Russia criminalises history – again


People often ask me why I pick on Russia. OK, no one actually asks me that, and in any case in the ranking of all the things I pick on Russia probably doesn’t even crack the top 5, but just in case you were wondering why I think Russia is not a normal country and why it continues to be a menace, here is this morning’s heart-warming story:

Vladimir Luzgin, a Russian blogger from a city of Perm in Siberia, published a post about a World War Two Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. The details of the post are of no particular interest, and as a Pole I’m not a fan of Bandera as Bandera himself was not a fan of Poles, but for this brief fragment:

“The communists and Germany jointly invaded Poland, sparking off the Second World War.  That is, communism and Nazism closely collaborated…”

Over these seemingly innocuous words, the charge under Article 354.1 of Russia’s criminal code (“rehabilitation of Nazism”) were brought against Luzgin, and in July he was convicted by the Perm District Court and fined 200 thousand roubles.

On 1 September 2016, that is on the 77th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War, Russia’s Supreme Court has upheld Luzgin’s conviction, agreeing that his statement constitutes “the public denial of the Nuremberg Trials and circulation of false information about the activities of the USSR during the years of the Second World War”.

Yes, you’ve read that correctly: according to the Russian Supreme Court it is “false” that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union co-invaded Poland, on the 1st and the 17th of September 1939 respectively, in accordance with an agreement reached a few days earlier under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. To re-state the historically uncontestable fact that for two years the two countries were World War Two allies now in Russia somehow constitutes “rehabilitation of Nazism”.

This pretty much takes Russia back to the Soviet days when it was indeed prohibited to talk about this and other politically embarrassing aspects of history. Over the past thirty years, leaders like Gorbachev and Yeltsin have come clean, opened the archives, and publicly acknowledged these previous communist taboos. Now, with Putin, we’re back to the past.

Everyone knows the “don’t mention the war” skit from “The Fawlty Towers”, but herein lies the crucial difference between Germany and Russia: Germany has come to terms with its past, Russia never truly and fully had; consequently, Germany is now a normal country and Russia is not. It has been a difficult process for Germany, and perhaps at times overdone, but it was necessary. This, in part, is why Germany is no longer an international threat and is on good terms with its neighbours, including the best it has ever been with Poland in over a millennium of common history. Russia, by contrast, either portrays herself as a victim or denies any responsibility for her past or both. And if you have not done anything wrong then surely you can’t do anything wrong in the future – no retrospection means no prospection.

The past happened. There are always different interpretations of it, and some aspects of it can be questioned due to dearth of evidence. But some facts are beyond doubt. You cannot wish them away; the truth will always out. You also cannot criminalise them, whichever way you lean and whatever your intentions. Penalising people for writing about the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact or about the Armenian genocide (as is the case is Turkey) is, I believe, as wrong as penalising people for denying the Holocaust, even if the sentiment behind this law is well meant.

History can be a powerful weapon. He who controls the past controls the future, and all that. Russia is resurrecting an old narrative and this is not a good news for either the yesterday or for the tomorrow.