One of the more grotesque declarations from Mr. Putin (and there are plenty to choose from) was his recent attempt to whitewash the Nazi-Soviet pact.
Writing for the New York Review of Books, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, whose brilliant and devastating Bloodlands shows exactly where that pact led, offers a useful corrective:
The Stalin-Hitler alliance had devastating consequences for Poland and the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In Poland, on September 17, 1939, Stalin joined his ally Hitler in a military attack, sending the Red Army to invade the country from the east. It met the allied Wehrmacht in the middle and organized a joint victory parade. The Soviet and German secret police promised each other to suppress any Polish resistance. Behind the lines the Soviet NKVD organized the mass deportation of about half a million Polish citizens to the Gulag. It also executed thousands of Polish officers, many of whom were fresh from combat against the Wehrmacht.
Ten months later, the Baltic states were also occupied by the Red Army and annexed to the Soviet Union. These three small countries lost tens of thousands of citizens to deportations, including most of their elites. The Baltic states were declared by Soviet law never to have existed, so that service to those states became a crime. The Soviet idea that states can be declared to exist or not, now echoed in Russian pronouncements about Ukraine, is deeply etched in the political memory of Poland and the Baltic region today….In the first part of the war, from 1939 to 1941 the Soviet Union was a German ally, fighting in the eastern theater and supplying Germany with the minerals, oil, and food it needed to make war against Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and most importantly France and Britain.
Indeed it was.
But then, and not for the first time on this topic, Professor Snyder goes badly astray when he takes a look at what Putin is trying to accomplish beyond the former Soviet lands:
Although Putin would certainly have been pleased if actual German or Polish political leaders were foolish enough to take the bait of agreeing to a new division of Europe, he seems satisfied for the moment with the people who have actually responded, in one way or another, to his appeal to destroy the existing European order: separatists across Europe (including the UK Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, calls Putin the world leader he most admires); anti-European right-wing populist parties (of which the most important is France’s National Front); as well as the far-right fringe, including neo-Nazis.
There are a couple of things to say about that, starting with an observation about the, well, interesting use of that word “separatist” (a term nowadays closely associated with the disreputable forces causing such havoc in eastern Ukraine) to describe those in Europe who would like their countries to regain some or all of their sovereignty from the EU, an entity that is not a nation, has little democratic legitimacy and has no real call on the loyalty of those it presumes to call its citizens. Such “separatists” are to be found across the European political spectrum, sometimes in establishment parties, sometimes not. Snyder only mentions the latter, who come in various shades of right, presumably because of their euroskepticism (which, to be sure, does represent a threat to the current Brussels regime), but it might have been worth noting that Putin has his fans on the European hard left too, drawn from parties that tend to support European integration, but would certainly want drastic changes both to Europe’s existing economic order and its international alignment.
Snyder also highlights Nigel Farage’s “admiration” for Putin, but it’s worth clicking on the link he (fairly) provides. There we see that Farage’s admiration is for Putin “as an operator, but not as a human being…. The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant. Not that I approve of him politically. How many journalists in jail now?” Farage did not choose his words wisely or well (and there is a foolish tendency within UKIP, fueled mainly by ‘enemy of my enemy’ thinking, to give Putin a thoroughly undeserved benefit of the doubt) but it seems clear that the UKIP leader’s ‘admiration’ for Putin is rather more qualified than Snyder’s wording would suggest.
And then there’s this, unmentioned by Snyder, from an interview with Alex Salmond, then the leader of the Scottish National Party, a man of the left, and, yes, a fervent Europhile:
Asked about Putin, Salmond said: “Well, obviously, I don’t approve of a range of Russian actions, but I think Putin’s more effective than the press he gets I would have thought, and you can see why he carries support in Russia.”
Pressed on whether he admires the Russian leader, the First Minister said: “Certain aspects. He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing. There are aspects of Russian constitutionality and the inter-mesh with business and politics that are obviously difficult to admire. Russians are fantastic people, incidentally, they are lovely people.”
But back to Snyder:
Just as Stalin sought to turn the most radical of European forces, Adolf Hitler, against Europe itself, so Putin is allying with his grab bag of anti-European populists, fascists, and separatists. His allies on the far right are precisely the political forces that wish to bring an end to the current European order: the European Union.
It should go without saying that a return to the nation-state in Europe would be a catastrophe for all concerned, including, in the end, for Russia.
I’m sorry, Professor, that does not go without saying. Man is an imperfect creature, and so are his creations. The worst of a nation-state can be the cause of great evil. At the same time, the nation-state is, however flawed, probably the best (or, if you prefer, least bad) guarantor of international and domestic order that has yet been devised.
Indeed, take a step back and we can see that the biggest internal threat to the European order is now none other than the EU itself. The earlier years of what became the EU were years of a growing cooperation that was only to be welcomed after the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century. But below the surface something far less benign was underway. The machinery of ‘ever closer union’ was getting into gear, transforming what had begun (in practice, if not underlying theory) as a fairly loose association into a straitjacket, a process that eventually led to the creation of the euro, that most exquisitely cruel demonstration of the failure of one size fits all.
Writing in the Hungarian Review, the philosopher Roger Scruton had this to say:
If the architects of the euro had taken national cultures properly into account they would have known that the effect of imposing a single currency on Greece and Germany would be to encourage Greece to transfer its debts to Germany, on the understanding that the further away the creditor the less the obligation to repay. They would have recognised that laws, obligations and sovereignty do not have quite the same meaning in the Mediterranean as they do on the Baltic, and that in a society used to kleptocratic government the fairest way out of an economic crisis is by devaluation – in other words, by stealing equally from everybody. And they would have recognised that, by imposing a single currency on Greece and Germany nevertheless, they would sow the seeds of mutual resentment.
Why did the architects of the euro not know those things? The answer is to be found deep within the European project. Cultural facts were simply unperceivable to the Eurocrats. Allowing themselves to perceive culture would be tantamount to recognising that their project was an impossible one. This would have mattered less if they had another project with which to replace it. But – like all radical projects, communism being the archetype – that of the European Union was conceived without a Plan B. Hence it is destined to collapse and, in the course of its collapse, to drag our continent down….
That may be too pessimistic even for me, but the destabilizing role of the EU at this point in its evolution is hard to deny. The most obvious example is the profound economic disruption that the euro has left in its wake, a disruption that has revived old hatreds (think of those caricatures of Angela Merkel as a Nazi on the walls of Athens a year or so back), and fostered the growth of just the sort of parties that Snyder fears.
It was the euro that gave parties such as Greece’s (neo-Nazi) Golden Dawn its chance, and it was the euro that gave Putin the opening he was looking for.
There’s an irony there, but I don’t think Professor Snyder sees it.