The Kremlin's Efforts to Rewrite Soviet History Work in Subtle Ways


The map from the secret appendix to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact showing the new German-Soviet border. The map is signed by Joseph Stalin and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
The map from the secret appendix to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact showing the new German-Soviet border. The map is signed by Joseph Stalin and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Logo., Free Media Online Blog,, Media analysis by Ted Lipien, August 21, 2009, San Francisco — A title of a recent report on the Voice of America Russian Service website caught my attention: “Сговор Сталина с Гитлером – «единственное средство самообороны»?” “Stalin’s Pact with Hitler – «The Only Means of Self-Defense»?”

The story posted in Russian was the VOA Russian Service translation of the English Service report from Moscow by Jonas Bernstein. When I checked the original English-language report, the title was different: “Russia Defends Stalin’s Deal with Hitler.” It was a well-written, objective and comprehensive story how the current leadership and nationalist extremists in Russia are trying to rewrite history by defending Stalin’s secret deal with Hitler that led to the start of World War II.

In the secret documents signed in Moscow by their foreign ministers, Hitler and Stalin had agreed to divide Poland and give the Soviet Union control of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and parts of Finland and Romania. Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and the attack by the Red Army followed on September 17.

The difference between the Russian and the English title of the VOA report seemed minor but could have a significant impact on an audience in Russia and presumably was chosen with some deliberation. “Russia Defends Stalin’s Deal with Hitler” suggests a neutral perspective. “Stalin’s Pact with Hitler – «The Only Means of Self-Defense»?” — a question asked on behalf of a U.S. Government-funded broadcasting station — gives a subtle measure of legitimacy to the Kremlin’s defense of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, even if the words «The Only Means of Self-Defense» are in quotes followed by a question mark. Behind the title of the VOA story on the Russian Service website was the statement of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, issued on August 17, saying it had declassified documents showing that the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the Soviet Union’s “only available means of self-defense.”

While the VOA report itself does not in any way support the assertion that Stalin had no other choice but to become Hitler’s accomplice in attacking Poland and occupying other countries — in fact, it quotes extensively from those who hold the opposite view — the title used by VOA’s Russian Service shows that the Kremlin’s efforts to rewrite history are achieving at least some success, and not only among nationalists in Russia.

There may also be an additional explanation why an editor in Washington chose to use a title for the audience in Russia that is both provocative and seems to cater to the prejudices of post-communists and nationalists.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan Federal agency which manages VOA, has been pressuring the Russian Service journalists to increase their audience ratings, while at the same time it has been cutting their budget to pay for broadcasting initiatives in the Middle East and other projects awarded to private contractors. In 2008, the BBG had terminated all on-air VOA Russian-language radio programs, just 12 days before Russia launched a major military attack on the Republic of Georgia over a territorial dispute. (Later, the BBG had also eliminated on-air VOA Russian television news programs and forced the Russian Service to rely solely on the Internet for program delivery. VOA websites were completely crippled by a cyber attack for at least two full days during President Obama’s recent official visit to Russia. One short radio rebroadcast in Moscow was reinstituted by the BBG, but only after strong protests from VOA journalists and media freedom advocates.)

Blaming the BBG for editorial mistakes in how VOA journalists describe the history of World War II may seem far-fetched, but another BBG-managed broadcaster, Alhurra Television, caused a major scandal and drew anger of many members of Congress by airing extensive statements from Holocaust deniers. It was an apparent effort to make Alhurra programs more acceptable to those in the Middle East who do not believe the Holocaust is a historical fact. With its programming philosophy set by BBG members, their private sector consultants and neoconservatives in the Bush Administration, Alhurra has not managed to attract a large number of viewers. BBG policies had an equally disastrous impact on VOA’s Russian Service. Largely as a result of the BBG-imposed program cuts, VOA’s audience reach in Russia has declined 98% and is now estimated at only about 0.2% annually.

VOA Russian Service journalists are under enormous pressure to expand their Internet audience, which may also explain why they chose this particular title for the news story about the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Never mind that it’s almost like asking whether Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union or the Holocaust were also the only means of self-defense. After all, the Nazis claimed they were. Reporting about history at the VOA Russian Service has not been easy under the BBG’s “marry the mission to the market” programming philosophy.

But the Kremlin’s Foreign Intelligence Service has some reasons to cheer that their efforts to rehabilitate Stalin are having an impact. Even if it is only a title for a news story from the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America, at least they managed to raise their defense of the Soviet dictator to a legitimate question.

Voice of America report from Moscow

Russia Defends Stalin’s Deal with Hitler
By Jonas Bernstein
20 August 2009

Sunday, August 23, marks the 70th anniversary of the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – the non-aggression treaty signed in 1939 by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. The pact included a secret protocol dividing Eastern and Central Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence. Days after it was signed, first German and then Soviet forces invaded Poland.

The anniversary’s approach has sparked a debate in Europe. Western governments condemn Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as two equally murderous variants of totalitarianism. The Russian government calls that comparison a “distortion” of history.

On August 17, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service issued a statement saying it had declassified documents showing that the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the Soviet Union’s “only available means of self-defense.”

The spy agency’s demarche was just the latest in a series of Russian government statements that critics say appear to defend Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and justify actions he took shortly before and during World War II.

In early May, Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu introduced legislation in parliament that would make it a crime to deny the Soviet victory in World War II.

Later in May, President Dmitri Medvedev issued a decree setting up a presidential commission to counter what he called attempts to “falsify history.”

At a meeting in early July, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed a resolution designating August 23 – the anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – as a day of remembrance for the victims of both Stalinism and Nazism.

Russian delegates to the European security body walked out of the meeting, in protest. Russia’s Foreign Ministry denounced the OSCE resolution as “an attempt to distort history with political goals,” while Russia’s parliament called it a “direct insult to the memory of millions” of Soviet soldiers who, in the words of the parliament, “gave their lives for the freedom of Europe from the fascist yoke.”

Former independent Russian parliament Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov says what he calls the “official” Russian position on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is “extremely strange.”

Ryzhkov asks why today’s Russia, which has a democratic constitution and new democratic legitimacy, should justify the division of Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

He says that this view is now included in Russian history text books and has caused “enormous moral damage” to Russia’s reputation, particularly in the countries of Eastern Europe that were the main victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Ryzhkov says the only explanation for the Russian leadership’s position on the issue is what he calls “sympathy for Stalin.”

Public opinion surveys suggest many ordinary Russians share at least some of their government’s views.

A poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency, following the OSCE resolution condemning Stalinism and Nazism, found that 53 percent of the respondents across Russia viewed it negatively, while 11 percent viewed it positively and 21 percent viewed it neutrally. In addition, 59 percent of those polled said the resolution was aimed at undermining Russia’s authority in the world and diminishing its contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Dmitry Furman of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Europe calls the presidential commission to counter what it deems historical falsification an “idiotic undertaking” and a “very bad idea.” He also says Stalin’s government killed as many, or even more people than Hitler’s.

But, given the suffering Russians endured after Hitler turned on Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, Furman says it is natural that many resist equating Stalinism and Nazism.

Furman says it is “very difficult psychologically” for Russians to put what they see as their “victors” in the Great Patriotic War, as they call World War II, on the same level with the vanquished Nazis.

Voice of America Report As Posted on the Russian Service Website

Сговор Сталина с Гитлером – «единственное средство самообороны»?

В воскресенье 23 августа исполняется 70 лет со дня заключения Пакта Молотова-Риббентропа. Речь идет о договоре о ненападении, подписанном в Москве народным комиссаром иностранных дел СССР Вячеславом Молотовым и министром иностранных дел Германии Иоахимом фон Риббентропом. К пакту был приложен секретный протокол о разделе Восточной и Центральной Европы на сферы влияния Советского Союза и нацистской Германии. Через неделю германский вермахт вторгся в Польшу с запада, а две недели спустя в Польшу вторглась с востока Красная армия.

Приближение годовщины пакта вызывает острые дискуссии. Западные правительства осуждают Гитлера и Сталина как вождей двух одинаково преступных форм тоталитаризма. Москва именует подобные сравнения «искажением» истории.

17 августа нынешнего года Служба внешней разведки РФ известила о рассекречивании документов 70-летней давности, призванных доказать, что заключение Пакта Молотова-Риббентропа было для СССР «единственным средством самообороны». Критики расценивают этот демарш российского разведывательного ведомства как очередной шаг Кремля, направленный на реабилитацию Сталина и оправдание его действий накануне и во время второй мировой войны.

В мае российский министр по чрезвычайным ситуациям Сергей Шойгу внес в Госдуму законопроект об уголовном наказании за отрицание победы СССР во второй мировой войне. Чуть позже президент Дмитрий Медведев учредил комиссию по борьбе с «фальсификацией истории».

В июне Организация по безопасности и сотрудничеству в Европе приняла резолюцию, объявляющую 23 августа днем памяти жертв сталинизма и нацизма. Российская делегация в знак протеста покинула заседание ОБСЕ. МИД РФ назвал резолюцию «попыткой исказить историю в политических целях», а Дума сочла ее «прямым оскорблением памяти миллионов» советских солдат, «отдавших жизнь за освобождение Европы от фашистского ига».

Существуют, однако, и другие мнения. По словам независимого российского парламентария Владимира Рыжкова «официальная» российская позиция в оценке пакта Молотова-Риббентропа звучит «крайне странно». Почему сегодняшняя Россия, имеющая демократическую конституцию, должна защищать раздел Европы между Сталиным и Гитлером, спрашивает он?

Как указывает Рыжков, подобные суждения включены в учебники, что наносит «огромный моральный ущерб» репутации России, особенно в странах Восточной Европы, ставших главными жертвами Пакта Молотова-Риббентропа. Единственным объяснением позиции российского руководства депутат Госдумы считает возможную «симпатию к Сталину».

Опросы показывают, что многие рядовые россияне разделяют, по крайней мере, некоторые оценки Кремля. Опрос, проведенный государственным агентством ВЦИОМ после принятия резолюции ОБСЕ, выявил, что 53% респондентов относятся к ней негативно, 11% – позитивно, а 21% – нейтрально. Кроме того, 59% опрошенных выразили убеждение, что резолюция нацелена на подрыв авторитета России в мире и преуменьшение ее вклада в разгром фашистской Германии.

Сотрудник Института Европы РАН Дмитрий Фурман назвал президентскую комиссию по борьбе с фальсификацией истории «идиотским мероприятием». По его словам при Сталине было убито не меньше, а, может быть, и больше людей, чем при Гитлере. Однако, учитывая страдания, перенесенные народами Советского Союза в годы гитлеровской оккупации, многим россиянам психологически трудно поставить себя – победителей в Великой Отечественной войне – на одну доску с побежденными фашистами.