Russia’s History Is Incomplete
Published: August 27, 2014 (Issue # 1826)
August in Russia is a big month for anniversaries. Aug. 19, 1991, saw a conservative military coup in Moscow; its failure signaled the terminal phase of the fall of the Soviet Union. On Aug. 23, it will have been 75 years since Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signed a non-aggression treaty in Moscow. Both these events have almost been forgotten. But studying them certainly wouldn’t be a waste of time for anyone trying to understand modern Russia.
When I was a student in the mid-’90s and interested in making some spending money, a German foundation gave me a job writing a bibliography of the most interesting articles from the Volga German Autonomous Region’s biggest publication.
This region existed in Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1941 and was populated by the descendants of German colonist farmers who had come to Russia as early as the 18th century. The region was abolished on Aug. 28, 1941 — yet another forgotten August date — two months after war broke out between the Soviet Union and Germany. Most ethnic Germans were subsequently deported from the Volga region.
In Germany, the history of the Volga Germans is remembered quite a bit better than in Russia, and because of that I spent some months immersed in the periodical archives of several Moscow libraries. Flipping through yellowed pages full of hard-to-read Gothic script, I got the chance to visit long-gone eras; perhaps the most interesting of them was the end of the 1930s.
The newspaper naturally covered events outside of Russia, including those tied to national socialism in Germany or, for example, the civil war in Spain. Day in and day out, Hitler’s government in Germany was presented to readers in the most caricatured fashion possible, but at the same time was discussed as a threat and potential enemy.
Until suddenly in 1939 everything changed. The anti-fascist caricatures and rhetoric disappeared, and the tone turned businesslike and proper. The swastika flag, which had until then been placed on maps to show readers the looming threat to Europe from fascism, now appeared in official photographs. Finally, on Aug. 24, 1939, the paper published a celebratory article on the signing in Moscow of a historic agreement between the Soviet and Nazi ministers of foreign affairs.
One of the most important moments of the perestroika era was when the secret additional protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were made public. These secret additions assigned the Baltic states to the Soviet Union and divided up Poland into German and Soviet spheres of influence. These protocols were a real shock to a country that had been proclaiming itself the defeater of fascism since 1945.
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