Comes the reckoning
History was a weakness for communist regimes. Now it has become a weapon for populists By Edward Lucas
My Polish friend had a request. Could he borrow my book for a couple more days? “You see, we are typing it,” he explained. The second volume of Norman Davies’s God’s Playground was the literary equivalent of an incendiary bomb. The first full history of modern Poland to be published in the West laid bare the crimes and lies of the usurpers installed by the Soviet occupiers after the war. Contrary to the official narrative of competent cadres rebuilding a grateful nation after its betrayal and destruction, Davies noted that there were “hardly enough native Polish communists to run a factory, let alone a country of some thirty million people”. Unsurprisingly it was banned in Poland, and equally unsurprisingly, people yearned to read it. My friends were working in shifts to type out my smuggled copy, using carbon paper to make four copies of each page.
denied for decades, were found in a safe in the Kremlin and published.
For Russians, the realisation that official history had been falsified was a shattering blow. The captive nations—Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians and others—never believed the Soviet version to start with. They knew that the interwar republics, for all their faults, were not the fascist hellholes of “bourgeois nationalism” depicted by communist propaganda. They knew that their countries had been occupied, not liberated, in 1944-45. They knew that Soviet-backed regimes had brought backwardness and isolation, not modernisation. They knew that the people implementing Kremlin instructions were thugs and grifters, not noble idealists. They knew all these things, even if they could not say so.
As a student, journalist and activist in communist Poland and other parts of the Soviet empire, I would hear from official propagandists that history was on their side. But in fact, it was their enemy. The blind historical forces analysed by Karl Marx indeed helped shape the world in which revolutionaries took power. But the communists’ accounts of their origins, backers and tactics were myths and legends, not history. In particular, the ruthless violence they employed struck all but the most fervent believers as abhorrent. So they had to exaggerate the benefits and cover up the costs. Falsification of history was intrinsic to the survival of the revolution—tactically successful and strategically disastrous. A system founded on lies was always vulnerable to the truth. Within the Soviet empire, repression could prevent all but whispered truth-telling about history. This merely intensified the importance of scholarly and polemical studies abroad, and samizdat publication at home. For those wishing to resist and undermine communism, telling the truth about history was a potent weapon.
The collapse of the Soviet empire in the years 1989-91 represented the ultimate defeat of communist historiography. Every element of the Kremlin-authorised version of history was proved to be wrong. Russia before the Bolshevik revolution was not doomed or stagnant. It had been developing fast. The planned economy squandered human and natural resources only to reach the dead-end of the Brezhnev years, with widespread shortages, industrial obsolescence, pitiful infrastructure and mountainous internal and external debts—failures made all the more devastating by systematic deceit about their nature and extent.
The final years of the Soviet empire brought the beginnings of free speech. Many taboo issues could be discussed. But the hottest topic was history, and it ignited a furnace of political change.
In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, the central issue was the events of 40 and 50 years earlier. What really happened in June 1940? The pre-war republics had not voted voluntarily to join the Soviet Union. They had been terrorised into doing so, after sham elections. That laid the foundation for the restoration of independence, not as “new” former Soviet Socialist Republics, but as countries that had never lost their de jure statehood. What about the deportations of 1941 and 1949? Soviet rule whitewashed these huge national traumas.
Poland’s history had been subject to particular contortions under communism. The failure of the pre-war republic was exaggerated, the Soviet invasion of September 17th 1939 all but ignored, and the role of the non-communist resistance overlooked. The massacre of the Polish officer corps at Katyń and other locations in April-May 1940 was, quite ludicrously, blamed on the Germans. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and the fate of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) at Soviet hands after the war, was all but ignored in favour of the modest feats of the much smaller, communist-led People’s Army (Armia Ludowa). The movement of Poland’s borders and populations as a result of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences was treated euphemistically.
In Czechoslovakia, taboo topics included the Soviet-backed regime’s seizure of power in 1948, accompanied by widespread repressions, including the mysterious death of Jan Masaryk, the last non-communist foreign minister; and the Soviet-led in
At home and abroad, the Soviet leadership had behaved not as liberators, but like the imperialists that they decried. The history of the Russian Civil War, it turned out, was a lie. So too were the hagiographies of Lenin. The full horrors of Stalinism emerged, after decades of whitewash. The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, whose existence had been
‘The captive nations never believed the Soviet version to start with. They knew that their countries had been occupied, not liberated, in 1944-45’
vasion of 1968 which crushed Alexander Dubček’s experiment in reformed socialism. In Hungary, the main business was restoring a proper history of the 1956 invasion. The reburial in 1989 of Imre Nagy, the country’s leader during the brief e