’s time, was much better defined than what politicians are saying today.

Nowadays, the pact is viewed as either completely justified, or is assessed according to pragmatic considerations - was it useful for the Soviet Union or not. The question arises of whether it is possible to denounce the pact in today’s Russia. Or should we uphold the 1989 line of reasoning: that the protocols are immoral, but the pact in general was rational and typical for its time?

Answer: During the 20 years since the resolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies, our historiography has evolved. But what is interesting is that, far from subsiding, the public passion concerning the pact is running even higher than before. Paradoxically, this is not connected with the publication of new documents. No sensational discoveries have been made since the original documents of the secret protocols to the pact were found in the mid-1990s. Therefore, the issue is connected with interpretation rather than new facts. I attribute this not so much to the differences between scholars as to socio-political attitudes. The emotions are fuelled by the position of our neighbors, by the positions of some politicians from the Baltic countries and Poland. All this is politicizing the problem, which should have been the prerogative of the historians.

Despite these difficulties, we in Russia can freely discuss the pact and its aftermath, both between ourselves and with our foreign colleagues. New studies are being published. Recently, the Russian Federal Archives completed the publication of a fourth volume of documents on the execution of Polish officers in Katyn.

It is always better to be open than to deny the obvious. At one time, the Soviet Union’s position was strongly weakened by its stubborn reluctance to admit the very existence of the secret protocols. Their publication 20 years ago, when the U.S.S.R. still existed, has made out position stronger, and proves that we have given up our policy of reticence.

Q: Nevertheless, sometimes historians are engaged in heated disputes like those of politicians. Most analysts in the European Union (EU), and the United States believe that the pact triggered World War II, which broke out a week after it was signed on August 23, 1939. On September 1, 1939, German troops attacked Poland. They were fully confident that the Soviet Union would not come to Poland’s assistance. Do you share this view?

A: No, I do not. I know about this opinion. Sometimes, it is even used to conclude that the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany were equally responsible for unleashing WWII. A reference to this view is also made in a relevant resolution of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

Meanwhile, this approach ignores a proven fact. Hitler made a decision to attack Poland several months prior to the signing of the non-aggression pact with the U.S.S.R. He was preparing for this attack since the spring of 1939, and even fixed an approximate date for it - August 26, 1939. The Germans almost did not deviate from this date, launching an offensive on September 1. In the meantime, the destiny of the pact signed on August 23 was not clear until the very last day. This means that regardless of the outcome of the talks with the U.S.S.R., Hitler had no doubts whatsoever. The same fact applies to Britain and France’s guarantees to Poland - they knew about Germany’s war preparations. Joachim von Ribbentrop also urgently went to Moscow for the same reason. He had to finish everything before the previously-planned attack began.

Q: Nevertheless, after Hitler’s attack on Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, whereas the U.S.S.R. not only remained neutral, but also signed a friendship treaty with Germany in September of 1939. Did not this amount to encouraging the aggressor?

A: It goes without saying that the secret protocols to the pact, the singing of the friendship treaty in September 1939, and the ban on criticizing national-socialism in the U.S.S.R. from 1939 to 1940 were immoral acts, and deserve the denunciation to which they are being subjected in Russia and abroad.

Nevertheless, the events of those days cannot be reduced to the following line of reasoning: “Hitler decided to attack his neighbors, and Stalin became his ally.” I prefer to consider many different factors when studying history. When analyzing a historical event, we should consider all of the factors that led to it, rather than limit ourselves to one or two convenient moments.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is a complicated political and diplomatic event. In assessing it, we should look at the prelude to it. For this reason, we must also look back at 1938, and not because we want to be sure to remind our Western colleagues about the Munich Agreement. However, without considering the Munich factor, it is impossible to explain why Stalin opted for the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

Before the Munich Agreement was signed, all major European powers - Britain, France, and the U.S.S.R. - looked upon the Nazi regime that had come to power in Germany in 1933 negatively. The Munich Agreement practically destroyed this consensus. From a moral perspective, the Munich Agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are not very different. Both documents were signed in the absence of the nations whose destiny they concerned. In Munich, representatives from Czechoslovakia were sitting on the other side of the door to the room where the destiny of their country was decided without their knowledge. And unlike the pact, the Munich Agreement was not about spheres of interests. It directly transferred part of Czechoslovakia to Germany. In other words, it dealt with the partition of an independent country between other states. We Russians did not go to Munich. Stalin was very suspicious of the Western democracies, especially of Britain. He interpreted the Munich Agreement as Britain’s attempt to isolate the U.S.S.R.

Q: But why did Stalin prefer Hitler to his future Western allies? Your opponents claim that neither England, France, nor Poland could accept Moscow’s condition of agreeing to the passage of Soviet troops through Poland’s territory, if need be. In the Soviet times, it was traditional to criticize the pre-war Polish government for refusing to allow the passage of Soviet troops through their country. But we now know, with the hindsight of many decades, that Stalin rarely allowed a country to develop independently once it had been occupied.

A: But let us recall that at the Moscow Anglo-Franco-Soviet tripartite talks in the summer of 1939, the three parties discussed the possibility of assisting East European countries in the event of Hitler’s attack. Guarantees to the Baltic countries were reviewed in July 1939, while Poland and Romania were discussed endlessly in August. On August 20, the French told us that they had persuaded Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck to agree to the passage of Soviet troops, but Poland never released an official statement on the issue. Thus, the possibility of Soviet cooperation with Britain and France was abandoned before the pact.

Would Stalin have occupied Poland, Romania, and other countries through which Soviet troops were supposed to pass had the agreement with the Western allies been reached? This is a very disputable question. The Soviet Union imposed its system on some countries, but it allowed other countries, into which Soviet troops entered and then left, to develop as they saw fit, for example Iran and Austria. After the war, Andrei Zhdanov was a member of the Union Control Commission in Finland. However, all these countries remained independent. If France and Britain had given it reliable guarantees, Poland could have shared the same destiny.

Q: In other words, Hitler simply offered Stalin a better option than Britain and France?

A: At the talks with France and Britain, the problem of the land that was subsequently included into the Soviet zone of interests was discussed only as regards the passage of troops, whereas Hitler went further than that by offering to divide said land into spheres of influence. However, he did not stick to his promise for long. As early as in November of 1940, when relations between the U.S.S.R. and Germany deteriorated, he said to the Soviet foreign minister: “Who told you that you have the right to annex these territories? This does not follow from the pact!”

In general, this is the main lesson of the events of 1938 to 1941: whenever an individual country is trying to guarantee its security at the expense of others and ignore common threats, it loses not only collective security but also its own. Almost all European countries tried to come to terms with Hitler up until 1941. He promised everything to everyone, but then cheated them all.

Q: In its resolution on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1989, the Congress of People’s Deputies made an unequivocal assessment of this document - it was called a “conspiracy”, which draws an analogy with the 1938 Munich Agreement. However, today only the latter continues to be called a conspiracy. Why is that so?

A: The word “conspiracy” in the congress’s resolution reflected the Soviet political realities of 1989. Currently, the majority of scholars do not use this term. Their style has become more neutral, and there is no longer the only correct party interpretation of this or other event, which should be shared by everyone. This is reasonable. In our institution, scholars who are studying this period often have diametrically opposite views on both the pact and its consequences. I have made it clear from the very start - we will publish books by authors with most diverse views.

Q: If I understand your position correctly, you do not simply find parallels between the Munich Agreement and the non-aggression pact, but also believe that Germany and the Soviet Union are not the only countries responsible for the partition of Poland in September 1939?

A: Western powers also bear a certain responsibility. When Soviet troops entered eastern Poland on September 17, some British politicians insisted that, having already declared war on Germany, Britain should also impose sanctions on the U.S.S.R. However, the British government decided that only Poland’s western regions were covered by its guarantees, and it did not impose sanctions against the U.S.S.R. Moreover, the British government expressed its satisfaction with the fact that Soviet troops stopped at the Curzon Line, which was supposed to delineate the border between Poland and Soviet Russia after the former declared its independence in November of 1918.

Q: Who expressed this satisfaction?

A: The British Foreign Office, the war cabinet, and even the parliament. No party issued a démarche against us. Not a single shot was fired to defend Poland in 1939. There were even no simulated military operations to divert the attention of German troops from Poland. The attitude of Western powers to the Baltic countries was similar - they did not recognize their incorporation into the U.S.S.R. de jure, but acknowledged it de facto. Thus, Western countries also bear some responsibility for these events in Eastern Europe.

Moreover, Stalin and Hitler were not the only ones involved in secret diplomacy. Having become prime minister after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation, Winston Churchill wrote a letter to Stalin in the summer of 1940, proposing a secret agreement between Britain and the U.S.S.R. In exchange for Soviet loyalty, he promised Stalin that no one would know about the proposed agreement, and that after the victory over Germany, Britain would recognize the incorporation of the Baltic countries into the U.S.S.R. de facto.

Q: Was this letter published, and what was Stalin’s reply to it?

A: This letter is kept in the Foreign Ministry’s Archives, there are copies of it in British archives, and I have published it in my book. According to oral testimony, after reading the letter, Stalin smirked and said: “Why does he promise recognition after the war, when all of this has already been recognized de facto!” As we see, Churchill was not very concerned about the future of the inhabitants in the Baltic states.

Q: But Churchill merely accepted the incorporation of the Baltic into the U.S.S.R., whereas Stalin led and organized this process. It turns out that Russia still bears the brunt of responsibility for this.

A: It is not Russia but the Soviet Union. Continuity in an area such as responsibility is a very tangled issue. We should not forget that only a few people were involved in the final drafting of the pact on the Soviet side - Stalin, Molotov, and Voroshilov, who conducted talks with the French and British representatives. Even Nikita Khrushchev, who was a member of the Politburo at that time, recalled that he found out about the pact only in the evening of the day it was signed.

Today, representatives of Poland and the Baltic countries are trying to bring up the issue for discussion by international organizations, and some of these countries’ government bodies (for instance, Lithuanian parliament) demand that today’s Russia should pay billions in compensation for the “occupation” period. What can be done in this respect? If they did not take such a radical approach, Russia’s response would probably have been milder. After all, this is distant history, and its study should be abstract and theoretical, rather than practical. How can the current generations be held responsible for the actions of Stalin and two of his associates, about which other Soviet citizens had no information whatsoever?

It is inappropriate to compare Stalinism to Nazism, if only because the Soviet system has proved its ability to change. The secret protocols were published under Gorbachev, and denounced as criminal in Soviet times. Hitler’s regime did not show any evidence of an ability to transform itself. The Nazi regime was openly based on the genocide of other nations. Stalinism did not justify genocide ideologically. Stalinism concealed its essence with fine words while the Soviet people suffered the most because of it.

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