It’s still the same Russia

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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[Credit: ECR Group]

Be it Putin, Stalin or a tsar, Russia repeats its crimes and lies. That is why Moscow’s imperialism must end forever – on the occasion of the Victory in Europe.

ECR MEP Anna Fotyga is the former minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland. EPP MEP Rasa Jukneviciene is the former Minister of Defence of Lithuania.

In August 1939, the leadership of the Soviet Union and the German Reich signed an alliance with the aim to conquer and divide Europe and thereafter invaded their neighbours. Six years later Nazi Germany was defeated and their atrocities were revealed and condemned during the Nuremberg trials. The Soviet Union, from the war it started as an aggressor, ended it regarded as an ally, rewarded with new territories. It took fifty years for freedom to return to our countries and Russian soldiers to leave our territories. Nobody ever invited them and nobody cried when they left.

8/9 May 1945 was never a day of freedom in our part of Europe. The Soviet Union and their local servants didn’t cease oppressions. A hundred days after the end of war in Europe, simultaneously to the Big Three conference in Potsdam, Soviet soldiers were perpetrating what was to remain Europe’s greatest post-war crime until Srebrenica in 1995. Soviet forces conducted a major pacification operation in the Polish-Lithuanian borderland, the Augustow Roundup. Hundreds of Poles and Lithuanians were never heard of again. Until now, the Russian Federation rejects any requests for legal assistance and denies access to the archives. Those brave historians, members of Memorial, who were searching for the truth, were silenced.

An invisible link between Soviet KGB and current Russian leadership is evident also in this community of crime. The legacy of genocide is transferred from generation to generation, regardless of state political order. The West needed the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler, but wrongly decided to please its conscience with silence over Soviet crimes. There was a deafening silence about Hitler-Stalin alliance and Soviet crimes, with the most symbolic one in Katyn. There were no Nuremberg trials for the Soviet Union’s unpunished crimes. They were allowed to call themselves the liberators of Europe, despite having committed the same horrendous crimes in the territories they occupied. The exact same narrative is repeated today in Ukraine; the same unimaginable atrocities follow. The Russian occupation and crimes cannot be unknown pages of contemporary history of Europe.

Has Russia change? Are there any differences between the atrocities of Stalin and Putin? Do the mass graves in Katyn not reflect what we see in Bucha?

The world should be aware that the anti-communist resistance never stopped. Hundreds of thousands of freedom fighters, including the ‘Forest Brothers”, “Cursed soldiers” and others opposed  Russian rule in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania  across  territories of Ukraine and Belarus. Those were not sporadic or isolated efforts. Jonas Žemaitis-Vytautas, the official leader of the Movement for the Struggle for Lithuanian Freedom, tortured and burned to death in the Butryka prison in 1954, has been officially recognized as the President of Lithuania. Józef Franczak “Lalek”, the last of the Polish cursed soldiers, was killed in 1963. His beheaded body was buried in an unmarked grave, the same way leaders of anti-Russian uprising in XIX century Kastuś Kalinoŭski was clandestinely buried by the Tsarist authorities on the site of a military fortress on top of the Gediminas Hill in Vilnius.

They tried to strip freedom fighters of their dignity, but also their right to remembrance. They failed.  In 2017, Kalinowski’s remains were excavated and identified, and solemnly reinterred in the Rasos Cemetery in 2019. It was a great manifestation of the spirit of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and serves as inspiration for the brave people of Belarus and their fight for a sovereign and democratic country. These days, Belarusian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine formed a battalion named Kastuś Kalinoŭski.

The decision to exterminate Polish soldiers in Katyn forests was committed by the highest levels of Soviet leadership. Similarly, the decision to brutally exterminate the residents of Bucha, Irpin or Hostomel was made by Putin and his closest entourage. The way decisions are made, why they are made, and the way they are carried out, remains largely unchanged. The same forced deportations of Ukrainians to remote parts of Siberia and Central Asia remind the fate of millions of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles, Crimean Tatars or Romanians who were punished this way by Russian tsars or communists leaders. Just like the Red Army raped, tortured, and killed millions of women in Soviet occupied areas, be it in Kaunas, Cracow or Budapest, so do the Russian soldiers rape and brutalize Ukrainian women and children today. Shocking pictures from recently liberated Ukrainian towns remind us of indiscriminate killings and mutilation of civilians by withdrawing Bolshevik troops nearly a century ago.

Answering Putin’s false historical narratives, we would like to remind the fate of Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to go to Auschwitz to start a resistance and sound the alarm about the true nature of Nazi Germany’s largest extermination camp. He was arrested by communists in 1947, tortured and executed as an enemy of the state the next year. Today we hear stories of Holocaust survivors who are being killed by Russian shellings, like Boris Romanchenko killed in Kharkiv or Vanda Semyonovna Obiedkova died sheltering in a freezing basement during the Mariupol siege.

Putin, in his aggressive speeches filled with false historical narratives, portrayed aggression against Ukraine as a pre-emptive strike against imaginary Western aggression and as a decisive battle to protect Russia’s imperial hold over Europe’s East. It recalls the most dreadful statements of 20th century dictators and echoes the justification of Soviet aggression on Poland in September 1939. What was officially called in 1939 the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in fact was a declaration of war. What Moscow called liberation in 1945, was in fact  another occupation, and what Russia calls a special military operation in 2022, is in fact a war of aggression where the ‘Russian liberators’  turned out to be rapists, bandits and looters.

Therefore, it is no wonder that Putin himself started campaigning to rehabilitate the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, distort historical facts and whitewash crimes committed by the Soviet regime. Perhaps it is ironic that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the only agreement Moscow kept and still feels obliged to fulfil. Putin’s path and decision link the Kremlin with the Soviet Union and the tsarist Russia with its obsession for imperial dominance. In the European Parliament we were successful to reject his lies.  Our resolution of 19 September 2019 on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe sent a clear message that we won’t accept any attempts to manipulate history. Societies of the free world reject Putin’s justifications of aggression against Ukraine.

A key component of Russian imperialism has been to exterminate other nations that refuse to be assimilated or subjugated. Atrocities committed in Ukraine reveal the nature of Putin’s Russia, just as Katyn laid bare the real Stalinism. Be it Putin, Stalin or a tsar, Russia repeats its crimes and lies. That’s why Moscow’s imperialism must end forever. Peace in Europe, but also well-being of the people of Russia, depends not only on removal of Putin, and deviation from “Putinism” as a model of governance, but also deimperialization. Any reconciliation is possible only between free people. It also requires breakthrough gestures, accepted not only by the victims but first, by the nation suffering under an oppressive dictator. Reparations and admission of all atrocities are essential for reconciliation. Today, “Never Again” must be real. History repeats itself when crimes are not recognised and evaluated.

The transformation of Russia into a democracy will depend on the determination of the Russian people to fight for a democratic Russia. Without such deep and lasting change, the ‘Victory Day’ celebrations for 8/9s of May will remain a hollow crib performed to renew imperial conceptions of a tsar, Stalin or Putin, for too long well known as a prison of nations.

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