Today marks the seventy-sixth anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin pact that triggered the Second World War and thrust Europe into an orgy of unspeakable violence, suffering and genocide that has affected generations of Europeans.
Five years ago, a group of Russian opposition leaders along with Ukrainian and Baltic region historians, political activists and analysts, gathered at the University of Toronto’s Munk Center, for a day long symposium on the legacy of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the worrisome anti-democratic and repressive trajectory that Vladimir Putin had set his country on.
Finnish-Estonian political analyst and leading political commentator, Iivi-Anna Masso and filmmaker, author and historian Imbi Paju warned of a coming wide scale propaganda war that the Kremlin was preparing itself for. Masso and Paju, along with author Sofi Oksanen, were targets of Putin’s propagandists after they published articles and a book about the occupation of Estonia.
Ukrainian expert Taras Kuzio and MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj warned of Putin’s political tampering and dark ambitions in Ukraine.
Russian activist and then RTVi Washington bureau chief, Vladimir Kara-Murza, spoke about the ongoing attack on free media in Russia. Pro-democracy opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, warned about the death of democracy in his country and the Putin regime’s rejection of western values.
In 2010, many academics and others criticized these warnings as being alarmist and even russophobic. Sadly, each of the panelists was completely accurate in their analysts and prognosis of the situation in Russia and Eastern Europe. What’s worse, is that one, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered and another, Vladimir Kara-Murza, poisoned for their views.
Those same concerns that were voiced at the 2010 Munk Center conference on the legacy of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which I had the honour of organizing, are far worse today.
As Vladimir Putin continues his aggression in Eastern Ukraine and stokes fears of a wider European conflict, millions of victims and survivors whose families were affected by Stalin’s and Hitler’s murderous alliance are increasingly concerned about a repeat of that history by the regime in Moscow. Putin’s hybrid Stalinist and neo-fascist policy has silenced nearly all domestic dissent and is now working on doing the same abroad. As he continues to reconstruct the Soviet imperium, Putin pays demented homage to Stalin’s shameless deceptions including the Soviet-Nazi pact that surreptitiously set Europe up for one of the greatest mass murders in human history.
During the late hours of August 23rd, 1939, in a smoke filled and dimly lit room in The Kremlin, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Josef Stalin carved up Eastern and Central Europe before a single shot was fired in the Second World War. The affected nations, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus all lay on Europe’s east-west frontier where the Hitler-Stalin world of death and despair took its greatest human toll.
The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact designated Western Poland to Hitler. Stalin was to receive the Eastern part of the country as well as The Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus. With Stalin’s blessing, the pact allowed Hitler to invade Poland just days after concluding the agreement with both brutal confidence and speed. Two weeks later, Stalin ordered his troops to invade Eastern Poland and issued ultimatums to the Baltic governments, insisting on “mutual assistance” agreements and the placement of Soviet troops and bases on sovereign Baltic territory.
Not so coincidentally, Putin’s tactics in annexing Crimea, closely resemble those used by Stalin in the Baltic States: sham elections were administered by Soviet forces in June 1940 and in August the new governments requested that their countries be incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Thousands were sent to starve and die in the Soviet Gulag including my own grandfather, who along with 30,000 other Estonian men were forced to mobilize with the Red Army. Instead of military service, they were sent to labour in the forests near the Russian arctic – without winter clothing, equipment or food. Within three months, over a 1/3 of the men died due to starvation, disease and cold. My grandfather survived thanks in part to a vile diet of condemned horse meat and rotten oats. Unlike thousands of others, he managed to survive and escape across the front lines of the Eastern Front.
Stalin and the Soviet Union have never been held properly accountable for starting the Second World War nor the atrocities inflicted on the people living within the borders of the Soviet Union. While the German State has paid reparations to Holocaust survivors the Russian government has not paid a single cent to the survivors or families of the victims of slave labourers who suffered in the Gulag. Many of Russia’s wealthiest resource and energy companies were built upon the bones of politically repressed Gulag slave labourers.
The web of deception and repression that’s been designed to keep Putin in power, picks up the Kremlin war on truth where the Stalinists left it off in the 1980‘s: Stalin’s iron fisted policies and empire are glorified and emulated by Russia’s leaders and state run media monopoly today. Instead of condemning his pact with Hitler and his repressive policies, Russian school textbooks have been rewritten to praise Stalin as a hero beside Putin. Aleksandr Dugin, a Rasputin lookalike and neofascist who is reported to be the “brains” behind Putin’s takeover of Crimea, has whipped up alarmingly widespread public support for the reestablishment of the same borders were violently set as a result of Stalin’s pact with Nazi Germany.
The trajectory that Vladimir Putin has set his country and the entire Eastern and Central European region on is one that history has witnessed before and will accelerate if the West does not finally define a consequence for Putin’s unbridled aggression.
On the seventy-sixth anniversary of the Hitler-Pact, known as Black Ribbon Day, we must remember the grim consequences of Western appeasement of tyrants before the last World War and not allow history to repeat itself.
Originally published August 2014- updated August 2015.