Eighty years after the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression treaty dividing Europe into spheres of influence, Russia has put the original Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its secret protocol on public display for the first time.
Alongside the pact at the exhibition at Russia’s State Archives in Moscow are documents spanning from the 1938 Munich agreement and occupation of Czechoslovakia until the outbreak of war, which organisers say confirm Soviet fears that the west sought to redirect German aggression toward Moscow.
The message to Europe is clear: everyone was at it.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who spoke at the exhibition’s opening this week, made that point explicitly: “Under these circumstances, the Soviet Union was forced on its own to ensure its national security and signed a non-aggression pact with Germany,” he said.
The Soviet Union long denied that the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – which was signed on 23 August 1939 – ever existed, only acknowledging and denouncing it in 1989 under Mikhail Gorbachev. Now, Russia has sought to normalise the non-aggression pact, arguing that the treaty had been taken “out of context” of the vicious realpolitik of 1930s Europe.
That attempt, accompanied by a foreign ministry social media campaign trumpeting the “truth about WWII” has sparked an outcry from nearby countries in eastern Europe that were annexed and divided under the pact.
“[Vladimir] Putin is saying that annexation of the Baltic states, aggression on Poland, aggression on Romania, on Finland, all of this was not a big deal, a natural part of history, and that is a problem,” said Sławomir Dębski, a Polish political scientist and the director of Polish Institute of International Affairs. “We should ask ourselves why we commemorate all these historical events. Not because these politicians are historians. We do it to send a message to our contemporary society about what is right, and what is wrong.”
Besides Munich, Putin has also cited Poland’s annexation of Czechoslovakian territory in 1938 as evidence that it was not just Moscow making agreements with Adolf Hitler. Dębski argued that Polish elites had since condemned the 1939 treaty, pointing to 2009 remarks by the former president Lech Kaczyński to world leaders, including Putin, where he called the Polish annexation “a sin”.
“We should ask ourselves why Russia does not condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and what kind of message Russia trying to send,” Dębski said.
The governments of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania have released a statement saying the pact “doomed half of Europe to decades of misery”.
In a statement, they added: “This is why on this day proclaimed by the European parliament as a European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian Regimes we remember all those whose deaths and broken lives were a consequence of the crimes perpetrated under the ideology of Nazism and Stalinism.”
This kind of language is anathema to Moscow, where equivalencies of the Nazi and Soviet roles in the second world war have been deemed “falsifications of history” and even a threat to the country’s national security. In 2009, Lavrov wrote: “The victory came at to high a price to allow it to be taken away. For us, it is a ‘red line’.”
Many Russians feel that the west has underestimated the Soviet role in defeating Nazi Germany, a victory that cost the lives of an estimated 26 million Russians, Ukrainians, and other Soviet citizens.
Over the last decade, the Kremlin has sought to combat criticism of its wartime record, by revising textbooks, expanding celebrations for Victory Day, and partnering with historians, reviving the tsarist-era Russian Military Historical Society in 2012 under the leadership of Sergei Naryshkin, a senior official later appointed as Russia’s spy chief.
“For better or for worse, history plays a colossal role in Russia, and is often used for political ends,” said Oleg Budnitsky, the head of the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences at the Higher School of Economics. “War history plays an exceptionally large role.”
The re-evaluation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact began as early as 2005, when Putin compared it to the Munich agreement and accused the Baltic states of attacking Russia “to cover the shame of collaborationism”. By 2007, as Russia clashed with Estonia over a bronze statue to a second world war soldier, Russian historians were increasingly publishing books and essays defending the pact as expedient.
But praise for the treaty really escalated after Russia’s annexation of Crimeain 2014, when Moscow compared far-right support for Ukraine’s revolution to Nazi-era collaboration. The following year, Vladimir Medinsky, the country’s culture minister, called the treaty “a great achievement of Soviet diplomacy”.
“What’s happening in the last few years is certainly a kind of backslide, clearly in connection with politics,” said Budnitsky.