Historian: Russia worried its version of history coming second

Meelis Maripuu.
Meelis Maripuu. Source: Estonian Memory Institute

Russia is worried that Moscow's victor's perspective of World War II has been reworked and a new treatment has been taking root in recent decades. This has motivated Russian leaders to present inaccurate treatments of WWII history on the international arena as the country sees itself as the successor of the Soviet Union, historian Meelis Maripuu says.

"The history of the Second World War as it was known for decades after the war was written by the victors. However, that image has begun to fall apart in several places over the past 30 years," historian and head of the Estonian Memory Institute Meelis Maripuu told ERR.

It happened when the Central and Eastern European countries that found themselves in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union after the war started talking about their histories without having to coordinate with Moscow first.

"By now, efforts made over the past 30 years have started coming to fruition and the circumstances of WWII – who really fought whom and what were the consequences of the war – have started appearing in a different light from what the Soviet Union and its legal successor the Russian Federation would like," Maripuu said.

The historian explained that Russia wants to keep quiet the fact World War II did not start for the Soviet Union when Germany invaded it on June 22, 1941 but in September of 1939 in cooperation of the two powers.

"For almost two years, the Soviet Union and Germany fought as allies, conquering Poland but also dividing between them a number of other Central European territories. The part of WWII where the Soviet Union and Germany fought as allies – both having their own ultimate goals – is often overlooked in Russia's treatment of the war today," Maripuu said.

Poland not involved in launching WWII

The historian also said there is no merit to Russia's claims according to which Poland or the Baltic countries can be regarded as partly responsible for the war. "Definitely not the Baltics, because when the Second World War begun, the Baltic countries were first occupied by the Soviet Union and did not exist as de facto states by the time German forces reached the region. Therefore, we cannot talk of any kind of official cooperation with Germany during WWII," Maripuu said.

"Things are a little more complicated when it comes to Poland. The story of Poland differs from ours. It includes Russian historians' reference to Poland having cooperated with Germany before WWII," the historian said, adding that while Poland did take steps before the war that could be condemned according to modern standards, it constituted common behavior at the time.

"Considering that the global war had not yet started, no one knew there would be one, not to mention its consequences for Poland or other countries," Maripuu said.

He said that people today tend to evaluate past conflicts between countries in hindsight, taking into consideration everything that followed.

"Political horse-trading where a country would capitalize on political circumstances in order to grow its territory and influence at the expense of a neighbor was rather commonplace at the time. Of course, we see it as reprehensible behavior today."

Russia has suggested that Poland, by taking advantage of the situation where Czechoslovakia had come under pressure from Germany, seized some border territories in the fall of 1938 that has given rise to claims that Poland participated in the partition of the country alongside Nazi Germany.

Maripuu said there is nothing new about Russia's claims that citizens of occupied territories, including Poland and the Baltic states, cooperated with the Nazis.

"Such allegations can be used to resurrect the subject matter in the media, while I cannot perceive any deeper meaning behind it. No one in the Baltics or Poland denies today that citizens of these countries cooperated with German authorities. Individual motives and the extent of responsibility are matters of separate investigations. No one has denied the process or the phenomenon. It is like trying to break through an open door, trying to construct some larger accusation – I cannot really see it leading anywhere," he found.

Maripuu doubts Putin's archive

Asked what he thinks about Russian President Vladimir Putin's plan for an archive to make all documents pertaining to WWII available to researchers, Maripuu said he is skeptical as the initiative seems politically motivated.

"Historians love it whenever archival documents are made available, can be studied. It is less reassuring when someone starts putting together an archive, collecting documents from a position of political power. One expects it to consist of documents to confirm that version of history the creator of the archive wants to let shine. Documents that counter that version are left in their current archive where they are perhaps not available to researchers," he said.

Russia has recently made efforts to enforce its treatment of history on the international arena and accused Poland especially of helping to unleash WWII. The criticism led to the president of Poland deciding not to attend a high-level Holocaust remembrance event in Jerusalem on January 23 that hosted the leaders of around 50 countries. President Andrzej Duda decided not to attend the forum in Israel as he was not given the chance to speak while the Russian president was.


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