To liberate means to make free. In the Second World War, Stalin no more liberated anyone than Hitler did. But Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to acknowledge this verity. The lord of the Kremlin periodically regurgitates Soviet propaganda about the Second World War. Lately, Poland has triggered his ire again. Warsaw failed to fall in line with standard Soviet fantasy. According to this narrative, the global conflict started on June 22, 1941, when Germany attacked innocent and neutral “Mother Russia.” Thus wronged and victimized, having suffered staggering losses, the armies of Moscow nonetheless rebounded, and they alone defeated “fascism,” saving the world from its menace.
Anything that threatens this mendacious narrative endangers the grip of the Kremlin over the denizens of the post-Soviet Empire. Its legitimacy rests on the legacy of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, and Moscow has been running on fumes of that triumph since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1992. As memories recede, the fumes dissipate. Since there is no parliamentary democracy in the Russian Federation, but only a “sovereign democracy” remotely controlled by Putin, Moscow needs to maintain at least a fiction of legitimacy. Hence the Kremlin’s adamant insistence on maintaining the purity of the Stalinist narrative with all its accoutrements.
Putin is in denial that Stalin’s pact with Hitler to divide the Intermarium, the lands between the Baltic and Black Seas, was an indispensable key to the outbreak of the Second World War. Russia’s president pretends not to know that the Soviet Union invaded Poland jointly with Nazi Germany. He ignores mass arrests and deportations from, and executions in, eastern Poland and, later, the Baltic countries and eastern Romania. He further forgets the USSR’s supplying the Third Reich with raw materials, fuel, and food to defeat the West. He finds no place to discuss “revolutionary banditry” and “cleansing the area from the reactionaries.” That means living off the land and killing traditional leaders.
The communist partisans robbed to supply themselves since they lacked popular support in most places and hardly could count on the peasants to feed them. The reds ravaged local, largely anti-communist, populations, which the German Nazi war machine had already largely despoiled in a ruthless drive for supplies to win the war.
Both the revolutionary banditry and extermination of elites went hand in glove with the attempts by the NKVD-led Soviet guerrillas to radicalize the population to attract it to communist ranks. This was carried out by the means of attempts to stage pro-Communist uprisings in German-occupied countries, in particular Yugoslavia and Poland. The objective was to relieve hard-pressed Red Army troops at the Eastern Front by rerouting the Wehrmacht forces to deal with rebellions in German-occupied lands and, in the process, by provoking customary Nazi vengeance on the hapless civilian population, while communist partisans watched gleefully from the sidelines. “Chem khuzhe, tem lutshe” (the worse, the better) was their revolutionary byword, as always. The more was destroyed of the old, and the greater the losses, in particular among the traditional, patriotic elites, the better for postwar socialist plans, as the red replacements were waiting in the wings and so were the tall tales of the socialist paradise on earth to be built by the communists. Stalin wanted as clean a slate as possible before he pushed Hitler out and replaced the Nazi system with the Soviet one.
Last but not least, when the Red Army returned to Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, it pushed the Wehrmacht out but brought slavery with it. This way, the Poles and others exchanged one totalitarian yoke for another. No, Stalin did not liberate anyone. To liberate is to bring freedom. The Soviet dictator never did that. He re-enslaved. He also suavely took advantage of his victory by continuing to harness Russian nationalism in the service of communism. Surviving Nazism helped Stalin’s multitude of Russian and other slaves to coalesce around the Soviet system.
Paradoxically, it was Hitler who legitimized Stalin’s rule over Russia. By waging a bestial war of extermination, including the Holocaust, against the USSR, and instead of liberating the captive people suffering under the communist yoke, the Third Reich forced the Soviet slaves of the Bolshevik regime to defend themselves. The alternative was death, as millions of Soviet POWs learned, to their horror, after they initially surrendered to the Nazis in droves. It was the people of the USSR who paid the highest prize for Stalin’s victory. Dying by their multitudes, they secured a stunning triumph for their communist tyrants. And by marching westward, they helped their masters enslave further multitudes.
Aside from that triumph, the Russians really do not have much to brag about to themselves regarding their country. Russia holds a world record as the globe’s state with arguably the most depressing history. The memories of beating Hitler gives the Russians a ray of hope in the black hole of their past. They savor it, and Putin takes advantage of their sentiment.
Make no mistake: the Kremlin has duped the West since 1917, and the red narrative of the Second World War and the putative “liberation” has been a best-seller among Westerners for at least 70 years. But Moscow’s propaganda is also, perhaps even primarily, for domestic consumption. And nothing sells better, both at home and abroad, than the triumph over Hitler mixed with a customary Polonophobia. Partly, in the West, it feeds on a century of “Polack jokes” and other demeaning anti-Polish stereotypes. Partly, it is a feeling of guilt that Moscow and Western capitals share: Poland was first to fight both totalitarianisms only to be abandoned by Roosevelt and Churchill and sold to Stalin at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam.
Western shame perpetuates what Norman Davies calls “the Allied Scheme of History,” which, in essence, is our acquiescence to the Stalinist narrative of “liberation.” This directly benefits Putin, who brazenly repeats worn out stereotypes of the Comintern propaganda machine.
This will continue with some success until we admit that before and during the Second World War, humanity had two enemies: Hitler and Stalin, and that we only destroyed one and overlooked the other. Thus, Putin feeds off the consequences of our neglect and the noxious persistence and continuity of the Kremlin’s disinformation.