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.
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.
In touching up Soviet history, Vladimir Putin overlooked a key difference between Neville Chamberlain's naive belief that he could do business with the aggressor and Josef Stalin's cold-blooded decision to join the aggression, and split the booty. At the time, the official Soviet line was that Russia had occupied the eastern half of Poland only to keep order on its borders. The Kremlin also used the opportunity to wipe out the Polish officer corps in the Katyn Forest, a massacre it would blame on the Nazis when it came to light. The Germans were already planning to exterminate millions; why not chalk up another 20,000 or so Poles to their account? Who would know the difference? And so, to all of Communism's countless victims, add history. And now Vladimir Putin continues to distort it even while acknowledging it. By now it's a Russian tradition.
Let there be no misunderstanding. Let's not pretend Western history is some objective, abstract exercise divorced from the passions of the day. History seldom if ever is. For history is not the same as the past but a selective view of it. Often enough our history has been another branch of our politics. The fight for history is conducted not just in police states. At least since Hamilton's and Jefferson's day, each of America's competing parties has offered a different version of the past in order to attract voters to its different vision of the future.
For example, the current administration keeps comparing the recession the country is slowly climbing out of with the Great Depression of the 1930s, although there can be no real comparison. Just look at the unemployment figures from each era, let alone those old photographs of soup kitchens and bread lines.
But in this country there's an opposition and a free press and mid-term elections, complete with a secret ballot, to check the party in power and its authorized history. But in an authoritarian state, the past is just one more nationalized industry. When those who should be correcting the record are silenced, the Stalins and Hitlers are free to remodel history according to their likes. And so are the Putins. Which is why this latest attempt to twist history should not go unchallenged.