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Modern views on the Nazi-Soviet pact

In the latest of a series of articles marking the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago, BBC Russian affairs analyst Steven Eke analyses how opinions on the Nazi-Soviet pact have changed over the years.

Placards symbolizing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact burn burn during a massive protest in Tallinn, Estonia (then part of the Soviet Union), 27 August 1987
The Nazi-Soviet pact remains a highly emotive issue

In recent years, the tone and content of disagreements between Russia and the West over interpretations of World War II have seemed reminiscent of the Cold War.

Official Russia may not have many supporters abroad of its increasingly Sovietised, if not revisionist, approach. But it is one that Russia's own citizens appear to strongly support.

The original German-language copy of the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on the Nazi-Soviet division of Europe was seized by Soviet troops in 1945 and removed to Moscow.

The Soviet government understood why the document could have a devastating effect on the image of the USSR as the nation that had done - and suffered - the most for the defeat of the Nazi curse.

This is why the secret protocol's existence was officially denied until 1989. Even Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the signatories, went to his grave categorically rejecting foreign reports of it.

Pact condemned

The teaching of history developed by the Soviet authorities in the post-war decades instead chose to portray the pact as a masterstroke of Soviet diplomacy, one that prevented an alliance between Nazi Germany and Western capitalist nations against the USSR.

Joachim von Ribbentrop signing the ratification of the Nazi-Soviet pact in Berlin, 28 September 1939
In 1989 Soviet lawmakers condemned the pact

In 1989, lawmakers in the Soviet Union's first, quasi-democratic parliament, passed a resolution unequivocally condemning the pact. And that, essentially, was the end of efforts in official Russia to address the document's geopolitical legacy.

The statement released by the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service, just ahead of the 70th anniversary of the signing of the pact, strongly suggests Russian official history has reverted to Soviet, if not at times, Stalinist, orthodoxies.

Russia's leading opinion pollster, VTsIOM, asked ordinary Russians what they thought of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ahead of the anniversary.

Some 57% of those questioned said they believed there was "nothing reprehensible" in the agreement.

Just 14% agreed with the western interpretation of the pact as dividing Europe between two totalitarian systems.

After all, in the neighbouring countries - those that had been partitioned or subjected to border shifts and mass repressions as a direct result of the pact - it is seen as a symbol of totalitarian evil.

Anti-Western tone

The BBC's Russian Service, in an online forum, asked its readers what they thought of the pact and its modern-day significance.

it has become very difficult to gain access to state archives containing material describing Nazi-Soviet co-operation

Very few of their comments support the Western interpretation of the pact. Indeed, some question whether the secret protocol even existed.

A number adhere to standard Soviet versions of history - the Soviet Union incorporated western Ukraine and western Belarus (parts of Poland in 1939) for "the protection of the local population".

In general, the tone is anti-Western, strongly rejecting moral comparisons of Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR.

These comments come largely from young people living in large cities. Many of them are products of post-Soviet upbringing and education.

They are likely to have travelled abroad, and to have adopted western cultural and social mores.

'Harsh response'

In connection with its association with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, 23 August remains a highly emotive date.

In early July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe passed a resolution basically equating Nazism with Stalinism.

Proposed by Lithuania and Slovenia, it suggested making 23 August a day of remembrance for the victims of the two totalitarian systems.

The date was deliberately chosen for its symbolism.

The Russian delegation stormed out, promising a "harsh response".

It remains unclear how nascent efforts to criminalise non-official interpretations of history in Russia will shape analysis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

But already, both Russian and foreign historians are reporting that it has become very difficult to gain access to state archives containing material describing Nazi-Soviet co-operation.



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