Today in Moscow, as he takes part in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, President George W. Bush should remember that the 20th century was not kind to Russia. During those years, it suffered as much as any country on earth. Its people remember that suffering and lament and resent the fact that their past is little known and seldom acknowledged by the rest of the world. This gives the president an opportunity both politically constructive and moral.
On his stop in Latvia President Bush correctly called the Cold War division of Europe after 1945 one of the “greatest wrongs of history” and referred to the “occupation and Communist oppression” of the Baltic states. With his forthcoming visit to Georgia, the American president is currently being feted and praised in what was once Russia’s sphere of control. Hence his trip is a bitter and undeniable sign to Russians of the empire they have lost, and of how far they have fallen.
They have reacted predictably. Less than two weeks ago Vladimir Putin lamented the collapse of the Soviet empire as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,” while suggesting that American officials would be better served tending to their own democracy. More recently, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russia’s point-man on relations with the European Union, revived the standard Soviet-era historical claim that the USSR did not invade the Baltic states, maintaining, “the Red Army’s occupation of the Baltic states took place on an agreed basis and with the clearly expressed agreement of the existing authorities.”
These reactions reflect nostalgia for Soviet myths, with which Bush can have no truck. But they also reflect not-so-quite-mythic Russian loss.
Russians suffered in their tens of millions from Lenin’s depredations and Stalin’s slaughters. That their own leaders perpetrated these atrocities does nothing to allay or ameliorate their grief.
Above all, they remember a Second World War known to them as “the Great Patriotic War.” The fact that it was Stalin’s connivance with Hitler in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that gave the Nazis the green light to launch war in Eastern Europe does not diminish the fact that the Russian people bore the overwhelming brunt of the war’s destruction.
The numbers are appalling. In comparison to the approximately 400,000 U.S. servicemen killed in World War II’s European and Pacific theaters, the Soviets’ combined military and civilian deaths were 27 million — the total current population of Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Nebraska. The USSR lost more citizens than all other combatant nations combined. Moreover, of the four million military deaths suffered collectively by Axis forces in Europe, 80 percent were inflicted by the Red Army.
Now, on the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the remnants of Russia’s “Greatest Generation” are rapidly dying out. But there is still time to acknowledge their sacrifice.
President Bush should give no place to Soviet revisionist history, nor post-Soviet nostalgia whitewashing the crimes of Stalin and his system, nor current hankerings for the return of empire.
But what he can and should do is publicly recognize and acknowledge the fact that the greatest military struggle in human history was largely played out on, and won by, Russian flesh and blood. He should thank the Russian people for their colossal courage and their unparalleled sacrifice.
In so doing, he would not fall into the trap of accepting post-Soviet pretensions nor current authoritarianism. He would simply be acknowledging a great thing done by a great people. Such words could prove immensely meaningful to a people thirsting for due recognition and honor during a period of decline. He could reach out to Russians, recognize a debt, and speak the simple truth.