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The dissemination of misinformation. A review of a Guardian Newspaper review of a bad book

German and Soviet officers shaking hands with each other. According to Stalin, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was “sealed in blood”. He was referring to the blood of the victims of his alliance with Hitler.
The dissemination of misinformation. A review of a Guardian Newspaper review of a bad book
Article by: James Oliver
Edited by: Elena Karacharova

One of the recurring themes of Soviet apologetics vis-à-vis contemporary Russian apologetics is the way the early part of WW2 revolves around the concept that what the Soviet Union did between 1939-41 constitutes building its defences and building a land buffer against inevitable Hitlerian aggression that would have struck the USSR at some future point. If you listen to the speeches of Putin on the subject then you know he echoes this same theme. We know this theme existed very early on in WW2 because it was invoked in a British parliamentary debate on 20 September 1939, “I think”, declared Robert Boothby MP, “it is legitimate to suppose that this action on the part of the Soviet Government was taken […] from the point of view of self-preservation and self-defence. […] The action taken by the Russian troops […] has pushed the German frontier considerably westward”. Because this theme keeps being repeated and because it has long been ingrained into general consciousness, it is worth challenging and demonstrating why exactly it is wrong. The “action” being described here is the Soviet invasion of Poland, which began on 17 September 1939 and was designed to incorporate Eastern Poland into the Soviet sphere of influence. Stalin deliberately struck when the Poles were at their most distracted by their desperate defence against the German Blitzkrieg but the Soviet invasion was not merely a concurrent action as Soviet propaganda depicts it but a collaborative action with the Germans. Both Hitler and Stalin agreed to the dismemberment of Poland by a secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the contents of which agreed on so much more – entailing the complete carve-up of Eastern Europe and the sealing of the fate of 50 million people. [1]

On 22 August 1939 Hitler told his generals that “our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy”. [2] We know that from day one of the invasion of Poland the Germans followed these words and conducted numerous atrocities against the Polish population. [3] All of these are undeniably aggressive, and if these acts can be considered aggressive then surely we would be able to say the same thing about Stalin’s invasions? Each of his invasions against the nations that Hitler agreed to him having in the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was followed by massacres, deportations, and ethnic cleansing operations with the intent of restructuring the fabric of the occupied societies themselves. None of this can morally convey a sense of being “defensive”. [4] If Stalin really wanted to create a buffer state between him and Hitler then he would have given Soviet armaments (which matched anything the Germans produced) to Poland. After all there was a Polish-Soviet non-aggression pact, which Stalin would go on to violate in 1939, but arming Poland would have contradicted the Marxist-Leninist policy developed in the early 1920s that saw the conquest of Poland as opening the gateway to Europe. [5] The final analysis concluded that the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 was aggressive!

Understanding that the Soviet Union was an aggressive not a defensive power also helps to explain one of the most important questions that 1941 poses: why was the Red Army caught out so badly in that year? Part of the explanation has to rely on the fact that the Soviet Union did not prepare for defence in depth between 1939 and 1941. On May 5 1941 Stalin delivered a cryptic speech in which he hinted that because the Red Army had been rebuilt from the bloody purges of the 1930s and had been equipped with modern technology, “we must shift from the defensive to the attack. If we are to defend our country, we are obliged to do so offensively.” [6] Remarks like this have helped fuel debate over if the USSR had any sort of plan to attack Nazi Germany or not. In light of a lack of definitive evidence, the jury is still out there but given the aggressive nature of Soviet ideology, it is not entirely out of the question. “The author believes that Stalin was getting ready to attack Germany at some point, but inclines to the more traditional view that 1942 would have been the preferred option.” [7]

(Details of a possible Soviet offensive operation against Nazi Germany devised in 1941. Image via
(Details of a possible Soviet offensive operation against Nazi Germany devised in 1941. Image via

To be sure, in the final analysis it was Nazi Germany and its allies that began what Stalin and by extension Russia today calls the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941-45, but that does not mean the conflict should be seen as a tale of USSR-good vs Nazi-evil, but rather two evil powers locked in the bitterest and bloodiest struggle the world has seen to date. It was, as Norman Davies described, “no simple victory”. Caught in the middle of this were the Ukrainian peoples. As I have mentioned before, 5-8 million, possibly 10 million of whom died during WWII.

The importance of history cannot be understated, especially when history is used as a deliberate tool in an information war. One recent example involved a diplomatic spat between Grzegorz Schetyna, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, and Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, over the question of who liberated Auschwitz, with Ukrainians once again caught in the middle. Schetyna emphasised the Ukrainian role in the liberation of Auschwitz. Lavrov called this “blasphemous and cynical” and instead emphasised that the Red Army was in general a multiethnic force.

Auschwitz was liberated by the soldiers of the 100th and 107th Soviet rifle divisions. Both were within the 60th army of the 1st Ukrainian front, which, according to Ukrainian historian Ukrainian historians such as Rostislav Pylyavets, was 60-80% Ukrainian, but whether or not that will convince Lavrov is another thing. The first Red Army officer to enter Auschwitz was a Ukrainian Jew by the name of Anatoliy Shapiro. He led a Red Army battalion of about 500 men from the 100th division into the main death camp. The gates of Auschwitz were opened by a Ukrainian tankman, Igor Pobirchenko. Both these men were led by Major-General Fyodor Krasavin, who is buried in Kazan! The 107th division was led by another Ukrainian, Vasily Petrenko, but not all the men under him were Ukrainian. One of the few remaining liberators still alive goes by the name of Ivan Stepanovich Martynushkin; he was born near Ryazan.

Tombstone of Anotoliy Shapiro. He is currently buried in New York
Tombstone of Anotoliy Shapiro. He is currently buried in New York

With the above in mind, it is completely fair to say that by the end of the day of 27 January 1945 both Russian & Ukrainian contingent of the Red Army were present at Auschwitz. However, I would like to add another point here, and it is something one should be aware of when trying to turn the story of Auschwitz liberation into a Russian-vs-Ukrainian spat. Soviet propaganda usually depicted the Ukrainians and Russians as “brotherly nations” or two “nationalities” with an overlapping past. Furthermore, that idea was combined with Tsarist propaganda that portrayed the Ukrainians as “Little Russians” anyway and that therefore Ukraine is and always has been a natural part of the Russian sphere of influence. What this meant in effect was that men like Shapiro or Pobirchenko were commonly depicted as actually being Russian themselves regardless of where they were born. This has had the consequence of making it easier for Putin and his acolytes to portray WW2 as basically being a “Russian victory”. Again, it is worth reminding that the conflict was in reality “no simple victory”.

History is more than just knowing dates or having the ability to construct a chronology, although both are undeniably important. If you want to do history you must also be able to weave a narrative that also acts as an analysis of a particular time, place, and subject. Furthermore, if you want to have a deep understanding of what you are looking at, my recommendation is to study more than just history. Personally, I find it worthwhile to study philosophy, sociology, political science and languages to help better understand primary source material because merely reading English translations will lead you to lose some of the subtleties of the content of the sources. Studying the Holodomor is a prime example of what I mean by the above. If you really want to understand the subject then you have to build knowledge of each component that adds to a whole. You need to know, for example, the philosophy of Marxism and by extension Marxism-Leninism and how it interplayed with Stalin’s own thinking and behaviours, as well as his acolytes. You need to understand how his dictatorship worked and the ideological basis for his dictatorship and his policies. You need to understand the Ukrainian society and how each part of it functioned as well the mentalities that influenced societal thought processes vis-à-vis Stalin. Finally, you need to contextualise all of this with what was happening in the rest of the Soviet Union and indeed beyond, particularly when it comes to international reaction. A history of the Holodomor cannot be complete without an analysis of the denialism of the likes of Walter Duranty and how it influenced the Western understanding of what was really going on. The list of what one needs to do goes on but the above gives you a hint.

One of the end products out of all of this is being able to relate to contemporary mentalities and how the past has influenced them today. With this in mind Richard Sakwa has come out with a new book attempting to explain the crisis in Ukraine as stemming from two different concepts of Ukrainian statehood. It has been reviewed glowingly in the British newspaper The Guardian. Obviously, critiquing a book by only addressing a review of it is self-evidently flawed but this piece is aimed primarily at the Guardian article itself. Nonetheless, it does provide a distillation of the book’s contents and based on that I would suggest Sakwa’s book is a book not worth buying.

Here we are given a distilled version of Sakwa’s conception of the “monist” view of Ukrainian statehood “which asserts that the country is an autochthonous cultural and political unity and that the challenge of independence since 1991 has been to strengthen the Ukrainian language, repudiate the Tsarist and Soviet imperial legacies, reduce the political weight of Russian speakers and move the country away from Russia towards “Europe”. The alternative “pluralist” view emphasises the different historical and cultural experiences of Ukraine’s various regions and argues that building a modern democratic post-Soviet Ukrainian state is not just a matter of good governance and rule of law at the centre. It also requires an acceptance of bilingualism, mutual tolerance of different traditions, and devolution of power to the regions”. [8]

One of the achievements of the Euromaidan revolution was to restore the Ukrainian constitution of 2004, Article 7 of which guarantees local self-governance. Article 10 recognises the first language to be Ukrainian language, but other languages including the Russian language are protected. Article 11 mandates the Ukrainian state recognise the development of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious identity of all its people, Ukrainians and minorities, reflecting that Ukraine is a multiethnic and multiconfessional state. Article 35 guarantees the freedom of religion. Article 28 in Kantian terms protects human dignity, and so on. I do not see anything here that the core of the Euromaidan movement disagrees with. In short, this is a very modern, tolerant, liberal-democratic view of how the state should function and the interaction it should have with its citizens, which transcends much of this supposed “Monist-Pluralist” dichotomy being offered here.

(A pair of videos which typifies the Euromaidan spirit, and again demonstrates that the supposed “Monist-Pluralist” dichotomy being offered by Sakwa and Steele lacks explanatory power.)

Remember the support and sympathy the Ukrainians gave and continue to give to the Crimean Tatars, now under Russian occupation and fearing persecution. The citizenry being able to hold the government to account was another feature of the Euromaidan protests. Which is why there was a sense of justification to the movement when Mezhyhirya palace was liberated and the Ukrainian peoples could finally see what Yanukovych had built and bought using stolen taxpayers’ cash. Yanukovych’s style of rule incorporating kleptocracy and nepotism chimes with the way Putin rules Russia but contradicts the liberal-democratic aims of the Euromaidan. So to use Yanukovych as some kind of exemplar of holding “good governance and rule of law” in the manner that is being inferred here is rather absurd, to put it mildly.
(A reminder of just some of the things discovered in the liberation of Mezhyhirya palace and how Yanokovych’s cronies saw themselves.)

“The second crisis”, Sakwa through Steele claims, “arises from the internationalisation of the struggle inside Ukraine which turned it into a geopolitical tug of war”. Sakwa argues that this stems from the asymmetrical end of the cold war, which shut Russia out of the European alliance system. While Mikhail Gorbachev and millions of other Russians saw the end of the cold war as a shared victory which might lead to the building of a “common European home”, most western leaders saw Russia as a defeated nation whose interests could be brushed aside, and which must accept US hegemony in the new single-superpower world order or face isolation. Instead of dismantling NATO, the cold-war alliance was strengthened and expanded in spite of repeated warnings from western experts on Russia that this would create new tensions. Long before Putin came to power, Yeltsin had urged the West not to move NATO eastwards”. [9]

Yet who said this in 2002 about the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO? “Ukraine is an independent, sovereign state and will choose its own path to peace and security […] Such a conversation would be entirely appropriate and entirely possible. I certainly don’t see there being anything particularly tricky here, anything that need or could cast a shadow over relations between Russia and Ukraine”. It might seem hard to believe now but those were the words of Putin. [10] The context lies in the formation of the NATO-Russia Council. NATO’s attempt to create an alliance with Russia and in the NATO presser’s words “enhancing our ability to work together in areas of common interest and to stand together against common threats and risks to our security”. It wasn’t NATO or the West that changed the nature of the relationship but rather Putin’s increasing belligerence as he clamped down on civil society and established and rubber-stamped his dictatorship. In 2008 both Ukraine and Georgia tried to join NATO. However, the weak-hearted nations of France and Germany said they feared it would upset the Western-Russian balance of power. As a result both Ukraine and Russia were rebuffed at the Bucharest summit in April of that year. In August 2008 Georgia would find itself invaded by Russia. Anne Applebaum has eloquently refuted the myth of Russian humiliation. If anything, it has been Russia taking the initiative with the West being forced to react (albeit in too limited a fashion). Such was the case also with Georgia in 2008, yet Steele in his article has the tenacity to blame Georgia for that conflict.

Sakwa’s third contention through Steele’s third article places emphasis on “the last two decades” which “have seen repeated occasions where US officials pleaded, half-sincerely, for a greater European role in handling geopolitical crises in Europe while simultaneously denigrating and sidelining Europe’s efforts. Last year’s “Fuck the EU” comment by Victoria Nuland […] was the pithiest expression of this” placed in a context of fears of greater European independence in policy making “worried key decision-makers in Washington, and NATO’s role has been, in part, to maintain US primacy over Europe’s foreign policy. From Bosnia in 1992 to Ukraine today” [11] . But could any American anger if there is any over the approach of European nations be precisely because Europe has been extremely lethargic in handling the crisis thus far? Arguably primarily out of wishes in keeping Russia, as a viable partner as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently suggested. Recently there has been a trend of use of historical analogies, in part because it has been observed that Putin echoes Soviet and Nazi propaganda in making his so-called justifications for invading Ukraine.

With the past in mind France and Britain ought to know better. On 25 August 1939 Britain signed the Common Defence Pact with Poland guaranteeing British assistance to Poland should it be attacked by Nazi Germany. Poland also had an alliance with France with Maurice Gamelin promising the Poles that “le gros de nos forces” would be hurled into the French-German border within 15 days of an outbreak of war [12]. But in the end, both France and Britain failed to fulfil their moral and international commitments to Poland. For this, a feeling of bitterness and “western betrayal” still persists in Poland to this day. Britain and France, guarantors of the Budapest memorandum, are on the way to make the same mistake again!

There is much to chastise the West about concerning its political weakness. A partial reason as to why the West has been so weak is due to the way Putin’s propaganda has skilfully influenced the narrative of the events for too many since the crisis in Ukraine began. Russian regular soldiers are too often depicted as mere “Separatists” or “Pro-Russia rebels” rather than what they are, for example. Sakwa and Steele do not help in this regard, for once again a false narrative replete with Russian propaganda talking points is simply being parroted. Blaming “anti-Yanukovych fighters” [sic] for the Maidan massacre, as Steele does in his review of Sakwa, when evidence says otherwise is just one case. Steele laments “the way Putin and other Russian leaders” have been “routinely demonised” and blames “the one-sided nature of western political, media and think tank coverage” for this [13]. Clearly he hasn’t watched much Russian TV coverage of the same events.

[hr][1] R moorhouse, “The Devils Alliance: Hitler’s pact with Stalin. 1939-41”, p3. Moorhouse calls the 50 million fig “a rough estimate”
[2] A Hitler as cited in Nuremberg trials document 1014-PS.
[3] See S Datner, “55 Dni Wehrmachtu w polsce”
[4] See N Naimark, “Stalin’s genocides”
[5] In the words of Mikhail Tukhacevsky in 1920, “Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to worldwide conflagration.”
[6] Stalin quoted in C Bellamy, “Absolute War”, p115.
[7] C Bellamy, ibid, p116. Soviet military formations are also discussed in the multi-volume work “Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg” produced by the Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.
[8] J Steele, “Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa review.
[9] J Steele, Ibid
[10] V Putin, quoted here
[11] J Steele, Op cit.
[12] N Davies, “Europe: A History”, p995.
[13] J Steele, Op cit.

Edited by: Elena Karacharova
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