Russkiivopros
No-2010/1
Author: Petr Vagner

THE FATIGUE FROM TRUTH. INTERVIEW WITH PETR MARE҆

"Different people in Central and Eastern European countries had definitely different feelings at the moment when the Soviet troops were entering their territory" Petr Mareš, a diplomat and a  historian, said to Russkii vopros in the interview devoted to several aspects of the end of WWII in the Central Europe.

 

In May 2010 we commemorate the 65th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe. In this context  a question sometimes arises what did presence of the Red Army in the Central Europe mean for local countries? Was it the liberation or was one dictatorship replaced by another one?

Different people in Central and Eastern European countries had definitely different feelings at the moment when the Soviet troops were entering their territory. It meant something else, for example, for Bulgarians, Serbs or Czechs, with their historic pan-slav inclinations and pro-Russian sympathies, on the one hand, and for Poles, with a history of centuries-long struggle against Russian oppression, on the other. It was a different story for the re-born states of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, undisputed members of the United Nations Organization, different for Austria with her official status of the first victim of the Nazi aggression, and completely different for Hungary and Germany, the defeated enemies. Last but not least, the presence of the Red Army had obviously uneven impact on countries in which Soviet soldiers were stationed for several months after the end of the war only and on those in which Soviet bases were from the beginning planned as eternal guaranties of Soviet security. A number of other criteria could be used to describe specifics of environment in which the Red Army was to operate in particular countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Still, and it is one of the most striking facts in the postwar history of Europe, the Soviet modus operandi in all these countries was the same. Of course, there were differences in timing, in a detail, but the general pattern was almost identical. We do not have enough space to describe all the elaborate steps which were the most typical for the scheme. For the sake of our debate let us mention at least some of them.

The Red Army was always immediately followed by other institutions of the Bolshevik system of power, first of all by various branches of intelligence services. Efforts to plant agents into as many crucial political, economical, and military positions as possible were undertaken. Where successful, these agents were used, together with Communists usually imported from Soviet exile and openly supported by Red Army, to create a pressure for a change of traditional political and economic structure. Non-Communist politicians and representatives of institutions considered by Soviets as anti-Communist were targeted with accusations of cooperation with Nazi while “friendly persons” were presented to the public as war or resistance heroes.  There is no doubt, that when successful, these steps were to lead to an ultimate goal – transformation of respective countries into “friendly nations”. In a long run, it meant nothing less in Stalin understanding than Communist turned and completely subservient nation. This brings us back to your question about the meaning of the Red Army presence for the post-war development of Central and Eastern European countries. The ultimate goal has not been achieved in any country which had nor been seized by the Red Army. On the other hand, not all the countries hold at the end of the WWII by the Red Army accepted the status of “friendly nation.” For me it means that at least initial presence of the Soviet armed forces was the condition sine qua non for the successful Moscow-designed transition of any country from Nazi to Communist dictatorship - but not the sole condition.

 

What do we know about Stalin´s geopolitical plans before the Red Army entered the territory of the Central Europe?

Not much. In spite of all the big volumes published during the last two decades the Soviet dictator remains very enigmatic actor of the drama of the Cold War origins. We have got several documents produced by ad hoc planning bodies of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs (KID) and we can assume that they were not contradictory to the wishes and plans of the big boss but it is still not enough. We may take for granted that the “Vozhd”  was developing his foreign policy throughout the world war but we do not have any reliable clues to map the concrete content of this development in time. All the students of the available Politburo documents from the Stalin times must have been frustrated by the complete lack of recorded discussion about these as well as about other issues. Nevertheless, from what we know we can be sure that in his thinking about the desirable post-war international settlement Stalin did not move inside the Roosevelt’s concept of collective security based on cooperation of the Big Three in the framework of the UN. The traditional Russian geopolitics was much closer to his heart. Here, I am inclined to agree with Vojtech Mastny that the axis of his thoughts was rather security of the Soviet Union (security of Bolshevik system, his own security) than the expansion. The problem was his idea about guaranties for the Soviet security. Again and again he repeated to Roosevelt and Churchill that the Soviet Union desired to have “friendly nations” on its borders. The same concept was present in all the KID planning documents. It had been inherent to Russian political thinking long time before the Bolshevik revolution. We can consider it the key concept of Stalinist foreign policy during the first post-war years.

But what did Stalin mean when he was speaking about “friendly nations”? Was the level of requested “friendliness” from the very beginning the same cruel status I described in my answer to your previous question? Many historians argue that during the first post-war months Stalin was prepared to accept more liberal linkage between the Soviet Union and its neighbors. According to those authors, only after the relations among the war-time allies had deteriorated and the cold war had developed Stalin pushed for satellite status. It is very difficult for me to accept this interpretation. I can not see any reason why should the paranoiac dictator approach the issue of security in a different way on international arena than in domestic environment. The whole system created by Stalin in the Soviet Union was based on total uniformity of thinking and behavior. No comrade with the slightest symptoms of independent opinion survived the Stalin years. It is only logical that he was applying the same vision of stabile structure on his international policy planning. Of course, it doesn’t mean that he was prepared to insist on creation of such a structure immediately and for any price. Stalin was always very careful and very patient. Again, we could find analogies in his struggle for the control of the Bolshevik party.

 

Did he include in the belt of so called friendly states along Soviet Western frontiers all states of the Central Europe or did he have his priorities?

The answer to both parts of your question is yes. Yes, Stalin did include all the neighboring nations into his concept of a security belt and yes, he had his priorities. I am convinced that as for the extent of a control over foreign countries considered by Stalin necessary for the Soviet Union security, we are confronted with the same situation as in the case of the intensity of this control. It was good to have “friendly nations” all around the borders but it was even better to have them all around Europe. The same methods which in countries seized by the Red Army led to their complete subservience to Moscow were applied also much further to the west. In Italy, the Netherlands, France and other places, Soviets did their best to navigate the political, social and economical development at the same direction. Without the Red Army it did not work. But it doesn’t mean that it was not a part of a big design.

On the other hand, there were priorities. Confronted with wider risk-involving difficulties Stalin was prepared to stop, not to push too far. But there were parts of Europe in which he was probably not ready to accept any compromise. Based on his discussions with the Big Three partners as well as on the KID documents and concrete moves of Soviet diplomacy, we can assume that there were two territories control of which was regarded as completely indispensable for securing the Soviet Union from future invasions – Balkans and Poland. The traditional Russian geopolitical thinking was in this case supported by the recent experience of Soviet military and their vision of potential future conflicts in Europe. Widely opened planes of southern and northern approaches between the West and the East were the right place to deploy numerous tank divisions which had become the backbone of Soviet military planning – both defensive and offensive.

From this point of view, the final result of Soviet efforts in Europe, the creation of a block of satellite countries in Central and Eastern Europe, can be regarded as a compromise. According to Molotov’s relation recorded during the latest part of his life, this compromise was considered more than satisfactory by Stalin.

 

Poland was finally sacrificed to Stalin in Yalta, the destiny of Balkan states was sketched on the famous half-sheet of paper and Hungary was supposed to be divided fifty : fifty… Czechoslovakia is missing in this list. Did it have a real chance to avoid communist rule similarly like Austria?

It is very difficult to search war-time records for any reference to Czechoslovakia, indeed. The country was a good child of the Great Alliance, with a generally accepted status of allied power and with excellent relations with all the crucial players. From the point of view of Big Three cooperation and planning, it did not represent any problem – that is why there was no need to talk about it. The western allies had certain doubts about the wisdom of Czech willingness to link their future security almost exclusively with the Soviet Union but their attempt to block Benes from signing the Czechoslovak-Soviet treaty of 1943 was rather platonic. In London, there were many who criticized Benes for it and for his other moves in order to satisfy the Soviets. One could even hear comments about a “Stalin’s jackal” at the corridors of the Parliament, but there was no evidence of writing Czechoslovakia off because of it. It applies even more for Washington. Benes has never been too popular among the State Department crowd but after the failure of British and American attempts to convince Stalin to accept the Polish government-in-exile as a partner, his policy was more and more appreciated. The prevailing feeling on both sides of the Atlantic was that Czechs were doing their best to create their own modus vivendi with Stalin and they had o good chance to succeed.

For Moscow, Czechoslovakia definitely was no priority. As well as his western partners Stalin never raised any Czechoslovak issue during his war-time deliberations with Churchill and Roosevelt. No deal on Czechoslovakia has ever been closed by the Big Three. It doesn’t mean that Russians did not care about Czechoslovakia. The documents of the KID and of the International Affairs Department of the Communist Party Central Committee show the permanent interest of Moscow leaders in developments inside the country and in the activities of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. It also shows significant changes in the Kremlin’s rating of leading Czech non-Communist politicians, namely Benes and Masaryk, from negative to positive. But no plan, no project had been prepared for handling the Czechoslovak issue after the war.

There is no definite answer to your question. Czechs never made any serious attempt to get out of the Stalin’s embracement. That is why we can only speculate. I believe the Austrian, and also the Finish, analogy is a good one. But I am not sure it proves that Czech really had a chance. But it definitely was worse of trying.

 

In the extent which your diplomatic status allows, could you give an answer to the following question: Why do current Russian representatives and official historiography try to bring to life old interpretations of events connected with WWII? 

It is obvious that all these attempts are somehow connected to the general process of the revival of Russian patriotism and self-confidence masterminded from Kremlin. But we should not underestimate spontaneous feelings of ordinary Russians, their demand for a positive interpretation of the Russian past. Since the mid 1980s people in Russia were exposed to a drastic confrontation with negative information about their history. Almost every day some part of the history had to be rewritten, some myth destroyed, some hero expelled from the national pantheon. The fatigue from truth - that is how the general mood at the end of the century can be described. Let us hope that the tendencies you warn of are product of pendulum-like development both in historical writing and in historical consciousness. To end in a positive mood – the picture of Vladimir Putin kneeing down in front of the Katyn memorial deserves a place in history text-books. It might be a moment at which the pendulum started its counter-motion.