In early February, German Federal President Frank Walter Steinmeier defended Berlin’s decision to pursue completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in part by arguing that fuel sales were one of the last bridges between Russia and Europe and cited Germany’s unique historic responsibility to atone for German crimes during WWII. He claimed Germany did not have a right to lose sight of this wider context. Yet this is a narrow view, indeed, of the wider context when one considers the magnitude of the human cost of WWII elsewhere in the former USSR, particularly in Ukraine. 

  •  In addition, Germany’s debt to the entities that made up the former USSR does not in any way imply that Germany must today accept Russia’s attempts to dismember Ukraine 

 In the current conflict, accepting Putin’s confiscation of the memories of Soviet war dead, his conflation of Soviet and Russian victims, and his conception of Russian victimhood provides him with a “get out of jail free” card and allows him to continue to destabilise Ukraine, justified in his view by the sufferings of the Russian (note, no longer Soviet) people from 1941-1945. Putin seeks to use history to recover the moral high ground and justify Russia’s current outlaw foreign policy. He is trying to use his version of history to suggest wartime Russia – and by extension, his Russia – are above criticism.   

  • Yet, in fact, the German invasion and occupation spared no part of what are now Belarus and Ukraine. It seems Germany’s feelings of responsibility to atone for its crimes conveniently do not extend to these victims when its leaders perceive its economic and energy interests are at stake. 
  • Moreover, the majority of the Soviet war dead were not ethnic Russians and did not live in modern Russia. Compared to the Russian SSR, a larger percentage of the population of Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, and Armenia died during WWII. If there is a debt to be paid, surely it is to the descendants of those group, as well. 
  • On 22 June 1941, it was not Moscow, but Ukrainian cities that were subjected to mass airstrikes: Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Odesa, Sevastopol, other civilian cities became targets of the bombing.  
  • It is estimated the Germans murdered between 100,000 and 150,000 people at Babi Yar near Kyiv during the occupation. The massacre of approximately 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar in September 1941 was the largest mass killing under the auspices of the Nazi regime and its collaborators during its campaign against the Soviet Union and has been called “the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust” to date, surpassed only by the massacre later in October 1941 of more than 50,000 Jews in Odesa.  
  • It is estimated that the Germans killed more than 100,000 residents of Kyiv of all ethnic groups at Babi Yar during the war.  
  • The Germans deliberately targeted Ukrainian nationalists, writers, and artists: Among those murdered at Babi Yar were 621 members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Ukrainian poet and activist Olena Teliha and her husband and renowned bandurist Mykhailo Teliha were murdered there in February1942. In1941, the Germans killed Ukrainian activist writer Ivan Rohach, his sister, and his staff.  
  • Putin’s evocation of the “20 million Soviet dead” during World War II fails to acknowledge Soviet citizens were as likely to die during the war years because of Stalin’s bad decisions and underestimation of Hitler as from the actions of the German army. 
  • We should also remember that Stalin’s collectivization policies led to the death of 3.3-7.5 million Ukrainians from1931-1933 during the Holodomor, a famine deliberately worsened by Moscow’s inaction and the West’s turning a blind eye 

Putin wants the rest of the world to overlook Russia’s present, diminished economic condition; its failure to compete with the world’s most advanced economies; and the decay of the Russian state and civil society and think of Russia as the great power that vanquished Nazism in Europe.   

  • Lacking a project for the future and a compelling vision to offer the younger generation, and clinging to power through crass manipulation of the Russian constitution, he must harken back to a glorious (whitewashed) past to justify his continued rule


 Marta Barandiy

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