Hailing the Nazi-Soviet Pact: The tragedy of Russian political culture

Hitler-Stalinn Edited

When Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly defended the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 (commonly called the ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’ after the respective foreign ministers), much of the outside world recoiled—but only slightly. In the years leading up to World War Two, the West—reasoned Putin—had not confronted Hitler’s annexationism and aggression forcefully enough. Weak-willed Western leaders had sanctified the Nazi annexation of part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 by signing the Munich Agreement, and this—said Putin—naturally led to the Hitler-Stalin agreement.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

‘What’s so bad about it if the Soviet Union didn’t want to go to war?’ Putin asked rhetorically. ‘What’s so bad about it?’ Putin then repeated his defense of the infamous pact in a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. By Putin’s rationale, it was only natural that Moscow should try to reach a deal with the Nazis. Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky went even further in the run-up to Victory Day celebrations in Moscow in May 2015, describing the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a ‘colossal achievement of Stalin’s diplomacy.’

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky

In reality, the Pact was a tragedy in every sense of the word. As Poland disappeared from the map of Europe, the Soviet NKVD[i] executed thousands of Polish officers, and the Nazis herded the Jews of German-occupied Poland into ghettos in preparation for their extermination. Western Ukraine was annexed to already-Stalinized eastern and central Ukraine (areas which had already endured purges, mass executions, and the state-sponsored famine of 1932-33 that killed millions). After one tyrant had betrayed the other by launching full-scale war on the decrepit, Soviet prison of nations in the spring of 1941, the ‘Bloodlands’ became the site of WWII’s greatest destruction in terms of human lives lost. The Soviet retreat before the Wehrmacht’s advance prompted mass killings and torture by Stalin’s police functionaries to prevent locals from allying with Germany against the USSR.

Golden busts of the tyrant have been going up in cities around Russia, including these in Lipetsk (left) and Perm.

Golden busts of the tyrant have been going up in cities around Russia, including these in Lipetsk (left) and Perm.

For Ukraine, the implications of Putin’s views going mainstream are alarming. At the core of these concerns is the legacy of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who ruled the USSR despotically and genocidally for some twenty-five years until his death in 1953. The historical record is now academic in the West: Stalin consolidated and bureaucratized state terror, murdered millions from all social classes, and destroyed society in the former Russian imperial space. Monuments have even been erected in Western countries to victims of Stalinism (see, e.g., here and here). But in the USSR, sadly, ‘de-Stalinization’ never achieved its stated goal of irreversibly condemning Stalin’s tyranny. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policy (1956-64) could not do it. Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms (1985-1991) did not go far enough either. The USSR remained an essentially Stalinist manifestation of socialism right up until its collapse in 1991, and although the Soviet state never revisited the level of barbarity of the actual rule of Stalin himself, it nevertheless kept his persona in the ‘hall of fame.’ He remained a political figure who had engaged in ‘excesses’ and  ‘mistakes,’ but who had ‘heroically’ won the war against fascism and kept workers’ interests at heart. Putin’s commitment to democracy—vaguely credible in the first years of his presidency—has proven a chimera: in Russia today, the Soviet-sanctified image of Stalin is returning to the public realm.

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in Tehran in 1943

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in Tehran in 1943

Orwell would have agreed that anti-communism is not the only stance from which to oppose Stalinism. Today, democratic socialists and Marxists everywhere also have a role to play in correcting the record. For many (especially Russians), it is probably hard to look at images of US President Franklin Roosevelt appearing content and relaxed in the company of the Soviet tyrant during WWII, and—at the same time—to recognize Stalin as an unambiguous evil. All that can be offered by way of explanation is that, as previously noted on this site, the West’s alliance with Stalin was a matter of political expediency: Hitler was an immediate danger to the West; Stalin’s Soviet Union stunted and warped its peoples—of all social classes—over generations. Hitler perpetrated death and destruction with ‘lightning’ (‘blitz’) speed; Stalin was happy to draw out the suffering.

German and Soviet soldiers fraternizing in September 1939

German and Soviet soldiers fraternizing in September 1939

Whatever hopes decent leftists in the West may entertain today about benign or humane socialism, Stalin should have no place in them. The Stalin era should be categorically condemned on a factual historical basis. Anyone taking fundamental concepts of human rights seriously—whether claiming allegiance to the right or left—should treat Putin’s claims as unacceptable. Stalin was not merely engaging in ‘tactics’ with Hitler; he was the partner and accomplice of the Nazi leader. To make matters worse, Putin’s assertion is symptomatic of a current policy of allowing the rehabilitation of Stalin in Russian political culture to bolster the revanchist and undemocratic regime in Moscow. This reactionary domestic policy tragically exploits enduring social ignorance and confusion, prolonging Russia’s suffering.

British Premier Neville Chamberlain, French President Edouard Dallier, Adolf Hitler, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano in Munich for the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938

British Premier Neville Chamberlain, French President Edouard Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini and Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano at the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938

Cooperation between the Third Reich and the USSR in the period 1939-41 is omitted from official Soviet and Russian history books in the interests of maintaining a consistent ‘anti-fascist’ myth for Russia throughout history and avoiding genuine de-Stalinization. Russian propaganda now flings accusations of ‘fascism’ or ‘neo-nazism’ at any ex-Soviet state opposing Moscow’s domination, and to the extent that the international community sees the Kremlin as legatee of the victors in the war against fascism, Moscow can achieve success with its distracting propaganda tactic. Now, the international community has a moral duty not only to reject the Kremlin’s mendacious classifications, but also to appreciate that the current Russian polity itself actually resembles the twentieth-century fascist regimes with which it is trying—by association—to tarnish others.

Children suffering from starvation during the 1932-33 famine

Children suffering from starvation during the 1932-33 famine

Again, this is no simple matter of a racist, anti-Semitic tyranny (Nazi Germany) versus a flawed but well-meaning socialist state (USSR). It is a question of millions of people—Belarusians, Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians and others—caught in the midst of unspeakable evil. By logical extension, if Putin justifies the Hitler-Stalin Pact, then he regards such nations as beneath consideration, or ‘less than human.’ This is the crux of the problem with today’s Russian regime. It is ‘neo-Stalinist.’ It believes that, with a nod and a wink, it can convince other historical ‘great powers’ such as Germany and France to overlook ‘lesser powers’ in the interests of ‘business as usual,’ and proceed with revanchism and authoritarianism as its corrupt principals hoard more cash.

In the following account by a Ukrainian historian of the consequences for Ukraine of the Nazi-Soviet collaboration, the term ‘communist’ is frequently used to refer to the leaders and functionaries of the Stalin regime. Readers should look beyond formal categories in deciding whether one means (Stalinism) could in any sense justify a ‘good end’ that never happened (communism), or whether—in light of the great human tragedy that ensued—Stalin’s Soviet Union was really only a tragically costly lesson in how not to do things.

Hitler, Stalin and Ukraine: merciless strategies

Yuriy Shapoval ~ Historical Truth / 9 May 2013

Shocked by the advent of the Nazis, Stalin was ready to offer Hitler the world: Molotov[ii] asked the Bulgarian ambassador in a meeting to convey a proposal to Berlin to stop the fighting. In exchange, Stalin was prepared to give Ukraine and Belarus to the Nazis.

01-Hitler-Stalin Poster

Bloodlands: American historian Timothy Snyder has used this neologism to designate the lands most affected by the Nazi and communist dictatorship. [Snyder] includes Poland and Ukraine in these ‘bloody lands.’ When people talk about Ukraine, they usually emphasize correctly that a merciless whirlwind of war swept through twice: from west to east, and from east to west. Sixty percent of the Wehrmacht’s divisions were involved in Ukraine, and almost half of the combat units of the Red/Soviet Army, which delivered a series of strategic blows against the Germans. It was from Ukraine itself that a path was opened for Soviet troops to Central Europe and the Balkans.Bloodlands

In Hitler’s plans for conquest, Ukraine occupied a special place. Actually, these plans were formulated by taking into account the capture of Ukraine, which was to be an important part of the implementation of the ‘Hunger Plan’ (Der Hungerplan). This plan called for residents of the USSR’s occupied territories to fast so that more food could be supplied to the German army and people.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed on 23 August 1939 in Moscow. Stalin is smiling sincerely in the company of the foreign ministers of Germany—Ribbentrop (left)—and the USSR—Molotov (right).

The Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed on 23 August 1939 in Moscow. Stalin is smiling sincerely in the company of the foreign ministers of Germany—Ribbentrop (left)—and the USSR—Molotov (right).

Ukraine was ever-present in Stalin’s strategy as well. The red dictator never forgot the Ukrainians’ desire for independence, demonstrated during the period of 1917-1920. He didn’t just wage cruel war against outspoken opponents of the Bolsheviks. He constantly sought out ‘separatists’ and ‘nationalist deviants’ among the Ukrainian ethnic elite, showing his distrust for the whole Communist Party of Ukraine and eventually using the difficult situation at the beginning of 1930 to suppress Ukraine with the help of the Holodomor.[iii]

Doomed to be located between two totalitarian powers, Ukraine during the Second World War was destined to survive confrontation between regular armies, genocides, deportations, mobilizations, exiles to forced labor, clashes of partisan and underground movements, and many other events that really did drench Ukrainian lands in blood. This was clearly illustrated by events prior to the start of WWII. On 15 March 1939, the Hungarian army (Hungary was an ally of Hitler) invaded Carpathian Ukraine, which had just declared independence. Transcarpathia was annexed to Hungary at the cost of blood and lives. The struggle of the Carpathian Sich was the first military action—though not directly against Hitler himself—waged against his satellites. But Stalin showed his sympathy for Hitler publicly. Already on 10 March 1939, at the XVIII Congress of the CPSU(b),[iv] Stalin sneered over Carpathian Ukraine, calling it a ‘bug that wants to annex an elephant.’ In addition, in this speech, Stalin said that Britain, France and America were very interested in the fact that Hitler had gone to war against the Soviet Union.

On 22 August 1939, in a speech to the commanders of all the armed forces of Germany, Hitler said: ‘In the autumn of 1938, I decided to go with Stalin… Stalin and I are the only ones looking exclusively to the future. So, in the coming days I’m going to give my hand to Stalin on the German-Soviet border, and together he and I will begin a new division of the world…’

Totally friendly discussions: officers of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht during the September campaign in 1939

Totally friendly discussions: officers of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht during the September campaign in 1939

It happened on 23 August 1939. Then, as you know, the ‘Hitler-Stalin’ pact was signed (somehow still called the ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’). The dictators divided Europe, and each had his own designs. An independent Ukraine did not, however, have a place in their plans.

In a typical entry in his diary in fall 1939, the famous German writer Heinrich Mann wrote:

‘Stalin is the same as Hitler: for many years he blamed Hitler and his government, even though he probably envied him. One traitor built his entire career on anti-Bolshevism. Suddenly he does a u-turn, and then the other traitor opens his arms to him? They found each other in order to oppose the civilized world. Finally, together.’

On 17 September 1939, the Soviet Union entered the Second World War: the troops of the Ukrainian Front entered the territory of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. On 22 September, the Red Army was in Lviv; on 27 September, the Nazis captured Warsaw. Nikita Khrushchev, then leader of the Soviet Ukrainian Communist Party, recalled how accurately the Germans and Russians fulfilled the prior agreement and moved on toward the previously specified distribution line of the occupied territories. It is known that joint Nazi-Soviet military parades were held. Certain facts concerning cooperation between the Gestapo and NKVD became available, although this topic has yet to receive adequate coverage.

Soviet and German soldiers, Lviv (September 1939)

1939: victory parade in Brest. Communists and Nazis together.

In September 1939, Stalinist propaganda depicted a ‘liberation campaign’ by the Red Army, a ‘Golden September’ for Western Ukraine as a ‘fraternal association.’ These clichés are repeated time and again in today’s Ukraine (mainly by Communists) and—especially—in Russia. But is it possible to sum up the collusion of two tyrannies in such categories? The tyrannies divided between them spheres of influence from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and from Finland to Bessarabia. In particular, they agreed to destroy Poland as a state.

1939: victory parade in Brest. Communists and Nazis together.

Soviet and German soldiers, Lviv (September 1939)

Do not dissemble: the Soviet Union entered the Second World War on the side of the Nazis, and then, in June 1941, paid a terrible price and had to ‘fix’ the shortcomings of Stalinist secret diplomacy. There was no ‘fraternal association.’ As documents revealed in recent years evidence, there was reference to the establishment of a Western Ukrainian communist dictatorship, the implanting of appropriate administrative structures and the destruction of the previous Polish administration (and its representatives), and the thorough destruction of Ukrainian national organizations and the Ukrainian intelligentsia (a priori for Moscow ‘nationalist’). Thoroughgoing arrests were carried out by operational groups of NKVD functionaries and border guards. At the beginning of October 1939 they numbered about 90,000 on the Belorussian front and about 105,000 on the Ukrainian front.

As a result of agreements with the Soviet Union, the Nazis seized much of the territory and population of the Polish state. From the perspective of international law this was outright aggression, which violated a number of international agreements. September 1939 wasn’t ‘golden’ for Western Ukraine. It was ‘brown-red.’

‘Golden September’: a Soviet poster depicts the events of autumn 1939 as the freeing of Ukrainian lands from Polish occupation.

‘Golden September’: a Soviet poster depicts the events of autumn 1939 as the freeing of Ukrainian lands from Polish occupation.

This is precisely why both Polish patriots and Ukrainian patriots were victims of the ‘Golden September.’ Already in December 1939, preparations had begun for the deportation of the population of the western regions of Ukraine and Belarus to remote areas of the USSR. The first inhabitants were deported in February 1940, along with the families of Polish military osadniki[v] and foresters. The second deportation in April 1940 dealt with the families of the repressed. The third and fourth—respectively in June 1940 and May-June 1941—were mostly refugees. About 320 thousand people were deported. To date, the number of deaths in transit, prisons, camps and executions based on various sentences has not been calculated. In addition, after the beginning of the Nazi-Soviet War in 1941, thousands of ordinary prisoners and POWs were executed.

The most infamous war crime of the Soviet Union during World War II was Katyn: the massacre of Polish prisoners of war near Smolensk, in Kharkiv, in Kyiv and in Kalinin. The photo shows the exhumation in Katyn, which was carried out by the German occupation authorities in the spring of 1943.

The most infamous war crime of the Soviet Union during World War II was Katyn: the massacre of Polish prisoners of war near Smolensk, and in Kharkiv, Kyiv and Kalinin. The photo shows the exhumation in Katyn by the German occupation authorities in spring 1943.

For example, in Bykivnia at the beginning of the Nazi-Soviet War in 1941, the NKVD shot a large group of prisoners from Kyiv. All traces of the crimes were carefully hidden. Read the Ukrainian Katyn list in the materials of Dr. Slawomir Kalbarczyk about the shootings in Bykivnia, how the NKVD exterminated Poles in Ukraine.

So, on the eve of World War II Poland and Ukraine had been divided between the two dictators. Part of the lands—to which Stalin added more seized from Romania, Moldavia and Bessarabia, together with their Ukrainian populations, in 1940—was incorporated into the USSR. The western edges of Ukrainian ethnographic territory transferred directly to the Third Reich, or to Berlin’s puppet states of Romania and Hungary. Without an independent state of their own, the Ukrainians had to perform the civil obligations of countries of which they were citizens. For the majority of Ukrainians this meant serving in the Soviet armed forces, and for the others—in the German, Romanian and Hungarian armies.

Lviv, June 1941: Local residents welcome German troops (Photo: National Digital Archive of Poland)

Lviv, June 1941: Local residents welcome German troops (Photo: National Digital Archive of Poland)

On 22 June 1941, the criminal agreements of Hitler and Stalin ended, but the trials of the Ukrainians did not. With the outbreak of war, mobilization measures were initiated, Ukraine’s resources were exported to the eastern Soviet Union and regions of Central Asia, and 3.5 million citizens of Ukraine were evacuated. The equipment of 550 major Ukrainian industrial enterprises was removed to the east, and what remained was plundered by the Germans.

A Nazi propaganda poster reads 'Hitler the Liberator' in Ukrainian

A Nazi propaganda poster reads ‘Hitler the Liberator’ in Ukrainian

In the context of the advancing German forces, the Central Committee of the CPSU(b) and the Soviet government instructed local authorities and party organizations to destroy everything that could not be evacuated: factory equipment, collective farm machinery, inventory, bread, harvests. This was stated in the directive of the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom)[vi] of the USSR and the Central Committee of the CPSU(b) on 29 June1941, in Stalin’s speech on the radio on 3 July 1941, in a special resolution of the State Defense Committee of 22 July 1941, and in other documents. As is now well known, they spoke of the establishment of a ‘scorched earth’ zone.

Dneproges, Zaporizhia (1941)

‘Dneproges’ Hydroelectric Power Station, Zaporizhia (1941)

In Dnipropetrovsk, a baking works was blown up along with the bakery’s workers. In Odessa, during the retreat of the Red Army, coastal neighborhoods were flooded with their residents still in them, and wounded Red Army soldiers were thrown into the sea along with the ambulances. Representatives of the intelligentsia were removed from Kharkiv—to be burned to death in a sealed building. In Uman, people were entombed alive in a cellar. Such examples can be multiplied. And it wasn’t the Nazis who did this, but the Communists during their retreat, or rather, as they ran away from the enemy. In some places people opposed this policy of ‘scorched earth.’ For example, farmers disrupted attempts to destroy collective property, facilities, food, animals, etc.

In Lviv, and other cities in western Ukraine the NKVD extra-judicially executed thousands of political prisoners. The Nazis took advantage of this fact to instigate pogroms at the beginning of July 1941. In Lviv’s Prison Yard No. 1 in 1941 (Photo: Archive of the Center for Research of the Liberation Movement)

Prison Yard No. 1 (1941): In Lviv and other western Ukrainian cities, the NKVD extra-judicially executed thousands of political prisoners. The Nazis took advantage of this to instigate pogroms in early July 1941. (Photo: Archive of Center for Research of the Liberation Movt)

That is why one can and should write not only about the crimes of the Nazi occupation and repression (as usual), but also about the crimes of the communist regime against its own citizens. People who survived the disaster knew that the Ukrainian people had suffered from both totalitarian systems, as from Hitler, as from Stalin.

The Nazis discovered other crimes of the USSR in Vinnytsia in 1943, and… they used them to justify the Holocaust. This German poster has distinctly anti-Semitic overtones.

The Nazis discovered other crimes of the USSR in Vinnytsia in 1943, and… they used them to justify the Holocaust. This German poster has distinctly anti-Semitic overtones.

On the territory of Ukraine, the Nazis in fact carried out the policy of two holocausts—the total extermination of the Jews (killing more than 1 million, with Babi Yar in Kyiv becoming a symbol of the tragedy of the Jews of Ukraine), as well as the systematic destruction of the Slavs—Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Belarusians.

The Nazis planned a huge ‘death factory’ as part of the construction of Totenburg (Death City) on the banks of the Dnipro near Kyiv. The Nazis built smaller such ‘factories’ throughout Ukraine. Many Ukrainians found themselves in concentration camps outside Ukraine.

Kyiv, Babi Yar. German soldiers digging among the things of murdered Jews (Photo: Johannes Gole, beginning of October 1941)

Babi Yar, Kyiv: German soldiers dig among murdered Jews (Photo: Johannes Gole, early October 1941)

A Jew wearing an armband on a street in Stalino (Donetsk) in 1941

A Jew wearing an armband on a street in Stalino (Donetsk) in 1941

The war that broke out in the Soviet Union was named the ‘Great Patriotic War.’ Already on 22 June 1941, Stalinist academician Yemelyan Yaroslavsky wrote an article that was printed the next day in the Pravda newspaper under the heading ‘The big patriotic war of the Soviet people’ (at first the three words were written in lowercase letters; later they introduced capital letters for the word ‘Patriotic,’ and at the end of the war began to write the first two words in capitals). However, events after 22 June called into doubt the actual ‘patriotism’ of the war, and the legendary enthusiasm and unity of the civilian population in defense of the ‘socialist fatherland,’ revealing society’s deep division into at least three groups:

Monument of Stalin and Lenin in Artemivsk, 1941 (photo-war.com)

Monument of Stalin and Lenin in Artemivsk (now Bakhmut), Ukraine in 1941 (photo-war.com)

— Those who for various reasons (including force of belief) fought in the Red Army;

— Those who did not want the return of the Communists and openly opposed them;

— The ‘silent majority,’ which was prepared or forced to adapt to the different regimes.

Many facts confirmed the Communists’ distrust of their own citizens. For example, to prevent eavesdropping on information about events at the front by sources not controlled by the authorities, radios were requisitioned from the population in the front areas. With the aim of ‘dosing’ the population with information about events at the front and in the world, the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinformburo) was created. None other than Stalin himself in his famous toast on 25 June 1945 said: ‘Our government made a lot of mistakes, and we had moments of despair in 1941-1942, when our army was retreating… Sometimes people would say to the government: you haven’t met our expectations, go away, we’ll install another government that will make peace with Germany and give us peace.’

Residents of Kharkiv looking at German posters

Residents of Kharkiv look at German posters

What the ‘father of the peoples’ himself did in that bloody June is yet to be learned, but today we already know a lot that seems incredible. For example, it has been confirmed that—shocked by the advent of the Nazis—Stalin was ready to offer Hitler a new version of the Brest Peace: Vyacheslav Molotov during his meeting with the Bulgarian ambassador asked him to transmit to Berlin a proposal to stop the fighting. During that Stalin was ready to give the Nazis Ukraine and Belarus. However, at that moment, given his military successes, Hitler rejected these proposals.

German propaganda poster (1941)

German propaganda poster (1941)

Soviet society was terrorized and divided, and therefore a significant part looked to the arrival of the Germans with hope for getting rid of the Bolshevik tyranny. As recalled by Demyan Korotchenko (not some Nazi propagandist, but a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine), in the first days of the war, ‘the vast majority of the civilian population in Ukraine was not willing to carry on fighting against the Germans, but tried different ways to adapt to the occupation regime.’

Soviet propaganda poster (1941)

Soviet propaganda poster (1941)

That is, the war split society. However, there were forces that understood that neither Berlin nor the Kremlin would give freedom to Ukraine. And given this, a fundamentally different interpretation required of the fact that on 30 June 1941, the day of the Nazi occupation of Lviv, activists of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists [OUN] led by Stepan Bandera proclaimed the restoration of the regional leadership of the Ukrainian state (local government, headed by Yaroslav Stetsko) without making the Germans aware of it. This was not the action of collaboration-minded Ukrainian statesmen, but a reflection of the situation in society. Ukrainians are credited with a lot of ‘phobias,’ but it is difficult to blame them for state phobia.

Now once again to Stalin’s words, spoken on 25 June 1945: ‘Sometimes people would say to the government: you haven’t met our expectations, go away… But the Russian people did not go for this… And this trust of the Russian people in the Soviet government was the decisive force that ensured the historic victory over the enemy of mankind—over fascism. Thanks to them, the Russian people, for the trust!’

Stalin: ‘Thanks to them, the Russian people, for the trust!’

Stalin: ‘Thanks to them, the Russian people, for the trust!’

The scale of Ukraine’s loss during World War II is as follows. The losses of the Soviet Union make up 40% of the total losses of all participants in the Second World War, taken together, and the material losses of Ukraine were about 40% of the losses of the USSR at the time. In 1940, Kyiv had 930,000 inhabitants; in 1943—180,000. Altogether, according to contemporary estimates, in 1941-45 the Soviet Union lost 32 million people. They were, as sung in the Soviet era, ‘children of different nations.’ The official losses of Ukraine in the war were upwards of 10 million people. But in the Kremlin, it was the role of the Russian people that was emphasized (just as, incidentally, it is being emphasized in Russia today).

Street fighting near Gosprom in Kharkiv (February 1943)

Street fighting near Gosprom in Kharkiv (February 1943)

This did not bode well for other peoples and, of course, for the Ukrainians, whom the Soviet Communist Party did not trust because they had lived under German occupation. Here, the Stalinist regime used a variety of punishments. Indicative was the fate of the Ukrainians, who were called ‘blackjackets’ because they fought in plain clothes without any training. In the autumn of 1943 the film director and writer Aleksandr Dovzhenko wrote in his diary: ‘It is said that in Ukraine they are already beginning to prepare for the mobilization of 16-year-olds, that they are chasing the ill-trained into battle, that they are treating them like cannon fodder, that they do not feel sorry for anybody.’

Aleksandr Dovzhenko

Aleksandr Dovzhenko

Indeed, in 1943 there was a special directive requiring greater use of this source of troop replenishment, as in the mobilization of military conscripts from previously occupied areas. Broad mobilization measures were implemented from the very first days of the return of Communist rule to Ukrainian lands. According to expert estimates, in the years 1943-45 in Ukraine, the Soviet Army mobilized around 3 million people. In 1944, every third soldier of the army was a Ukrainian. Of the troops engaged in drills on the 1st to the 4th Ukrainian fronts, mainly infantry units and formations, Ukrainians accounted for 60-80%. However, the anti-human Stalinist military strategy, which took no account of victims, led to significant losses among the male population of Ukraine. At least a third of the mobilized citizens of the USSR were killed during this period. Residents of other regions of the USSR filled the postwar ethno-demographic vacuum in Ukraine.

It is interesting that during the war the Stalinist regime flirted with the national feelings of Ukrainians in order to stimulate their patriotism. In particular, among all the union republics only the Ukrainian SSR was allowed to have ‘its’ medal. This refers to the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, introduced on 10 October 1943 by decree of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. I should also mention that the combatants in 1941-45 received 7 million awards and medals. Of these, 2.5 million were for natives of Ukraine. The proportion of Ukrainians among the heroes of the Soviet Union was 18.2% (Russians were more—71%; Belarusians—3.3%; the other 40 nationalities—7.4%). Finally, do not forget that it was a Ukrainian who literally put a full stop on the Second World War. It was a young general of Ukrainian origin, Kuzma Derevyanko, who on 2 September 1945, signed the act of surrender of Japan on behalf of the USSR on board the cruiser ‘Missouri.’

General Kuzma Derevyanko signing the Japanese Act of Surrender

General Kuzma Derevyanko signs the Japanese Act of Surrender

Nevertheless, Stalin carried out an anti-Ukrainian strategy until the end of his life, not trusting the Ukrainians and authorizing periodic ‘anti-nationalist’ campaigns. For example, in January 1944 at a meeting of the Politburo of the CPSU(b) Stalin personally delivered a speech on ‘On the anti-Leninist errors and nationalist distortions in Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s cinematic work, Ukraine in Flames.’

Still from Dovzhenko's 'Ukraine in Flames' (1943)

Still from Dovzhenko’s ‘Ukraine in Flames’ (1943)

They didn’t just criticize the film; they declared it ‘anti-Soviet,’ a clear manifestation of ‘nationalism, narrow national-mindedness.’ It was a clear signal for the next large-scale anti-Ukrainian campaign, the full scope of which would manifest itself in the postwar years. With this—as well as other repressive actions—in mind, we have every reason to revise one of the cornerstones of the communist postulates about the liberation of Ukraine. In 1944, this liberation essentially didn’t exist. It was the expulsion of the Nazis from the territory of Ukraine. And the war after the war that the Stalin regime launched on western Ukrainian lands and carried on to the mid-1950s is one of the most compelling arguments in favor of just such a definition, although there are many others.

Conversations with StalinOne of these, in particular, is noted by the former Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas in his book Conversations with Stalin, recalling how he was part of the Yugoslav delegation in 1945, returned from Moscow and stopped over in Kyiv. Djilas writes about Nikita Khrushchev, a Russian, who headed Ukraine from 1938:

‘It was unusual even for us, for Communists, who were able to justify everything that could discredit the idealized image of ourselves, that among the Ukrainians, a nation as numerous as the French… there was not one person who could be the premier of the government.’

And Djilas notes further that the bloody confrontation in Western Ukraine cannot be explained merely by the persistence of Ukrainian nationalism, because the question arises: where does this nationalism come from if all the peoples of the USSR are really equal? And in fact, the accusations of ‘nationalism’ against Ukrainians have a broader meaning than is sometimes thought. Not only Stalin but also Hitler successfully used these charges to destroy the very idea of Ukraine as a genuinely independent state.

Soviet soldiers lead German prisoners of war through the streets of Kyiv on 16 August 1944.

Soviet soldiers lead German prisoners of war through the streets of Kyiv on 16 August 1944.

As noted by Timothy Snyder, whom I mentioned at the beginning, the dynamic of mass destruction in the case of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was brought about by the fact that both regimes based themselves on utopian ideologies oriented toward an imperial political course. Now it’s a different time. It is time to interpret the past, in particular the period of the Second World War, without forgetting what happened in the Soviet Union after August 1991.

… One author argued once that a historian, writing about war, should be both the belligerent parties and, in fact, the war itself. Probably, it would be ideal if every researcher who dared to write about the difficult events I mention wanted to be both Germany and Bolshevik Russia, and—of course—Ukraine.

Prof. Yurii Shapoval, Doctor of Historical Sciences

Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Kyiv

Гитлер, Сталин и Украина: безжалостные стратегии

[i] The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, or Soviet police, was the precursor of the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB).

[ii] Vyacheslav Molotov was the head of the Soviet government (1930-41) and Soviet minister of foreign affairs (1939-49) in the regime of Joseph Stalin, who was the chief of the Soviet Communist Party. In 1948, Stalin had Molotov’s wife arrested, imprisoned and exiled for ‘treason.’ She was not released until after Stalin’s death, but Molotov continued to serve in Stalin’s Politburo during her absence.

[iii] The Holodomor is the Ukrainian name given to the Soviet state-created famine in Ukraine in 1932-33. In order to provide food to the Soviet cities, Stalin ordered that grain and food were to be requisitioned from Ukrainian farms in volumes that precluded local subsistence, and that the borders of Soviet Ukraine be sealed to prevent residents from leaving. The policy allowed for the USSR to continue grain exports and conceal starvation from the outside world, but it also decimated the Ukrainian nation and population.

[iv] CPSU(b) refers to ‘Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik),’ the full, formal name of the Soviet Communist Party, reflecting the division of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party into two factions—the ‘Bolsheviks’ (majoritarians), under Lenin, and the ‘Mensheviks’ (minoritarians)—in 1903.

[v] Veterans of the Polish army or civilians who were given or sold state land after Poland’s victory over the USSR in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21

[vi] The Sovnarkom was the original name of the Soviet government cabinet. It was later renamed the ‘Council of Ministers’ of the USSR.

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