Kremlin Historical Amnesia Feeds Its Expansionist Ambitions
Russian officials have recently demanded compensation for 60 years of Ukraine’s alleged “occupation” of Crimea. Although this claim is a political ploy to place Kyiv on the defensive, Moscow should be careful what it asks for. As the legal successor of the Soviet Union, the Russian government is responsible for the colossal reparation debt owed to former satellites - a debt that is growing with its ongoing war in Ukraine.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, leaders of one of the constituent republics, the Russian Federation, declared it to be "the continuator state of the USSR." Russia inherited the USSR's seat as a permanent member of the UN together with the bulk of its property and assets. This arrangement was accepted by all other former Soviet republics, which became independent states. Russia thereby also inherited the debts and obligations of the Soviet Union.
Unlike the post-World War II West German government, which paid some of the debts of Nazi occupation and genocide, Russia’s post-Cold War government failed to make any compensation for decades of Soviet occupation and genocide. The Kremlin did not even issue a formal apology for its predecessors’ degradation and decimation of the Central-East European (CEE) region in which millions perished and tens of millions were repressed.
From the outset of consolidating Bolshevik power and constructing a communist society, Lenin and Stalin engaged in the extermination of political opponents and various social and national groups. Ukrainians and Kazakhs, in particular, were subject to outright genocide through a brutal process of collectivization and forced starvation in order to eradicate any resistance to Soviet rule.
During Stalin’s collusion with Hitler in the first two years of World War II, new territories were occupied by Moscow and millions of civilians were deported to Siberia, northern Russia, and Central Asia and their elites massacred, including Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, and Belarusians. Entire nations were also deported during the war, including Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Karachai, Balkars, and Kalmyks. More civilians were deported after World War II when the Soviets captured the entire CEE region. In the post-World War II period, Moscow imposed a repressive political structure on its CEE satellites and a regressive economic system that stifled economic development. Each CEE country can calculate the cost of Soviet rule not only in precluding involvement in the U.S. Marshall Plan for post-war reconstruction, but also in retarding economic development for over 40 years. The sum of reparations owed by Moscow to the colonized peoples of CEE would be astronomical if each state compares its development to that of West European counterparts.
One also needs to investigate the degradations perpetrated by Soviet troops occupying the region, including the cost of crushing numerous rebellions such as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring, the price tag for the environmental damage inflicted by Soviet-imposed heavy industries and unregulated pollution, and the destructive impact of communist indoctrination, social atomization, and regional isolation behind the Iron Curtain.
Until now, CEE governments have not consistently and systematically petitioned for reparations from Moscow. With the Kremlin again on the offensive, it is time to demand not only an acknowledgment of previous crimes but also the payment of necessary restitution. To inaugurate this process, an international CEE reparations commission needs to be established to calculate the losses and damages sustained by each state as a direct result of Soviet rule. Such a commission would have at least four positive consequences.
First, historical transparency is vitally important to reveal and reiterate the crimes committed by Moscow in all its former dominions. For instance, Soviet and Russian leaders have persistently and falsely claimed that they “liberated” Europe’s East from the Nazis. In reality, they collaborated with the Nazis in the mass slaughters and expulsions during the first part of the war and simply replaced the German occupiers with another form of totalitarianism at the end of the war.
Second, compensating living victims and their families for deaths, injuries, theft, and property destruction is an act of justice, as evident for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. The Russian Federation has even refused to pay compensation to its own citizens including ethnic Russians who survived communism, despite the fact that millions were murdered or deported into the Gulag during 70 years of Soviet misrule.
Third, the creation of the international commission itself would be a substantial display of solidarity between the CEE states in resisting the Kremlin’s brazen historical revisionism in which Russian officials increasingly depict the Soviet Union as a benevolent state and not a predatory empire.
And fourth, the reparations initiative can contribute to a concerted European defense against Russia’s continuing seizure of neighboring territories. It would signal that Moscow will also be indebted for its current occupation of parts of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Truth and justice will ultimately prevail over the Kremlin’s deceit and criminality.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Photo: "Political prisoners in Gulag eating lunch" by Kaunas 9th Fort Museum under CC BY 4.0.
10 April, 2019