Cover photo: Donkey Hotey via Flickr/The Rooster
Article prepared by Dr. Algimantas Kasparavičius, firstly published in The National Interest. Algimantas Kasparavičius is a historian, author, publicist, and a senior researcher at the Institute of History of Lithuania. He is also a member of the Lithuania-Russia Commission of Historians.
The truth is that the geopolitical stability/security situation in the world and Europe are moving away from the ideal but from the normal.
The issue of World War II is both confusing and complex. Historically, there are many questions that do not and cannot have easy answers. Different nations and states had different relationships and experiences with World War II. Therefore, it is not surprising that in their historical memory ipso facto historiography contains slightly different interpretations of the events and facts of the war. The focus of historical assessments also differs, and this is natural.
In such discourse, a public attempt by the head of one state or another to reflect again on the occasion of the unique anniversary of the end of World War II, to analyze the causes and circumstances of the most brutal event of the twentieth century and to critically evaluate painful historical lessons should probably not surprise us. Especially when global pacifism and even the “end of history” promised by the optimism of the end of the Cold War is rapidly dissolving, and in the early twenty-first century, the arms race and the geopolitical stability/security situation in the world and Europe are moving away not only from the ideal but also from the normal. In a rather emotional historical essay, based on personal and family experiences, Vladimir Putin reflects on the position of contemporary post-totalitarian Russia.
However, the problem is that Putin presented in his humanly sensitive essay interpretations on some issues that were highly biased and bitterly hostile to historical truth, which not only misleads the historical memory of ordinary Russians and shapes a leading doctrine on history policy but can at the same time testify to certain manifestations of contemporary Russia’s neo-imperialism. First of all, in regard to the three western neighbors of Russia—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Such an attitude towards the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the occupation and annexation of the three sovereign and independent Baltic States, as recognized by the global community, by the USSR at the beginning of World War II show that neither historical memory nor international law is respected. This is characteristic of not a mere draftee-newcomer in the arena of great politics, but rather a long-standing leader of state who has accumulated a lot of political experience and has a university law degree. But, naturally, the question arises: what does such a position actually mean? What is behind it?
Signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in Moscow in 1939 / photo thenewfederalist.eu
The claim that the Soviet Union was the last state in Europe to form a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, that the pact allowed the Soviet Union to avoid war on two fronts with Germany and Japan at the same time, and that it was in line with the country’s national interests is far from historical truth and leads to a logical trap. Firstly, the nonaggression pacts concluded by other states with Nazi Germany were purely pacifist in nature and did not conceal any secret protocols that aggressively denied or limited the sovereignty of third countries.
Secondly, recall that in the summer of 1939, the European political map was constructed in such a way that in principle there couldn’t have been a two-front war of the USSR with Germany and Japan at the same because the USSR did not have a direct border with Germany. It was separated from Germany by Poland and the Baltic States. Only by destroying that geopolitical bumper could Hitler strike the Soviet Union. This meant that the preservation of such a buffer was a certain guarantee of the security of the USSR against the aggression of Nazi Germany. Even more so considering that since the Anschluss Österreichs, the general staff of the Lithuanian Armed Forces had been developing plans and modeling joint Lithuanian-USSR defense against eventual German aggression. At the initiative of the Lithuanian military attaché in Moscow, Col. Kazys Skučas, the issue was also discussed at the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In contrast, Poland maintained a policy of “equal distance” (polityka równowagi) from Moscow and Berlin during November 1938–August 1939, and in no way agreed with the role of satellite, as proposed by Hitler in his projected journey eastward. Thus, on Aug. 23, 1939, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact de facto destroyed the USSR’s natural security bumper and placed it face-to-face with Nazi Germany’s war machine.
Thirdly, according to sources from the Foreign Policy Archive of the Russian Federation, sharing of the “limitrophic” Baltic States “at the right moment” with Germany came to Moscow in the summer of 1926, when the Soviet-Lithuanian Non-Aggression Pact was drafted. At the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, some officials did not rule out the possibility that “in certain circumstances” Germany could “offer” Latvia and Estonia to the Soviet Union and establish itself in Poland and Lithuania.
Justifying the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on the eve of World War II and the occupation/annexation of the Baltic States in the summer of 1940 repeats the clichés of Soviet historical propaganda that have long been denied by contemporary Russian historians, defends the Stalinist foreign policy doctrine based on an imperial approach to the sovereignty of other states.
In the autumn of 1939 to the summer of 1940, when the USSR carried out the “process of the incorporation” of Lithuania, from the point of view of the international law of the time, Lithuania and the USSR acted as two distinct and fully-fledged subjects of international law on the international arena. At that time, at least a few bilateral agreements between Lithuania and the Soviet Union were signed and ratified by which Russia (later the USSR) recognized Lithuania’s sovereignty and independence without reservations. In particular, Article 1 of the Soviet-Lithuanian Peace Treaty of July 12, 1920, stipulated that “Russia recognises without reservation the sovereign rights and independence of the Lithuanian State, with all the juridical consequences arising from such recognition, and voluntarily and for all time abandons all the sovereign rights of Russia over the Lithuanian people and their territory.” On Sept. 28, 1926, Lithuania and the USSR signed the Soviet-Lithuanian Non-Aggression Pact, the first article of which reaffirmed that the peace treaty’s “provisions shall uphold their full force and integrity and shall remain the basis for relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” In the second article of the pact, the parties promised to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each other in all circumstances.” This pact was renewed twice and was due to expire on Dec. 31, 1945. The pact would therefore have been in place until the end of World War II, without the Soviet Union breaking international law between 1939–1940.
In essence, the same legal and political provisions were also laid down in the Soviet-Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty, signed in Moscow on October 10, 1939. The preamble to the treaty states that the July 12, 1920, Moscow Peace Treaty and the nonaggression pact of Sept. 28, 1926 “remain a solid basis for relations and obligations between the parties.” It is important to underline that the “transfer” of the city of Vilnius and the whole region to the Republic of Lithuania from the point of view of international law was not some sort of gift from the USSR to Lithuania. Instead, it was only the implementation of previous agreements between Lithuania and the RSFSR/USSR (peace; nonaggression) in which the RSFSR/USSR had already freely recognized the sovereignty of the Republic of Lithuania in these territories. The document (Article 7) stressed that “the implementation of this Treaty shall in no way affect the law of the sovereign rights of the Contracting Parties, in particular their state order, economic and social system, military measures and general non-interference in internal affairs.”
In addition to bilateral agreements, both parties were the subjects of several multilateral international agreements prohibiting aggression. Thus, the rules of international law in force at the time are very specifically and clearly bound. Lithuania and the Soviet Union belonged to the League of Nations, a pacifist global international organization that strictly prohibited any offensive war and declared collective security. On Aug. 27, 1928, another multilateral pacifist agreement was signed in Paris, the so-called Kellogg-Briand Pact, which, in principle, “renounced war as an instrument of national policy.” The Soviets joined the Kellogg-Briand Pact on Feb. 9, 1929, and Lithuania joined the pact on April 5.
Furthermore, Lithuania and the USSR signed the Convention for the Definition of Aggression on July 5, 1933, in London. Article 2 of the document made it very clear that “the aggressor […] shall […] be considered to be State which is the first to commit any of the following actions: (1) Declaration of war upon another State; (2) Invasion by its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another State.” Article 3 of the Convention stated that “No political, military, economic or other considerations may serve as an excuse or justification for the aggression referred to in Article 2.” This includes Putin’s openly expressed aspiration of the Stalinist Soviet Union to secure “its strategic military and defensive goals” on the eve of the upcoming war with Germany.
The historical documents contradict, in principle and indiscriminately, Putin’s conclusions that the “process of the incorporation” of Lithuania to the Soviet Union, which began in autumn 1939, were “implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities” and “in line with international and state law of that time.” The documents testify to the contrary.
But to err is to be human. It is notable that even despite the fact that such a position is obviously dissonant with the historiography of Western countries and the positions and assessments of Russian professional historians-researchers. In 2006–2012, researchers from the Lithuanian Institute of History and the Institute of World History at the Russian Academy of Sciences collegiately prepared and published the two volumes of books that contained copies of close to six hundred original documents from Lithuanian and Russian archives. These two books reflect in a rather detailed and precise manner the situation in Europe in 1939–1940. They also show the USSR’s political-military preparedness for the occupation/annexation of Lithuania and the mechanisms of its realization. For example, when trying to cover the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, which began in the summer of 1940 with “elections” to the so-called “People’s Seimas,” which would take the necessary decisions for the Kremlin, Moscow carefully selected nearly all the members of the future “People’s Seimas” and decided on the political, social and national composition of the “parliament.” With one week left until the future Seimas’ “elections,” on July 7 the USSR emissaries in Kaunas, Vladimir Dekanozov and Nikolaj Pozdniakov, reported to Stalin that the “new Seimas” would be made up of seventy-nine deputies. From a political point of view, forty communists and five Komsomol members were to be “elected,” with the rest—non-partisan. By nationality, there were sixty-five Lithuanians, five Jews, two Russians, five Poles, and two Latvians. Thus, assessing in historical terms this report by Dekanozov and Pozdniakov to Stalin, it would probably be possible to only ironically discuss that the processes begun after the start of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania were in line with the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, the treaties with the USSR, and the existing international law of the time.
Not to mention the fact that Lithuania, which was occupied/annexed in later years, “preserved its government bodies, language, and had representation in the higher state structures of the Soviet Union.” The supposedly Lithuanian “government” and its representation in “[Soviet] state structures” were basically a legal fiction, which collapsed as soon as the Soviet president reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, loosened the bindings of Soviet totalitarianism and allowed free elections in Lithuania in February 1990. This ended with the restoration of Lithuanian national statehood. On the other hand, as shown in Putin’s essay, in which the fundamental right and identity of each nation—to speak their own language, is essentially aligned to a much more rapidly changing form of policy/political government. This shows that Putin looked from up high at the issues and noticed little. He even forgot that the government of Tsarist Russia could not take the Lithuanian language away from Lithuanians for almost half a century. Which, between 1864 and 1904, was attempted not only through propaganda, but even by repression. For example, printing, distributing and reading of Lithuanian books was punished by prison or exile to Siberia.
In general terms, the reference is made to the two-volume books “ССCР и Литва в годы Второй мировой войны” (SSSR i Litva v gody vtoroi mirovoi voiny) is important in at least several aspects:
– It shows that although in the summer of 1939 Berlin was the initiator of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which entered the final stage of preparation for the war with Poland, thus seeking to isolate its future victim, the idea and initiative of the Secret Protocols, contrary to international law, came in from Moscow;
– It shows that, on June 15, 1940, the political-military leadership of the USSR planned and organized the invasion of Lithuania (and the other Baltic States) as a typical offensive military operation. On the eve of the operation, several thousand places for the wounded were prepared in the USSR’s military hospitals, and around fifty to seventy thousand places for future prisoners of war were prepared in the GULAG system. In early June, the demobilization of the Red Army’s soldiers was suspended by order of the commissar of defense and a large combination of the Red Army’s live forces and equipment was mobilized at the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia: 435,000 soldiers; about 8,000 cannons and mortars; over 3,000 tanks; more than 500 armored vehicles; 2,601 warplanes. In mid-June 1940, the USSR used in its campaign of the occupation of the Baltic States three armies, seven infantry and three cavalry corps, twenty rifles, two motorized rifles, and four cavalry divisions, nine tanks and one parachutist brigade. If we add to all of these forces the groups of the Soviet military bases based in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in November 1939 and the Baltic States blockade launched by the Soviet Navy in the Baltic Sea on the morning of June 14, 1940, we have over half a million troops with a huge armament of military equipment. This means that on June 15–17 1940, the Soviet Union sent a larger military armada than Great Britain did through the English Channel in Spring 1940 to help France save Europe from Nazi Germany, against the three small Baltic States, whose armies did not exceed seventy thousand fighters.
Hitler and Stalin / photo Illustration by The Daily Beast
– It shows that, from June 15, 1940, until Aug. 3, 1940, i.e. from the beginning of the occupation of the Republic of Lithuania to its annexation, the representatives of the USSR occupying power in Kaunas—Dekanozov and Pozdniakov—newly appointed or selected Lithuanian officials (to act as president, the new prime minister, ministers of the “People’s Government” and members of the “People’s Seimas”, etc.) implemented constitutional reforms of a political-economic-legal nature of the Republic of Lithuania under the dictatorship of the USSR. These reforms were incompatible with the 1938 Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, the international law in force at the time, and the Lithuanian-Soviet political treaties concluded in 1920–1939.
Lithuania and Russia have lived as neighbors for more than a thousand years. History and historical memory are fundamental elements of the identity of each nation and state. History can unite nations but it can also divide them. It is therefore important that common history and historical memory are based on facts, arguments, respectful dialogue, and consensus-building. This should be without lies, defaults, distortions. This is the only way to create a safe and comfortable future for ourselves and future generations without meaningless “memory wars.”
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