Historical Injustice and Democratic Transition in Eastern Asia and Northern Europe: Ghosts at the Table of Democracy

By Kenneth Christie; Robert Cribb | Go to book overview

6

CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF HISTORICAL AMNESIA

The annexation of the Baltic states in post-Soviet Russian popular history and political memory

David Mendeloff

In January 1998 a heated diplomatic row broke out between Russia and Estonia. It was not the usual dispute over the treatment of the ethnic-Russian minority, or delimiting the border, or the issuing of visas. This time, it was altogether different: it had to do with a particular interpretation of history. The conflict was spurred by a simple off-the-cuff statement allegedly made by the Russian ambassador to an Estonian journalist about the 1939-40 Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia. The deputy speaker of the Russian State Duma sought clarification of the Russian government’s position. In response, the deputy foreign minister of Russia penned a letter to the Deputy Speaker, articulating the official Russian position. The minister stated that, despite Baltic claims to the contrary, the Soviet Union had neither “occupied” the Baltic states in 1939, nor “annexed” them the following year. 1 His position was clear: the Russian government should neither acknowledge any wrong doing on the part of the Soviet government, nor apologize to the Baltic states for Soviet actions. 2

While such a statement would not surprise us if uttered by a Russian Communist Party Duma representative, it was remarkable to hear a ministerial representative of the “liberal” Yeltsin regime defend such a view, especially as an expression of official policy. In fact, as this chapter will show, the particular Russian interpretation of Soviet conduct on the eve of the Second World War - what I call the “Myth of 1939-40” - is hardly unique to the extreme left. It is widely held and deeply embedded in Russian historical consciousness.

The emergence of the Myth of 1939-40 among the highest echelons of the Russian foreign policy establishment raises some important questions. Why, nearly a decade after the “revelations” of Gorbachev’s glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union, does Russia continue to advocate a version of history that is

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