Hurt feelings Ever since Warsaw snubbed him for a WWII commemoration, Vladimir Putin has increasingly blamed the Poles for the USSR’s nonaggression pact with Hitler
In late 2019, Vladimir Putin repeatedly criticized Poland for its role early in World War II. The Russian president has even promised to write an article ahead of Victory Day’s 75th anniversary where he will lay out his own views about the events of the late 1930s. Several years ago already, Putin stopped publicly condemning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, wherein Germany and the USSR agreed to carve up Poland, but he’s recently returned to the subject, focusing his attention on the Poles. Meduza has learned that this could be related to the fact that Putin wasn’t invited to Warsaw last year to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the war’s start. The people who supply the Russian president with his historical information have a long history of invoking anti-Polish rhetoric, and the Polish state itself actively uses historical memory for political purposes.
Ten years ago, Putin called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact “immoral.” Now he says the deal was dictated by security concerns.
Late last month, Vladimir Putin visited Jerusalem and attended the World Holocaust Forum, where the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center made a video presentation about the start of the Second World War that didn’t mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and featured inaccurate maps of Poland, which Nazi Germany and the USSR carved up in 1939. The museum later apologized for sharing distorted information and ignoring historical topics to spare the Russian president’s feelings.
In late 2019, Vladimir Putin spoke on multiple occasions about the Polish authorities’ cooperation with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. On December 20, at a meeting with Commonwealth of Independent States leaders, the Russian president gave a short lecture about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Munich Agreement (when Britain and France consented to Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland). Putin devoted a significant chunk of the speech to Poland’s role at the start of the war. At a Defense Ministry event on December 24, Putin called Polish Ambassador to Nazi Germany Józef Lipski a “bastard” and an “anti-Semitic pig,” saying that Lipski spoke approvingly of the persecution of the Jews in 1938. The next day, the president returned to the issue at a meeting with leaders from the State Duma and Federation Council and representatives of big business.
Until recently, the subject of Poland in the context of the start of World War II didn’t seem to bother Vladimir Putin. The Russian president had spoken repeatedly over the years about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols that divided up Poland and the Baltic states between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the past decade, however, Putin’s position has changed significantly.
In 2009, in an article published in the independent Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Putin described the 1939 nonaggression pact in fairly unambiguous terms: “Without any doubt, we have good reason to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact concluded in August 1939. But a year earlier, France and Britain signed an infamous agreement with Hitler in Munich, destroying all hope for creating a united front against fascism. Today we understand that any form of collusion with the Nazi regime was morally unacceptable and without any chance of practical implementation.”
By 2015, the president had come to a very different assessment of Moscow’s deal with Hitler. “The pact was about ensuring the security of the Soviet Union. That was the first thing. And here’s the second: I’ll remind you that, after the signing of the corresponding Munich Agreement, Poland itself took actions aimed at annexing part of Czech territory. So, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the partition of Poland, the country itself ended up the victim of the same policy that it had tried to pursue in Europe,” Putin said at a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 10, 2015.
In December 2019, Putin recalled the nonaggression pact on several occasions. “Stalin didn’t taint himself with direct contact with Hitler, but the leaders of France and Great Britain met with him and signed papers together. Yes, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols were signed. That’s true. Is that good or bad? I’ll draw your attention — this is important now — to the fact that the Soviet Union was the last, it was the last state in Europe, that signed a nonaggression pact with Germany. Everyone else had already signed one. So what was the Soviet Union supposed to have done? Take on [Germany] by itself?” Putin said at his annual press conference on December 19.
The president later recalled that Poland “itself participated in the partition of Czechoslovakia” and helped create “a whole group for aggression.” Putin added that Soviet troops entered Polish territory “only after the Polish government lost control of its armed forces and control over what was happening on Poland’s territory.”
Putin’s outbursts about Poland became a lot more critical after he wasn’t invited to Warsaw to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II.
A source close to the presidential administration told Meduza that Vladimir Putin is genuinely passionate about history and his views about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact took shape a long time ago. “The only thing that might seem unusual is the intensity and frequency with which he mentions it,” says Meduza’s source, tying it to the fact that Polish officials didn’t invite Putin to the 80-year commemoration of the start of World War II on the grounds that the USSR violated international law by attacking Poland together with Germany. “The president was very hurt. He took it as a personal insult,” says Meduza’s source.
At the same time, Putin never uttered a word in public about his exclusion from the commemoration in Warsaw, though Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any war-related ceremony without Russia is incomplete. “As culture minister, I can’t afford to make comments that could be made about this statement [about the refusal to invite Russia’s leaders to Warsaw],” then Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said at the time.
Oleg Budnitsky, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, where he heads the International Center for the History and Sociology of the Second World War and Its Consequences, told Meduza that “it looks insulting and offensive” when Poland invites the German authorities but not the Russian president to its commemoration of the start of World War II. Budnitsky suspects that Putin’s frequent comments about Poland and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are related to preparations for the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. “In anniversary years, this issue becomes even more sensitive,” he explained.
Putin’s interpretation of events in 1939 nevertheless differs dramatically from the version propagated in Moscow during Soviet times, when the USSR lay all the blame on Nazi Germany and left no room for any responsibility on the part of the USSR or Poland. “What’s new is mainly the inclusion of Poland among the countries responsible for starting the war and emphasizing its claims on Czech territory,” says Budnitsky. “In Soviet times, such statements would have been impossible. Poland and Czechoslovakia were part of the Soviet bloc, so nobody pedaled that topic.”
For decades, Soviet officials denied the very existence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s secret protocols, though the agreement was formally condemned in the USSR’s final years. “The pact was a failure, not a success. It led to a colossal strengthening of Germany by 1941,” argues Budnitsky. “But now pseudo-historians call it an outstanding achievement of Soviet diplomacy. Such statements are nonsense!”
Two organizations, one managed by Vladimir Medinsky and the other by Sergey Naryshkin, are responsible for providing Putin with his historical facts. Both went after Poland before the Russian president.
A source close to the presidential administration, a State Duma deputy, and a third person with ties to the Parliament’s leadership told Meduza that Sergey Naryshkin — the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the chairman of the Russian Historical Society (RIO), and the former speaker of the State Duma — is now responsible for providing Vladimir Putin with historical information. “He’s got Naryshkin on [historical] speed dial. But the initiative for this or that issue still comes from Putin. [The president] knows what he needs and he has his own views about each issue. Documents are selected for him based on these views,” says one of Meduza’s sources.
On matters of history, Putin also listens to former Culture Minister and chairman of the Russian Military Historical Society (RVIO) Vladimir Medinsky, sources told Meduza. Speaking to Angela Merkel in May 2015, the Russian president said he agreed with Medinsky’s assessment of the nonaggression pact and Poland’s role in the war. A few weeks earlier, in a lecture presented to the Rossiya Segodnya media holding company, Medinsky called the pact a “tremendous success of Stalinist diplomacy.”
Like Sergey Naryshkin’s RIO, Vladimir Medinsky’s RVIO appeared in 2012. The organization restores and constructs monuments to Russian war heroes and stages battle reenactments. Despite the fact that the society is technically a nongovernmental organization, a significant part of the group’s budget relies on subsidies from Russia’s Culture Ministry, which Medinsky managed from 2012 to 2020.
Oleg Budnitsky says he isn’t sure Vladimir Putin has fallen under Medinsky’s influence when it comes to historical matters. “RVIO isn’t really very active in this [historical-archival] sense,” he says. Meduza’s source in the State Duma agrees: “[Naryshkin’s] RIO is more about documents, archives, and scholarly stuff, while RVIO does exhibitions, reenactments, and monuments. They’re more about money.” Sources told Meduza that Medinsky’s influence over Putin has diminished in recent years, though he will work directly with historical memory in his new role as a cultural adviser to the president (his most recent appointment, after the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet).
Both RIO and RVIO emerged after the dissolution of the Commission on Counteracting Attempts to Falsify History and Damage Russia (which Sergey Naryshkin chaired). That group was created in 2009 through an executive order by President Dmitry Medvedev. The commission was charged with “compiling and analyzing information about the falsification of historical facts and events intended to denigrate the Russian Federation’s international prestige” and “prepare proposals to the Russian president on implementing measures designed to counter attempts to falsify historical facts and events that are detrimental to Russia’s interests.” Then a State Duma deputy from the ruling political party “United Russia,” Vladimir Medinsky was part of the commission. On February 14, 2012, the group disbanded without any fanfare. RIO and RVIO then appeared as the commission’s unofficial successors.
A source familiar with Sergey Naryshkin says the former State Duma speaker (who was educated as an engineer) grew fascinated with history while chairing the falsification commission and started associating closely with various professional historians. For example, at Naryshkin’s personal behest, Russian historian and specialist in the era of the Tatar-Mongol yoke Andrey Petrov headed the State Duma’s analytical department, starting in 2012.
At one point, RIO started conceptualizing a single history textbook for all grade-school classrooms across Russia, but the textbook never materialized in the end. “We probably won’t be getting a single history textbook. We’ll have unified historical-cultural standards and textbooks will be developed on that basis. But that doesn’t mean there will be one single textbook,” Education Minister Dmitry Livanov said in 2014.
Naryshkin lost his spot in the State Duma in 2016 and was appointed the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. The next year, historian Andrey Petrov also left the legislature and went to work in the Education Ministry. He also started devoting more time to Naryshkin’s Russian Historical Society. “In the Duma administration, Petrov served dutifully and really tried, but leaving was a relief for him in a certain sense. His main work in the Parliament was barely connected to history,” a former State Duma official told Meduza.
Both Sergey Naryshkin and Vladimir Medinsky became some of the most outspoken state authorities regarding historical matters. The two men aired their thoughts about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Poland’s role at the start of World War II in roughly the same terms as Vladimir Putin. For example, in his 2009 book, “War: 1939–1945,” Medinsky titled his chapter about the nonaggression pact: “The USSR’s Diplomatic Triumph.”
In August 2019, Naryshkin criticized the position of the Polish authorities in 1939, saying, “The USSR’s decision to conclude a nonaggression pact with Germany was based on accurate intelligence. For a long time, the blind anti-Sovietism of the ‘colonels’ regime’ [allies of Polish statesman Józef Piłsudski] pushed the Poles into the orbit of Hitler’s influence. At the time, the Germans encouraged them, giving them part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then luring them with promises of Soviet Ukraine and access to the Black Sea.” The “tactical agreement with Hitler,” Naryshkin argued in the column for Rossisskaya Gazeta, “allowed [the USSR] to break the coalition of Anglo-French ‘appeasers’ and ‘Axis’ nations, providing the Soviet Union with several years of peace and helping push the border with Germany to the west.”
Veronika Krasheninnikova, the head of the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies and Initiatives (which helped draft Russia’s law against “foreign agents”), often attends events hosted by RIO. Until 2011, she lived in the United States and managed the CIS-U.S. Council for Trade and Economic Cooperation. In 2007, Krasheninnikova defended her history dissertation at the Moscow State Pedagogical University. Almost immediately after returning to Russia, she started publicly advocating the adoption of the law against foreign agents. Krasheninnikova’s career took off in 2013 when she became a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber and later joined the Supreme Council of the country’s ruling political party, United Russia.
One of Krasheninnikova’s close associates is the historian Oleg Nazarov, who regularly writes articles blaming Poland for the outbreak of the Second World War. “Literally from the first days of the Second Polish Republic’s existence, its leaders dreamed about Greater Poland ‘from sea to sea.’ Knowing about Hitler’s desire to attack the USSR, Warsaw hoped to join the aggressor. On January 26, 1939, in a conversation with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, [Polish Foreign Minister Józef] Beck noted that Poland had claims on Soviet Ukraine and access to the Black Sea,” Nazarov argued in 2014 in an article titled “The Polish Culprits of World War II.”
In public at least, Russian officials (particularly Vladimir Putin) refrained from such harsh criticism of Poland until December 2019. “The president isn’t a historian. He cannot evaluate the quality and reliability of the materials prepared for him,” says Oleg Budnitsky.
Putin has traditionally used history for political purposes and modern-day Poland is a convenient target.
According to Ivan Kurilla, a historian at the European University in St. Petersburg, Putin is wielding “an instrument of politics that engages the public’s emotions.” He calls RIO a “political society headed by politicians who want to manage academic work on history.”
“Putin has always had a personal interest in history. From the very start of his presidency, it was one of his main interests,” says Kurilla. “He’s tried to dig into different historical periods: he’s talked about Stolypin and Vladimir the Great, but he’s focused on subjects where there’s widespread consensus within the country. He’s a master of symbolic politics, and now the president wants to present himself as the one protecting [the USSR’s] Victory from [Russia’s] enemies.”
Meanwhile, Higher School of Economics historian Oleg Budnitsky says he expects Russian state officials to begin stepping away later this year from comments about Poland’s responsibility for starting World War II: “It’s due to the specific political moment and the [75th] anniversary celebration. Things will cool off afterward.”
At the same time, says Budnitsky, statements by contemporary Polish officials about the USSR’s sole responsibility for starting World War II also look like nonsense. In modern-day Poland, where the right-wing conservative “Law and Justice” political party has been in power for several years, the dates of the German and Soviet invasions (September 1 and 17, 1939) are considered equally tragic in the nation’s history. According to this interpretation, the Second World War didn’t end until the late 1980s, when Poland’s pro-Soviet regime finally collapsed.
“Polish conservatives think it’s impossible to discuss history and any attempt to talk about the past is obviously unpatriotic. [They say] it's directed against Poland and probably paid for by Germany,” says historian Pyotr Maevsky, who served as deputy director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk from 2007 to 2017.
Every August 23, the day the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in 1939, Europe observes a day of remembrance for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. When it comes to interpreting how the war started, however, Poland’s disagreements don’t end with Russia. The Polish authorities now demand new reparations from Germany, for example, for the Nazi invasion and occupation. In 2018, moreover, Poland adopted a law prohibiting allegations that Poles collaborated in Nazi war crimes — legislation that's caused major damage to Poland’s relations with Israel.
In protest, because he wasn’t offered a chance to speak like Vladimir Putin, Polish President Andrzej Duda refused to attend January’s World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem (where the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center’s presentation ignored the partition of Poland by Germany and the USSR). Duda then found unexpected support from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said in a meeting with the Polish leader that “Poland and the Polish people were the first to suffer from the collusion of totalitarian regimes.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Zelensky’s remarks “immoral.” Vladimir Putin has declined, so far, to comment.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock