Spanish activist and history enthusiast Alvaro Peñas is especially interested in the history of Eastern Europe. We offer his interview with Latvian parliamentarian, historian and movie director Edvīns Šnore, mostly regarding his remarkable 2008 documentary “The Soviet Story”.
Your film received many awards in different countries, such as Latvia, Estonia, Germany and Ukraine. However, it was harshly criticized in Russia. In May 2008, during a protest under the motto “Let´s not allow the rewriting of history!”, an effigy representing you was burnt in front of the Latvian Embassy in Moscow. They have called you a propagandist and a fascist, and even a Russian historian, Alexander Dyukov, said that he wanted to kill you after seeing your movie. Apart from this furious reaction, has there been some academic response to what you showed in the film?
A book was published in Russia “THE SOVIET STORY — Механизм лжи” (“The Soviet Story – The tissue of lies”). It was an attempt to rebuke the arguments provided in the Soviet Story. Some Russian historians have criticized the film during historical conferences in Russia. But mostly the Russian reaction has been emotional and not academic. In the West however the film is widely used in academic circles. It has been included in school curriculums in several countries (for example, Slovakia, Latvia). It has been widely screened in universities both in Europe and in America.
The Russians were the first victims of communism. However, according to a survey conducted last year in Russia, 70% of those interviewed believe that Stalin had a positive role in the history of the country, and 46% even consider the victims of stalinism justified. How is it possible that Russians are so ignorant of their own history?
Indeed, initially Russian people were very much against the Communists. The scale of their resistance was enormous. Tambov Rebellion (1920-1923) alone involved hundred thousand people. It was a full-fledged war against their own people, during which the Red army used the most atrocious methods such as poison gas and taking and executing hostages. Millions were repressed and went through the GULAG concentration camp system. As a result of the Soviet terror the best part of the society was annihilated – killed or imprisoned. They either did not have children, or their kids were put in state orphanages. The best conditions for survival were for those who worked in the repressive system: GULAG concentration camp guards, KGB/NKVD people, etc. Today’s society in Russia is very much made up of their descendants. They do not condemn Stalin and his crimes, because that would mean condemning their own grandfathers who carried out those crimes.
The Holomodor, death by starvation of millions of Ukrainians, is still being discussed. Last month the Russian ambassador to Poland, Sergey Andreyev, declared in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita that the famine in Ukraine was due to bad weather and a wrong agrarian policy, and that the term Holomodor is political and promoted by Ukrainian nationalists. It is clear that the war in the east of Ukraine influences these types of statements, but why has Russia never wanted to acknowledge the political motivation behind the famine?
Because such acknowledgment would entail that the Soviets were as bad as the Nazis. The current Russia is not capable of acknowledging that, even despite the fact that the Soviets killed more people than the Nazis. Also, it is well proven that Stalin exterminated people not only based on their social class but also based on their ethnicity – just as the Nazis. Thousands of Latvians, Poles, Koreans were killed in the USSR in the late 1930s only because they belonged to a certain ethnic group.
The fact that Stalin used famine as a weapon is also very well known. Berlin blockade (1948/49) was a classical example. Borders were closed, food supplies stopped, so that people starve and give in eventually. Stalin’s plan in Berlin failed because of the American air lifts. But in Ukraine it succeeded. Because there was no-one to come to Ukrainians’ aid. 7 million people were starved to death. It had a huge impact on the Ukrainian nation.
Another controversial issue is the Soviet-German Pact, better known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The signature of this agreement and the partition of Poland are a historical fact, and your film insists on the close collaboration between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union. How is it possible that Poland is now being blamed for the start of the Second World War?
I agree, it is mind boggling. It is like blaming Jews for the Holocaust. You would not hear anything like that in the civilized world. But president Putin is another matter. He comes from the KGB and does not blink when someone needs to be poisoned, as we see. He can blow up apartment buildings in Moscow (1999) to point the finger to Chechens and create an excuse for a war. Under his leadership Russian diplomatic mail is used to traffic drugs from Latin America as we read. Name one country in Europe who does anything of this sort. But Russia under Putin is different.
So, blaming Poles – the first nation who fought the Nazis – for instigating the War is not that surprising a statement from Putin. I will not be surprised if tomorrow he will blame Finland for attacking the Soviet Union in 1939.
In Eastern Europe there are numerous monuments dedicated to the Red Army. Some are monuments to their fallen soldiers, others commemorate the “liberation” that was the beginning of a communist dictatorship. In Poland a law was passed in 2017 to remove all these monuments. I have seen the obelisk in Riga although I do not know if there are more monuments in the rest of Latvia. What do you think should be done with them?
Monuments celebrating the Red Army should be removed, brethren cemeteries should be left alone. Just as the Poles did, we should do the same. Indeed, it is a little strange that in the square from which people were deported to Siberia stands a monument celebrating the Red Army which enabled those deportations. It is not right.
One of the Spanish communist leaders of our Civil War, Valentín González, El Campesino, left Spain to take refuge in the Soviet Union. He ended up imprisoned and fled from the socialist paradise. Later he wrote a book “I chose slavery”, in which one former NKVD member confesses that he has killed many people in the name of communism and that before he did not feel remorse because he believed he had done it for a good cause, for a better world. Does utopia lead to genocide?
Communist utopia certainly does. I do not know of any Communist country which had functioned without mass murder. Soviet Union, Cuba, Cambodia, North Korea – concentration camps and mass killings were part of life in all of them. Without violence Communism simply does not work. Even in theory it is a DICTATORSHIP. Dictatorship of proletariat. By definition it cannot be voluntary or based on free will. It is enforced.
People and nations who have not experienced the Communist paradise can be deceived in believing that the idea is good. But it is not.
In Spain, our socialist-communist government is preparing an extension of the infamous historical memory law. They pretend to ban any opinion “in favor of Franco´s regime”, in practice a banning against anyone who disagrees with the new official history. Russia has announced an institute of historical truth to give its “correct” version of history, whitewashing communism and the Red Army. It seems that being a historian is becoming a risky profession. What do you think of these laws and ministries of truth?
I think it is wrong. Freedom of speech is at the core of the Western democracy. I remember my school days when whitewashed history with forbidden topics was a normal thing in the Soviet Union. There was one history at home, and another – official history at school. I can tell from my experience that is was not very effective and did mostly harm than good for the regime. Because no-one believed the regime, even if it told the truth occasionally.
In your film you warned of a possible xenophobic and fascist drift of Russia. However, twelve years later we find a Russia that calls itself defender of the fatherland and the orthodox church, and at the same time defends the Soviet legacy and increasingly appeals to the dialect of past times, “the war against Ukraine is a fight against fascism”. Where do you think Russia is headed?
To disintegration. The rule of history is that all the empires end. The European ones had ceased to exist by the 20th century. In Russia this process is under way with major milestones in 1917 and 1991. Under the leadership of Putin Russia has gone to war with its Slavic brothers – Ukrainians, unthinkable even 10 years ago. Now it is a reality. It has lost Ukraine and most likely will lose Belarus soon. I believe it will not be long before Russian Federation itself will tear apart. We see already protests in Siberia and the Far East where people live in poverty while all their natural resources are taken by the colonial Moscow. It is not a sustainable model and people will not tolerate it for much longer once Putin is gone.
The film is dedicated to the 20 million murdered people in the Soviet Union. Do you think that justice will one day be done to all these victims?
Yes. I am sure one day justice will be done.