On 23 August 1939, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his Nazi counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, signed the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact in the Kremlin, in the presence of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The deal, which went down in history as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also came with a Secret Protocol.
After decades of stubborn denial, the Russian government finally decided to declassify the Secret Protocol on the 80th anniversary of the Pact’s signing, even though it had been published in the West long before, shortly after the end of World War II.
The Soviet propaganda had every reason to hide the existence of the Secret Protocol to the Soviet-Nazi Pact for major ideological considerations. In the Soviet Union, the myth of the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II) was a core element of the Soviet people’s identity. Since 1965, the Soviet state had painstakingly cultivated the image of a Soviet nation that saved mankind from the Nazi plague.
Even today, the concept of the “Great Patriotic War” is used by Russia as an alternative to the Second World War in an attempt to maintain its sway over the former Soviet republics, where this propaganda myth lives on in the minds of many people contaminated by Soviet nostalgia.
The declassified Secret Protocol dismantles another Soviet myth, one that portrayed the USSR as an innocent victim of Nazi aggression and as a state that at all times opposed Nazi Germany, entering the War on 22 June 1941.
In reality, the Soviet Union entered the War on 17 September 1939, when the Red Army, together with the German Wehrmacht, invaded eastern Poland, in full accordance with the Pact and its Secret Protocol. The USSR began the war in alliance with Hitler’s Germany, contributing substantially to the German victory over Poland.
The Pact lives on
In the Soviet times, as well as in today’s Russia, the excuse for having to sign a pact with Nazi Germany was the failed negotiations with Great Britain and France on an anti-Nazi alliance. It’s true that Stalin was conducting such talks, but he conditioned the future coalition on the recognition of the Soviet Union’s claim to the Polish regions of Galicia and Wilno, territories in the present-day Ukraine and Belarus.
Obviously, the British and French, who were Poland’s allies, did not agree to such a land grab. The moment Stalin realized that Hitler would give him what the West wouldn’t - parts of Poland, Bessarabia and the Baltic countries, he changed his mind about an anti-Nazi coalition and entered an alliance with the Nazi regime instead.
As a logical result, having his hands untied by the deal with Stalin, a little over a week after the signing of the Soviet-Nazi Pact, Hitler invaded Poland, and half a month later Stalin started his own invasion of the country. Obviously, the Soviet-Nazi Pact served as a trigger for World War II, with the Soviet Union bearing the same responsibility as Germany for starting the war.
Today the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, in line with the Soviet propaganda mythology, shamelessly insists that Stalin was forced to make a pact with the devil, that is, with Hitler, after the Great Britain and France refused to form an anti-Nazi coalition. According to this narrative, the Soviet Union signed the pact to guarantee its security and maybe buy some time to better prepare for an imminent war.
This is also the position supported by the official Russian historiography, which accuses anyone who questions Stalin’s intentions of revisionism, despite the fact that after Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Red Army did the same two weeks later.
It’s no coincidence that the Soviet tradition of falsifying history is being used today by the Kremlin propaganda to justify Russia’s military expansion. By starting wars in the former Soviet republics and by annexing territories of sovereign states – Russians are told between the lines – Russia is not committing aggression, but merely continuing the fight against Nazis who endanger Russia as well as the whole world. To make it more digestible, the Kremlin propaganda perpetuates historical fakes from the Soviet era.
Arguments of monumental falsehood
In the Secret Protocol, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to partition Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Polonia between their “areas of influence”.
For the Romanians, the Pact began to produce effects in June 1940, with the Soviet Ultimatums. Already in the first ultimatum, sent to Romania on 26 June 1940, the Soviets used arguments of a monumental falsehood to justify the seizure of Bessarabia, the inalienable territory of sovereign Romania, claiming that Bessarabia was “populated mainly with Ukrainians”. The same lie about the predominant Ukrainian population was also cited when annexing Bucovina, which, unlike Bessarabia, had never before been part of the Russian Empire.
The effects of the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina, under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, continue to manifest to this day. The very existence of the state of Moldova, the Republic of, is seen by many as a direct consequence of the Soviet-Nazi Pact, with the treaty being an application of totalitarianism in foreign policy.
Even if along the way the emergence of new independent states within the former Soviet space had their rationale enshrined in a series of treaties after the end of World War II, from the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties to the 1975 Helsinki Accords, in the case of the Republic of Moldova and Romania, the perception persists that the consequences of the deal between two totalitarian regimes of the past have not been overcome.
A day of mourning, a step in the right direction
The current Russian leadership continues to portray the 1939 Pact not as an expression of totalitarianism, but of realpolitik.
In most European countries, the effects of the Pact live on mainly in the realm of symbolism and historical memory. But not in the post-Soviet space, including in the Republic of Moldova, where Russian propaganda and nostalgia for the Soviet past is still strong. In this informational and spiritual atmosphere, the popularity of the Putin regime, which builds its foreign policy in a manner quite close to Stalin’s at the time of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, becomes explainable.
Today, Russia imposes exclusion zones in Europe, starts wars against its neighbors, commits land grabs, encourages separatism, and does not shy away from threatening to use nuclear weapons. So, today we are witnessing a type of policy very similar to the one Stalin put into practice by concluding the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
For the Moldovan society, the real denunciation in the collective mind of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and its consequences is equivalent to the affirmation of the truth about the Republic of Moldova’s belonging to the Romanian civilizational space, from which we were forcibly separated by Stalin’s and Hitler’s geopolitical plans.
Moldova took an important step in this direction when it declared August 23 a Day of Mourning, this day also being marked in Europe as the Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, including Nazism and Stalinism. But it’s important that the formality of proclaiming August 23 as a day of mourning should also be accompanied by an extensive program of awareness raising and educational activities, the only ones capable of affirming at the level of the collective mind the criminal nature of the pact between Stalin and Hitler, whose dire consequences on the Romanian national unity still call for being removed.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.