Commission to defend Russia's view of history

Amid increasingly vocal calls to criminalise interpretations of World War II history that question the role of the Soviet Union, President Dmitry Medvedev has set up a commission to investigate and analyse attempts to "falsify history against the interests of Russia."

In a video blog posted on his web site, Medvedev called attempts at falsification "more and more harsh, depraved and aggressive."

The commission has raised eyebrows by appearing to throw support behind statements by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu that denying Russia's victory in the war should be illegal.

The decision also comes on the back of proposed bill that could make "distorting the verdicts of the Nuremburg Trials... to rehabilitate Nazism" or even "calling the actions of Allied countries a crime" a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison - five if the perpetrator used mass media, according to a text of the bill cited by Kommersant.

But senior officials say that the commission and the legislation are separate, although they agree they are moving in the same direction.

A source in the presidential press service said the commission "does not punish, but gathers information." Moreover, he warned that the punitive legislation was not a done deal. "There are many opinions, but it's too early to speak of the actual document."

Headed by Sergei Naryshkin, the commission will be made up of 28 "experts," including top officials from the Federal Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service. One member, Konstantin Zatulin, deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, is working on legislation that will stipulate responsibility for denying the results of the Nuremburg Trials, but stressed that the committee was a separate measure with its own origins.

"These are two different things," he said in a telephone interview. "I remember first discussing this idea with Naryshkin before Medvedev became president, when Naryshkin was still a deputy prime minister."

Both the legislation and the commission are seen as targeting foreign attempts - particularly from former Soviet republics such as Latvia and Ukraine - to question the Soviet Union's role in World War II. Asked if the wording of the bill would make it a crime to talk about alleged wartime atrocities of Soviet troops, Valery Ryazansky, a senior United Russia official and one of the authors of the bill, said, "If the country is suddenly called an occupier - that should be punished. You can talk about crimes of individual people, of course. But calling the actions of the Red Army a crime - yes, that should be punished."

A source in the Kremlin press service said he could not comment on the bill because it was still being prepared. He stressed, however, that the commission had an entirely different agenda.

"Because there are a lot of precedents when accepted history has been interpreted differently by various countries according to their particular interests - such as glorifying fascism, or reinterpreting Holodomor [the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s, which Ukrainian officials have described as genocide], if we want to talk about local things - we believe that it's necessary to at least try to understand the attempts. That is why the commission will deal first and foremost with information gathering and analysis, and then make recommendations to the president. Whether he accepts those recommendations or not is up to him."

Russia is at odds with former Soviet republics about how to interpret the events of the war, with accusations coming from both sides. A Soviet World War II veteran has accused Latvia this week of falsification after being convicted of war crimes associated with his resistance group that fought against Nazi Germany, RIA Novosti reports. Latvia has accused Russia of occupying its country during World War II.

Boris Belenkin, a research director at Memorial, a society that tracks Soviet-era repression and campaigns for human rights today, says the commission shows little promise and could make his job more difficult.

"It could be a form of pressure for regional educators, archivists, and officials to put a special spin on history and make archival information less accessible," Belenkin said. "I doubt it will be a signal for people in Moscow, but people in the regions will see this as reverberating with Soviet-era rhetoric, which is familiar and customary for them," he said.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, an analyst with the Panorama think tank, said that the idea for the commission probably came not Medvedev, but from hawks in the administration or from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The commission has "all the typical traits of Soviet-era prejudices," said Pribylovsky. "Many in the elites have psychologically inherited those prejudices. Perhaps Medvedev was trying to appease those who think he is not patriotic enough."

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