Paul Greenberg

At the outset of the great break-up of the Soviet Union, many of us hoped Russia would emerge as a free country, if not an ally then a friend. Looking back, any outcome so idyllic was about as realistic as Russia's becoming something other than Russia. Instead, the new Russia that emerged looks a lot like an old one, specifically the tsarist one.

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One hallmark of Russia's long night under Stalin and his successors remains essentially unchanged: a tendency to airbrush the past to suit the political needs of the present. Note some recent comments from Russia's new tsar and old KGB man, Vladimir Putin -- former president, current premier and future whatever-he-wants-to-be. Making a ceremonial appearance in Gdansk on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, he couldn't help but repeat a standard feature of the old regime's custom-tailored history: The war was the West's fault. KGB reflexes die hard.

Not that Comrade and now Mister Putin denied that Stalin's Russia brought on the war by signing an alliance with Hitler's Germany. For that alliance meant the Nazis could invade Poland without having to worry about being challenged from the East, so they could proceed to turn the full force of their war machine against the West.

But the Russian leader had to go and compare the Nazi-Soviet Pact with the Western powers' earlier appeasement of Hitler at Munich: "Without a doubt there are full grounds to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, but after all, a year earlier, France and England signed a well-known agreement with Hitler in Munich...."

But after all, while the British and French offered up a small country -- Czechoslovakia -- in hopes of bringing Peace In Our Time, they didn't join the Nazis in splitting it up, the way the Soviets did Poland. For, just as promised under the secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet Pact a month before, the Russians grabbed half of Poland as it fell to the Nazi onslaught. An always-shrewd bargainer, Stalin would also get the Baltic republics as lagniappe, assuring they would become Soviet satrapies for half a century. The Nazi-Soviet Pact made war certain, and it would prove the greatest war in history, costing some 40 million lives ad casting whole nations into Soviet captivity.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.