Ronaldas Račinskas, the head of the International Commission for the Evaluation of Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, approves of the ideas of Polish politicians when they say that events marking the end of World War II hostilities should take place in other European capitals and not in Moscow. He says that Russia continues to justify its actions with categories from World War II.
© Reuters/Scanpix

On 8 May, President of Poland Bronislaw Komorowski intends to host commemoration events for the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II on the Westerplatte peninsula near Gdansk.

He plans to invite European leaders to this event. The head of the Polish diplomatic service in turn noted during an interview with the radio station RMF FM that he could not understand why “everyone has gotten used to marking the end of war in Moscow”.

In his opinion, the more acceptable places to host events like these are London or Berlin. Meanwhile Moscow construed the Polish politician’s words as an attempt to question the outcomes of World War II.

“I agree completely with the opinion of the Polish minister of foreign affairs,” said Ronaldas Račinskas during an interview with DELFI. “Ten years ago, when we marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, there was a debate as to whether or not then president Valdas Adamkus should go to Moscow for the event [he did not]. Similar issues were discussed. Even then, when there was no Crimea or Ukraine or other Russian moves, I maintained that it made no political or moral sense to celebrate the end of World War II in the place where it was started on 23 August 1939. You must also bear in mind that neither then nor now has Russia recognized the crimes of Stalin and of the Soviet regime.”

Russia, however, is not celebrating the end of World War II, it is celebrating victory in the “Great Fatherland War”…

I understand that and I understand the sentiments of Russia and the Russian people. Russia most certainly bore the brunt in terms of war victims of which there were more than in any of the other countries involved. Nevertheless, while I acknowledge these victims and the contribution they made in the victory against fascist Germany, I would like Russia itself to understand and know its own history, and why so many people were killed and how the totalitarian Soviet regime treated the Russian people and other peoples. Nobody is denying or rejecting anything but this must be spoken about in a broader context.

After the war, the Western allies in Europe, who also fought to free Europe from Nazism, took the normal democratic road. Meanwhile the other part of Europe which, was allegedly freed from fascism, was occupied by the totalitarian Soviet state.

Ronaldas Račinskas
Ronaldas Račinskas
© DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Totalitarian Soviet dictatorships took hold in these countries, both in the USSR and in its Eastern European puppet states. This must also be spoken about. When speaking about World War II, it’s not only 1941 that must be remembered, but also the fact that the war began in 1939.

From the 23 August 1939 to the 22 June 1941, the USSR and Nazi Germany were fighting as allies in World War II. First they attacked Poland and occupied other territories such and the Baltic states, Bukovina and Bessarabia. We must know and understand that.

It was only after that that Germany attacked the USSR and changed its allegiances. This has not been recognized. The events of 1939 remain to be discussed normally, although not talking about how many people perished before 1941 is, I think, a distortion of historical facts.

World War II, or the Great Fatherland War, is one of the major ideological pillars of today’s Russia. Do you think that Russia at this point in time could re-evaluate this issue? Why, when there are any attempts to take a broader look at the history of the war, does Russia react so sensitively? We’ve seen this in modern Russia’s reactions to the opinion of the Polish minister of foreign affairs.

That’s completely understandable. Already a decade ago, I wrote an article where I discussed how the further away the historical memory of World War II is (or as they call it the Great Fatherland War), the more it becomes in itself a source of Russian political unity.

There aren’t many uniting factors like this in today’s Russia. World War II is one of the main ones. Russian state and civil identity is shaped around this narrative.

How does that come about? If it’s about the Gulag and victims, it is said that human rights were violated. Innocent people were killed. It is then emphasized that it was this that allowed Russia to develop from a backward agrarian country (that’s what it was up to the revolution, or more exactly, the 1917 coup d’état) into a global power and win World War II and so on.

What is the message to the society? That the current regime, which has drifted far from democracy and is in essence an authoritarian regime, is establishing a standpoint that for the sake of some mythical purpose - the “Russian world”, the power that we show on the world-wide scale – we can violate human rights, limit personal freedom, imprison for political motives, etc. Today, the Russian economy is failing and the standards of living are declining, yet the old and new myths about power persist. I think that it is the unconscious point of view of Russian citizens themselves.

Victory Day is a big thing in Moscow
Victory Day is a big thing in Moscow
© AFP/Scanpix

We remember then Grzegorz Schetyna’s words when he said that it was the Ukrainians who liberated Auschwitz. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel later made a point of saying that it was nevertheless Soviet forces that liberated the concentration camp. Are the Europeans themselves ready to change their perception of World War II?

Over the past 10 years, I have been able to work in both Lithuania and abroad, researching the crimes of Soviet totalitarianism and seeking to assess them. One of the obstacles in the way of this assessment is the dominant narrative about the causes and consequences of World War II. To this day, this account is unfortunately not all that different from the Soviet version.

Let’s call it the narrative of one evil, which claims that there was only one evil. Everyone who fought against it is seen positively, while any attempts to talk about their own crimes draw accusations of fascism. Russia uses this kind of reasoning.

Everything that Lithuania, the Baltic states and Poland do when it comes to remembering and condemning the crimes of the Soviet regime is then called revisionism and neo-fascism. The same is happening in Ukraine.

The rhetoric of today’s Russia shows that it is still fighting World War II; there are the fascists and everyone else is anti-fascist. Russia thinks of itself as anti-fascist and all the others, who dare to oppose the “anti-fascists”, are automatically fascists. This is the game that’s being played.

What do you think the remarks made by the Polish minister of show in the Ukrainian context? There is an opinion that this isn’t the time to talk about it. Do you think that the World War II narrative is relevant within the context of events in Ukraine?

I think that it’s especially important in several senses. First of all, how did World War II begin? The world community appeased the aggressor. A red line was drawn, it was crossed and finally everything turned into the bloodiest war in world history. We have to know, understand and learn from our history and not repeat mistakes from the past.

Second, Russia presents events in Ukraine, in the ideological sense, the same way as during World War II. Russia makes itself out to be a member of the anti-Hitler coalition fighting against evil and fascism. And those who speak against the crimes and policy of the USSR and even against the policy of today’s Russia are immediately branded fascists. We know what the word “fascism”, what crimes and victims of fascism mean to the Western societies; it’s harder for them to imagine what Soviet crimes mean because they haven’t experienced them.

When it comes to the triumphant 9 May parade in Moscow, I’d like to emphasise one last thing. I cannot imagine how any intelligent and self-respecting foreign politician or diplomat could attend this parade, one which will include the leader or representatives of North Korea.

It’s highly probable that Moscow will host a company of dictators: the leader of North Korea, the head of Belarus, maybe someone will come from Cuba or Venezuela. And which Western leader could celebrate this important date in such a company?

The most important thing to note is that Moscow could celebrate this anniversary, if it had behaved like Germany, which has admitted its guilt and brought up several generations which still feel moral responsibility for the war. Unfortunately, neither Russia’s political leadership nor Russia’s citizens feel any such moral responsibility for this war. That is the problem and the main difference between how these two totalitarian regimes are regarded in the very countries that bore them.

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