Facts beat nostalgia. Op-Ed by Victor Pelin
“The chronology of historical events confirms that there is no reason for the independent states established after the fall of the Tsarist and Soviet empires to owe them anything.”
The baseless claims of nostalgic propagandists
Historical processes have multiple facets, some brighter, others darker. The same is true for the subjects of historical processes, whether they are prominent figures or state organizations. It is no coincidence that the upcoming Soviet Union centenary brings out regrets among those nostalgic for the defunct Soviet Empire.
In this context, the communist propagandists of Moldova have engaged in spreading myths about the positive role of the Soviet Union. For example, they insist on the exceptional role the Soviet Union allegedly played in building and strengthening the statehood of half of the world’s countries. Basically, their claim is that this half of the world’s countries should be grateful to the Soviet Union. Since nostalgia belongs to the emotional sphere, regrets for certain aspects of life in the Soviet Union can be understood. However, for the sake of truth, emotional attitudes must be balanced by rational approaches based on concrete historical facts.
It is well known that natural processes unfold in an evolutionary manner. When empires fall apart, new state organizations appear more or less naturally in their stead. This process doesn’t require special efforts from the defunct empires; it is enough for them to collapse. Nature does not tolerate emptiness, and therefore, for example, the six states that emerged in the Balkans after the disintegration of Yugoslavia have no reason to be grateful to the former federation of which they were once a part. Rather the opposite is true: to this day there are dangerous resentments among the former subjects of Yugoslavia. We have a similarly dangerous situation, if not much more so, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Russia’s war against Ukraine, three decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, reconfirms that a collapsing empire may have a host of ticking bombs in hiding.
So, the claims of nostalgic propagandists that nations like Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania should be grateful to the Soviet Union for their existence are absolutely unfounded. First of all, these nations established or restored their statehood in the context of World War One, with the disintegration of four empires engaged in that war: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman empires. Secondly, these states proclaimed their independence during 1917-1918, i.e. about four years before the Soviet Union was formally founded on 30 December 1922. Thirdly, the notion that this happened thanks to a display of generosity by the Bolsheviks is just ridiculous.
The truth is that, after the November 1917 coup, Bolshevik Russia was compelled by the Brest-Litovsk treaties to pull out of some territories of the tsarist empire, where these countries were subsequently established or reconstituted. Tellingly, it took the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin nine long days to comply and recognize the independence of Finland, for example.
Who should be thanked then?
To understand who the nations calved out of the Tsarist Empire should thank for their statehoods, the propagandists of nostalgia should recall the Peace Treaty of March 1918 between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey (the Central Powers) on the one hand, and Russia on the other. They should also recall the explanations of the Soviet and Putinist propaganda as to why that treaty, which they refer to as “shameful”, needed to be accepted. That would be enough to reach the conclusion that the new states that appeared on the ruins of the four empires did not have any reason to be grateful to Russia, be it in its Tsarist or Bolshevik iteration.
But if anyone insists on expressing gratitude to a benefactor, then it would probably have to be United States President Woodrow Wilson. It was him who, about one year after the US entered the war, proposed the Fourteen Points, a statement of principles for a post-war world order based on the right of peoples to self-determination. And Wilson’s vision incorporated Soviet Russia: still considered a great power, it had to be drawn into the ranks of peace-loving nations.
So, the new post-war order, while precarious, was built on the principle of nationalities and other Wilsonian theses, giving rise to the League of Nations (1920-1946). It is worth noting that Germany left the League of Nations in 1933, immediately after the Nazis came to power, while the Soviet Union was expelled in December 1939, after putting into practice, in complicity with Nazi Germany, the secret protocols to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Following through those protocols, the Soviet Union 1) attacked Finland, 2) invaded and partitioned Poland together with Nazi Germany, celebrating it with a joint military parade in Brest, where the Shameful Treaty had been signed, and 3) annihilated the statehood of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, incorporating them into the USSR.
Despite this, the communist propagandists of Moldova insist that these states should be grateful to the Soviet Union for their statehoods. Historical events show that the former provinces of the Tsarist Empire don’t owe their statehood to the benevolence of the Soviet Union. In fact, they fought as hard as they could to break away from both the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet one.
What do Ukraine and Moldova owe to the Soviet Union?
Ukraine, unfortunately, did not have the luck of Finland, although the Brest-Litovsk Treaty explicitly stipulated that “Russia undertakes to immediately make peace with the Ukrainian People’s Republic and recognize the peace treaty between this state and the powers of the Quadruple Alliance. The territory of Ukraine shall be immediately cleared of Russian Army and Red Guards troops. Russia shall cease any agitation or propaganda against the government or public institutions of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.” The United States’ joining the war on the side of the Entente and the propaganda effort undertaken by the Bolsheviks on the territory of the Central Powers determined the latter’s defeat and sealed the fate of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.
Today, as Russia’s unprovoked war rages on in Ukraine, it must be stressed that the latter was not conceived by Lenin and Trotsky, as claimed by President Vladimir Putin and his propaganda. Ukraine declared its independence on 24 January 1918 after the Bolsheviks disbanded the Constituent Assembly and a civil war broke out in Russia. What Lenin did was to admit, on 24 February 1918, that “we have no choice but to accept the conditions” imposed by Germany, in the hope that “our ally, the international proletariat will come to our aid”. Russia’s Central Executive Committee “accepted” “the German conditions” by a vote of 116 to 84, with 26 abstentions. That’s what really happened, and not what the propagandists claim. Ukraine’s misfortune was also due to the iconic, but naive Father Makhno, who prevented Denikin’s army from conquering Moscow to end Bolshevism. As thanks, a little later, the Bolsheviks attacked and destroyed Makhno’s troops, forcing the legendary revolutionary into emigration.
As regards the Republic of Moldova, the propagandists’ speculations are more nuanced: they attribute the credit of Moldova’s very statehood to the Soviet Union. In fact, after the Bolshevik coup, Bessarabia followed a similar path as Ukraine. Obviously, up to a certain point. What matters most is that the proclamation by Sfatul Țării, on 24 January 1918, of the Moldavian Democratic Republic’s independence was absolutely legitimate. Equally legitimate was the proclamation, on 27 March 1918, of the union of Bessarabia with Romania. This is because Sfatul Țării had basically the same status and the same degree of legitimacy, if not greater, than the congress of Bolshevik Soviets of Workers and Soldiers of Russia, which supported the Bolshevik Coup of October 1917.
The propagandistic drive of the nostalgics should motivate us to find solutions to the imperialist claims and policies of contesting the so-called gifts of the Russian people to the former Soviet republics. The rhetoric and actions of Russian elites and propagandists should put us on guard. According to their logic, Austria, for example, should be seen as some sort of anti-Germany. In this sense, there are similarities between the 1938 Anschluss of Austria and what Russia intends to do in relation to Ukraine with is “special military operation” launched in February 2022. If Ukraine is declared as some sort of “anti-Russia”, then why would we not admit that, for the sake of some geopolitical games, there would not be supporters of the notion that the Republic of Moldova is some sort of anti-Romania, and so on?
What matters today, in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, is that the propagandists and advisers of President Vladimir Putin insist on the reconquest of countries whose territories were once part of the Tsarist Empire or the Soviet Union. They suggest Russia should return to the world before the “Shameful Treaty”. The aggression against Ukraine and what will follow must be seen precisely through this lens.
The propaganda speculations around nostalgia for the defunct Soviet Empire are an attempt to justify the policies promoted by the Soviet Union, but also the aggressive policies in Putin’s Russia. The chronology of historical events confirms that there is no reason for the independent states established after the fall of the Tsarist and Soviet empires to owe them anything. That is why it’s so important that these independent nations can carve out their own path of development unhindered.