Russia's Half-Truth

Russians often complain that their monumental sacrifice to help defeat the Nazis has never been fully appreciated by outsiders.

With more than 50 world leaders celebrating victory in Europe in Moscow's Red Square Monday, Russia got some of that deserved recognition.

Indeed, 60 years later, its contribution shouldn't be forgotten or belittled: 27 million Soviet citizens dead; three years of fierce fighting before the Allies were finally able to open a Western front; responsibility for the vast majority of Nazi casualties.

But for all of Russia's yearning for recognition, it has yet to deal openly and honestly with the other half of its World War II story: the large-scale violence, oppression, and grief it caused during the war and its cold-war aftermath.

To this day, the Russian government perpetuates the myth that the Soviets were invited into the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia - first divvied out to Stalin by Hitler in 1939, then occupied by the Soviets after they drove out the Nazis at the end of the war.

The Soviet occupation was characterized by rape, murder, and waves of deportation - a pattern in this region and in others that came under Red Army control. No wonder, then, that the leaders of Estonia and Lithuania - now members of the European Union - boycotted Monday's ceremony.

Unlike in Germany and Japan, no Soviet-era official has been tried for crimes committed during the war (or the long postwar occupation of Eastern Europe).

And after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany worked out a sensitive way to reveal the names of informers to the secret police during East Germany's communist years; the names of KGB informers are a state secret. Nor has Russia made any serious effort to find and commemorate the mass graves and execution sites of Stalin-era terror.

In his state-of-the-nation speech last month, Mr. Putin mourned the collapse of the Soviet Union, calling it "the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century." If he believes he can perpetuate such a gross misinterpretation of history and still carry Russia forward - and, as he says, bring "further civilization to the Euro-Asian continent" - he's mistaken.

Japan is still paying for a less-than-honest war accounting with its sometimes testy foreign relations in Asia - recall the recent protests in China.

Putin need look no further than his own backyard for another example. Stalin's mass deportation of Chechens may not be a front-burner issue in the drawn-out Chechnya problem, but it's a historical factor that can't be ignored.

The Kremlin, seeking to keep alive its half-truth about the war, was not happy to have George Bush bookend his May 9 participation with stops in formerly occupied Latvia and newly democratic Georgia. But this symbolic linking of truth about the past with hope for the future is exactly the message Russia needs.

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