Imperially Deluded


Wall Street Journal
May 3, 2007

TALLINN -- Flush with petrodollars, and amid disarray in the Western camp, Russia's hopes of restoring its lost empire are rising.

Vladimir Putin's annual address to both houses of the parliament, delivered last week, was just the latest signal. The Russian president declared that his country's obligations under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty would be suspended as long as the U.S. planned to install a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Mr. Putin threatened Russia would abandon the treaty if NATO countries failed to address his grievances. The defense shield, he claimed, was a threat to national security.

Nobody can take Russia seriously on this point. Neither the shield nor the Czechs or the Poles threaten, or could threaten, a Russia armed with thousands of nuclear missiles. But Mr. Putin is doing something else here. He wants to reclaim for Russia its previously dominant position in Central and Eastern Europe, harking back to a time when every strategic move in this region had to be negotiated and agreed with Moscow. Mr. Putin's threats are intended to make Russia the de facto power in its "near abroad," and a signal to the West that the Russians -- who once pushed their way around in the world as a Czarist, then a Soviet, Empire -- are back in the game.

This new old imperialism comes, aside from the tough rhetoric, with a changing view of recent history. During the presidency of the recently departed Boris Yeltsin, Russian archives were opened to the public and its recent past examined. President Yeltsin was ready, at some times more than others, to recognize the crimes of communism. For example, he apologized to Finland for the 1940 Winter War.

But Mr. Putin has dramatically altered the approach at the Kremlin to the past -- and therefore to the future. The current Russian president builds a new messianic and imperial identity around the victory over Nazism, which was also used by his predecessors to legitimize the U.S.S.R. This war, which the Russians call the "Great Patriotic War," didn't start with Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939. Russia helped start World War II through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed a week before the Panzers stormed east, while Stalin's troops took chunks of Poland and all the Baltic countries. The "Great Patriotic War" begins in 1941, when Hitler turned on his ally.

In a context where Stalin is more and more a founding hero for the "new Russia," it's no wonder that the crimes of occupation of neighboring countries and of communism are denied. And Russia aggressively demands that formerly occupied countries in the Soviet bloc accept its new understanding of the past. Any mention about the crimes of the Soviet era is called an insult to the "heroes of the Great Patriotic War." Former NKVD officers, accused of committing crimes against humanity for organizing deportations, are defended by lawyers hired by Russia. When Georgia opened its museum of Soviet occupation, it was furiously criticized by the Kremlin and Russian media.

More recently, Russia launched a propaganda campaign against Estonia that led to violent rioting in Tallinn and other cities over the weekend. The government last Friday removed a bronze monument to the Red Army, and soon plans to exhume the remains of Soviet soldiers from a central square in the capital. They will be placed in a military cemetery outside Tallinn, and the ceremony will be done with full military honors.

But the Kremlin raised a fuss, calling the plan a violation of "human rights." In Russia itself, war monuments are destroyed every month. In the small town of Himki, near Moscow, the razing of one led to violent clashes between young communists and riot police. But in Estonia, Russia encouraged street protests -- which turned violent, leading to one death, and widespread looting -- and continues to whip up anti-Estonian sentiment, even as those demonstrations have tapered off.

All this agitation comes over a monument that not only was not destroyed but that most Estonians view as symbol of over four decades of Soviet occupation. On September 22, 1944, the Red Army "liberated" Tallinn not from German forces, who were nearly gone, but from a legitimate Estonian government. The Estonian flag, not the German swastika, was taken down from government buildings that day. The swastika had been removed by Estonian soldiers, some of whom died in the fighting. The Soviets arrested the Estonian government, shot some of its members and sent others to the gulag. So Estonians shared the fate of the leaders of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, who were also hunted down and killed by NKVD after putting up a valiant fights against the Nazis.

These are the facts that official Russia ignores, and most ordinary Russians are not even aware of. Members of Estonia's 1944 government haven't even been rehabilitated in post-Soviet Russia, whose Supreme Court still considers them "enemies of the state," as the U.S.S.R. branded them. Rather than trying to address this history, Moscow's diplomats in Estonia are developing contacts with the ethnic Russian extremists, some of whom were arrested for leading the violent riots and vandalism in Tallinn these last days.

Such new imperialism is dangerous not only for Europe and the world, but most of all for Russia itself. History has proven several times that the biggest victims of Russian imperial aspiration have been the Russian people themselves. Until Russia turns its attention to finding solutions to its own huge problems, there will be no hope for a better future.

The best way to help Russia is to correct the falsified picture of European history that Russia's leaders are offering. Crimes of communism can't be ignored. Let's start a discussion about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and Stalin's role in starting World War II, the aggressions against Poland and Finland in 1939, the occupation of the Baltic countries in 1940, the massacres of Polish officers in the Katyn forest, and so on.

There is no difference between the denial of the Holocaust and the denial of the crimes of Soviet communism. This story must be told in the same detailed way as was the story of the Holocaust. It's important to remember so that the millions killed by communism and the brave people who fought against it didn't do so in vain. Mr. Putin's ideas for Europe make this a pressing task.

  • Mr. Laar is former prime minister of Estonia.

  • Octobr 17, 2008 - President Bush Discusses the Visa Waiver Program
    Office of the Press Secretary/ White House News

    THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. (Applause.) Please be seated, thank you. Welcome to the White House. I'm pleased to stand with the representatives of seven countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and South Korea -- that have met the requirements to be admitted to the United States Visa Waiver Program. Soon the citizens of these nations will be able to travel to the United States for business or tourism without a visa. I congratulate these close friends and allies on this achievement, and I thank you for joining us here.

    I also thank Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of the Homeland -- Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff for working hard to make sure this day has finally arrived. Appreciate other members of the administration here and members of the Diplomatic Corps.

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