Vladimir Putin is rewriting cold war history | Natalie Nougayrède

Russia wasn’t tricked by the west about the expansion of Nato. This narrative is propaganda

Little noticed in the debate on how Europe should deal with Russia, looms a big anniversary: 70 years ago this week Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met in Yalta to decide post-war arrangements following the defeat of the Nazis. It is often said that it was at Yalta that the big three carved up Europe.

In fact that had already happened, to a certain extent, with the advance of Soviet forces. One thing they agreed on was that “free elections” should be held in occupied countries – a promise Stalin never upheld as he moved quickly to impose communist dictatorships everywhere.

Roosevelt later privately admitted that he and Churchill had been naive and were tricked. But on the other hand, one of their main aims was to ensure the USSR would soon join the war effort against Japan: Stalin traded that off for Soviet domination over eastern Europe. For east Europeans Yalta is a place name that became a codeword for the cynical sacrifice of small nations’ freedom to great powers’ spheres of influence. Russians, on the other hand, tend to only conceive of their role as that of liberators. Today, the war in Ukraine has brought the “zones of influence” debate back to Europe. There is some irony that the ongoing geopolitical struggle between Europe and Russia is centred on the country where the Yalta conference was held.

In this confrontation, the battle over narrative is as important as the outcome of the shooting war. Vladimir Putin has made a staple of invoking history to justify his actions. In a resounding speech given in March 2014, he described Russia’s annexation of Crimea as correcting a historical injustice. He also said that Russian compatriots, wherever they live in the former Soviet Union, are part of a single Russian nation – meaning he could conceivably make moves to ensure their “protection” too. This kind of logic amounts to consigning the whole of Europe’s rule-based order, of which the USSR and later Russia had been major stakeholders, to the dustbin of history.

In any part of the world there is an understandable temptation to project the knowledge and emotions of today on to past events, and thus to rewrite history. But totalitarian regimes rely on official versions of history and propaganda to consolidate their very existence – something Orwell has well described. Putin knows that the way Russians relate to their own history is key to his political legitimacy. Recognising Soviet crimes in eastern Europe would be paramount to undermining his domestic narrative.

Last November Putin said the following about Russia: “We understand the fatality of an ‘iron curtain’ for us. We will not go down this path, no one will build a wall around us.” It was newspeak at its crudest. It reminded me of the movie Goodbye Lenin, in which the children of an East German communist woman who has a stroke during the fall of the Berlin wall, try to allay her trauma by, among other things, producing a fake TV news reel in which East Germans fleeing to the west are portrayed as West Germans seeking refuge in the GDR.

Creating an alternative reality, Putin casts Russia as a victim, not the aggressor that it is in Ukraine. In his attempt to carve out a zone of influence in Europe, he draws from the notion that Russia was mistreated by the west in the aftermath of the cold war. There is much myth-building here, which doesn’t mean the west didn’t make mistakes.

As the historian Mary Elise Sarotte has written, there simply never was a western promise not to enlarge Nato. Gorbachev accepted the terms of German reunification laid out by George Bush and Helmut Kohl because he desperately needed German financial assistance for the crumbing Soviet economy.

Yet there is a also a caveat, in that Russia was put in a situation where an old cold war structure, Nato, simply grew larger, and nothing else was invented to build a common Europe-Russia framework for the future.

Sarotte has put this down not to western cynicism, but to how fast events were unfolding in 1989-91. The international actors were juggling so many balls that there was little time to be creative.

France and Germany were able to reconcile after World War II because there was a common assessment of history. It is only when Russia and Europe share a common understanding of past events that something durable can be built between them.

But that, crucially, will require Russians coming to terms with their self-inflicted wounds. It is telling that Putin has never officially visited the small monument to the victims of the Gulag in the centre of Moscow.

So far, there is not much to be optimistic about.

Just recently, the speaker of Russia’s Duma said it should vote to condemn the “annexation” of East Germany by West Germany in 1990. In Putin’s world – as in the old Soviet joke – the future is certain, it is the past that is unpredictable.


Natalie Nougayrède

The GuardianTramp

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