Russian president gives his view on WWII

Izvestia: Mr. Medvedev, you probably remember how in the past they often said that every family in our country was affected by the war in one way or another. How did the war affect your family?

Dmitry Medvedev: The war really affected every Soviet family – some more, some less. Both of my grandfathers fought in the war; they both went through all kinds of trials during the war. When I visited my grandfather Afanasy as a little boy (he lived in Krasnodar), he told me stories about the war. It had a great impact on me. He always spoke from the heart, with tears in his eyes. He told me about things that no one really wrote about back then. He fought a lot, in different places, had a serious wound, and received many awards. His stories spoke to me. I really took them to heart.

My other grandfather Veniamin also told me a lot about the war and what he felt back then. I still remember him telling me how difficult it was to shoot at people, how awful it felt, how hard it was to do that even though he knew that he was defending his country, his family, from the invaders who had come to our land, killing our people, burning down our towns and villages. It is a very personal thing. For some reason, when I was little I didn’t think much about it.

You and I were born after the great victory. You were born twenty years after the victory, that’s a long time. And even though you were surrounded by people who fought in the war, for you the war is part of history, not part of your life. How have your views on the Great Patriotic War changed over the years and who influenced your views? Who influenced you in changing your attitude towards various facts of this war and how?

What was the Great Patriotic War for our country? A huge armada of invaders attacked our country, inflicting pain and death. No matter how many years pass, you cannot change this fact. So of course, this war is part of history, but it’s part of recent history, and that’s my point.
So, my views on the war have not changed radically. Of course, something changed, because we got access to many materials only in the late 1980s or the early 1990s, when archive materials were declassified and published, and we gained access to some sources previously closed to the public. For a long time the war was portrayed only as a great victory of the Soviet people and the Red Army. But the war was also a huge number of deaths and immense suffering that the Soviet people went through together with other European countries. So, in this sense, I guess my views changed to a degree.

A year ago you created a special Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History. What prompted you to do this? And what particular facts were falsified in your opinion?

What prompted me was the disgusting conduct of some politicians who used pseudo-academic interpretations of those events for their own petty purposes, just to score some extra political points. But our main goal is not to respond to specific people. After all, God will judge them, so to speak. The main thing is our future. What memories will we pass down to future generations? What will our children and grandchildren think about the war? What will they know about the war? What lessons will they learn from this war?

You know, for our generation, for those of our age, for older ones, and for those who are younger, the words “fascism” and “Nazism” have a strong negative connotation. But, unfortunately, this is not true for everyone. For instance, in Europe, in many countries, fascists are being rehabilitated. Even in our country there are freaks who use Nazi symbols and hold all kinds of gatherings under Nazi slogans.

So, this is truly important. But the main thing is, we need to tell people the truth. And what is the truth?
Our people – those who lived in our country at the time – had no other choice. They could either die or become slaves. There was no other choice. So that’s the first thing. And that is an irrefutable fact.
Second. There is the question of who started the war, whose fault it was, who committed the crime. The answer, again, is totally obvious. It is recorded in the materials of the Nuremberg Trials, in official documents, and also in the memory of a great number of people. Any attempt to misrepresent historic facts looks very much like malicious intent.

So in my opinion, we need to present the truth. It doesn’t mean that our job is to argue with different interpretations of various events of the war period, or to fight some scientific theories. Scholars can propose their theories, argue their points, but there are some facts that don’t need proof because they are either obvious or they were settled and recorded in international documents, such as the materials of the Nuremberg Trials. These are the issues we shouldn’t argue about, because such arguments would take us down a very bad road.

But we have to take into account the fact that different nations have different memories. Some countries may have different views concerning the liberation of their territory by the Red Army. How can we make sure that liberators are honored as liberators? What does Russia need to do in this respect?

Of course, every country has its own history, and it doesn’t make any sense to try to convince everyone that what happened after the war was always good for the liberated countries. We would not be totally honest if we said that. Of course, we have to understand that if the Soviet Union and other Allies had not liberated Europe, Europe would have been very different today. Most likely, it would have been one big concentration camp, serving the interests of one nation. Most of the people who live in Europe today would not have even been alive.
The Soviet Union was a very complex state, and frankly, the regime that ruled the country after the well-known events, was definitely totalitarian.

But this is what historians and all sensible people should be able to do – separate the mission of the Red Army and the Soviet state during the war from what happened afterwards. Yes, it is hard to draw the line in real life, but we have to do it, in order to emphasize again: had it not been for the Soviet Army and the colossal sacrifice that the Soviet people brought to the altar of this war, Europe would have been different. Clearly, Europe would not have been as prosperous, safe, wealthy and constantly developing as it is today. And only a deaf person will not hear this argument.

No one is trying to idealize the role that the Soviet Union played after the war. But we should never confuse butchers and victims. Those who say that our army played the same role as the fascist invaders commit a moral crime.

I’d like to mention that the Germans conduct themselves much more decently in this matter than, say, some in the Baltic states, even though this is a very sensitive issue for Germany. On the other hand, there are some post-war decisions that haven’t been reversed—and I strongly believe they can never be reversed. I am talking about the decisions of the Nuremberg Trials, for example. It was there that the crimes committed by the Nazis were qualified as crimes against humanity. There is no statute of limitations on those crimes, and people should be punished for them no matter how much time has elapsed.

But, Mr. Medvedev, when European countries prosecute elderly, senile Nazis today, people spontaneously start to wonder whether there is any point in prosecuting them. May be we should just pardon them all? Many years have passed; somehow they survived. Maybe it makes sense not to prosecute them, so that awful history doesn’t repeat itself…

I will share my personal opinion, which coincides with the position of the Nuremberg Tribunal on this issue. These crimes have no statute of limitations, no matter whom we are talking about. You are probably talking about the case of Ivan Demyanyuk – even though I don’t want to discuss individual cases here. This is our moral responsibility before future generations, and if we turn a blind eye to these crimes now, feeling sorry for the criminals, then such crimes could be repeated in the future in one form or another, in one country or another. So it may sound harsh, but these crimes really don’t have a statute of limitations, meaning that those who committed them should be prosecuted and punished, no matter how old they are.

In Western countries victory is attributed to the West – the Allies won the war, and the Soviet Union just participated. So it’s like we are losing our victory. Many people don’t know anything about the huge losses the Soviet Union sustained in this war. They don’t know that it was the Red Army that captured Berlin. There are many things they don’t know. What can we do in order not to lose our victory?

The fact is, almost three-quarters of all the losses the Nazi troops sustained were on the Eastern Front, in fighting the Soviet Union. About 70 per cent of all casualties and losses were inflicted by our soldiers. That is the truth.

But, of course, you can make movies about that. And if you do it professionally, and we know that our Western partners are very good at making films, then you can make everybody think that the victory was won in the West, and Saving Private Ryan will be regarded as the ultimate authority on the issue. It is a pretty good movie, by the way; it was done professionally. But that doesn’t mean it tells the truth.

You mentioned casualties. It is hard to speak about figures, but under Stalin the official number was 14 million; under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, 20 million; under Gorbachev, the number grew to 27 million, and the issue is still being researched. Do you think we will ever get the final number and find out how many people we actually lost?

It is a difficult subject. 14 million, 20 million, 27 million are huge, gigantic, incomprehensible numbers. But we should not simplify the situation. We need to finish this work.
What is this work? We need to clarify what kind of casualties we are talking about. There were immediate casualties – those who were killed in action, and those who died of their wounds – either during the war or after the war. Then, there are those who were captured and died as prisoners of war, those who died of starvation, those killed during air raids, those who died on occupied territory. All archives have been declassified, no problems there. And this work is currently underway, co-ordinated by the General Staff.

Recently you were asked to share your opinion on the role Stalin played in this war. Our newspaper can’t help asking the same question again from the following angle – yes, Stalin was the leader of our country during this very difficult time. Yes, Stalin led our country to victory. But what right do we have to turn a tyrant, who destroyed so many of his countrymen, into a hero, only because he held the highest post at the time. For example, Hitler did many things for Germany: he solved the problem of unemployment during the Great Depression, built roads and so forth, but no one there is trying to turn this terrible person into a hero. Unfortunately, in our country we now see more followers of Stalin. And those are mostly young people who don’t know what it was like under his rule. What should we do?

You have raised a number of issues here. First of all, let me point out some obvious facts. It was our people who won the Great Patriotic War, not Stalin, not even military commanders, even though their role was very important. It was the people who won the war. They went through tremendous hardships, and a great number of people paid with their lives for this victory.

As for the role Stalin played, opinions vary. Some say his role as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief was crucial, others disagree. The official position of the Russian leadership after Russia emerged as a new nation has been clear: Stalin committed many crimes against his people. And even though he worked a lot, even though the country achieved a lot under his leadership, we cannot pardon him for what he did to his people. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, people who like Stalin or hate Stalin are entitled to their own opinion. It is no surprise that many war veterans, people who won that war, like Stalin. But these personal opinions should not influence the official position, which is clear, and I just now reiterated it to you. Sometimes I think that this topic is over-emphasized. For example, if we look at the way people view Stalin and some other leaders, I don’t think he had fewer followers in the 1990s. Yet back then no one talked about the renaissance of Stalinism. Now all of a sudden this has become an issue. Yes, at times historic figures become idols that people worship. Sometimes it is the young people who do it, especially young people with leftist views. But it would be totally wrong to say that Stalinism is becoming our everyday reality that we are going to use some of the symbols of the past, some posters, or something else. It is not happening, and it will not happen. That is absolutely out of the question. This is our official ideology today, if you will, and my position as the president of the Russian Federation. So the main thing here is to draw a line between personal opinions and the official position of our state.

Any war is, among other things, a hard lesson both for those victorious and those defeated, and first and foremost for politicians who lead the countries fighting in the war. Many years have passed since then. Now you are a leader of a great country. What are the lessons of that war for you? What is important for you in terms of what should be done or, on the contrary, what shouldn’t be done?

The main lesson is that we must, together with other countries, with other members of the international community, do our best to remove such threats. Any attempts to appease an aggressor, a dictator, usually don’t yield a positive outcome, especially after this dictator has grown strong and got going. Therefore our task today is to create a reliable system of international security. The current system of international security is not perfect, and I had to mention this more than once. That is why we came up with the idea to create a new European security structure—a European Security Treaty. The idea is obvious enough, even though it received a mixed reaction. Some think it is a clever plan Russia designed to weaken NATO, to drive a wedge between the United States and European countries and play them against each other. I have mentioned more than once that this treaty pursues quite different goals. We must simply find a forum where we can address a whole range of various problems. We must find a way to resolve differences. Had we had effective institutions for European security, we could have definitely avoided the events of August 2008. There could have been an international arbitration between the parts of Georgia that wanted independence and the core Georgia. International mechanisms could have been used. That did not happen. Another, sadder thing happened. People were killed. A military conflict erupted, and we had to resolve it. Therefore, this task is not abstract or diplomatic; it is absolutely practical. It is to provide security on our continent.

Mr. Medvedev, after the Iron Curtain fell and our people began to travel around the world, one can often hear a bitter question: “Why do the defeated live in better conditions than the victors?”

During the Great Patriotic War, during World War II, the Soviet Union achieved the most important goal: it defeated a very strong enemy, destroyed it and created conditions for Europe’s free development. It paid a huge price for that, at the same time helping all the people of Greater Europe. After that, the Soviet Union took its own path. I don’t believe that the economic system and the political system we had after the war were fit for normal development. Hence the difference in living standards and the way people feel. Indeed, it hurts and all of us have had these feelings, especially when we went abroad for the first time. At the same time we were aware of the price we paid for Europe’s well-being – for all that material abundance, bright shop windows, well-to-do people and the smiles on their faces. And we did not have a definite answer as to why what we had was different. Had the Soviet Union been more competitive and had conditions for economic development based on modern principles, everything could have been different and the Soviet Union could have been more appealing to our people, and we could have avoided those dramatic events of the late 1980s and the early 1990s that eventually led to its disintegration.

Mr. Medvedev, the anti-Hitler coalition united countries that seemed impossible to unite, and this union was effective: they defeated a powerful, well-organised enemy. The bloc system remained after the victory, with two giant blocs created. But the situation changed, and today our country is no longer a member of a big, powerful bloc. Of course, we are member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Yet this bloc cannot be compared with, say, NATO. Does it make sense for Russia to join a military bloc today? If yes, which bloc should it join?

As I have already mentioned to you, I believe the end of the Cold War and of bloc mentality helped unite Europe and produced a Europe where life is comfortable and interesting. I mean both Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation. So, the bloc system is good for nothing, although some think that blocs provide balance. They say, “When we had the Warsaw Pact and NATO, everything was balanced. As soon as one of the blocs collapsed, conflicts and turf wars ensued.” It is a lopsided position, although it’s obviously important to have counterbalances in the world. The question is, what kind of counterbalances do we need? Should they be based on weapons only? Should they be based on a strategic deterrent alone? In my view, the answer is no. This is why we talk about a multi-polar world. Otherwise, we have to reach the conclusion that only one system of bloc security can provide security and prosperity on our planet. But that’s not true, and the events of the 1990s – some of which, incidentally, happened in Europe – the events in the Middle East, in the Caucasus and other places have demonstrated that, unfortunately, no bloc can fulfil its purpose and maintain security at a proper level. Hence, we need to create mechanisms that would work outside blocs.

At the same time, we do have certain obligations before our partners. We have the CSTO – the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which comprises some nations that are very close to us. It’s not a military bloc in the traditional sense. It is an organisation that ensures security of its member states. According to the CSTO Charter, an attack against any of the member states is considered an attack against all, just like in NATO. But this does not mean that we should return to bloc mentality and turn the CSTO into a new Warsaw Pact, build up our arsenal and compete with NATO. We know what impact such competition had on the Soviet Union, how exhausting the arms race was for our country and what the outcome was: inefficient economy, no market, an endless arms race, and the collapse of the state.

At the same time, we surely should preserve our strategic capabilities. The world is complex, and a lot of countries are seeking nuclear weapons. From time to time, they threaten the world with a big nuclear stick, or threaten to produce nuclear weapons. They test new hardware. Considering this, we cannot forget about security. Therefore our strategic nuclear component is a very efficient element in protecting our national interests. We should not overestimate its significance, but we shouldn’t underestimate either – and the way it affects the balance of forces in the world. So we must improve our defence system and at the same time work out agreements with our main partners, which is actually what we did recently when we signed a new START Treaty with the United States. We set a certain limit, and we reached a compromise that allows us to protect our interests and allows the Americans to protect their interests without wreaking havoc. I think this is the best way.

Do you think there is at least a hypothetical possibility of a military conflict that would be similar to World War II in scale?

Unfortunately, such a conflict is possible, because there are all sorts of countries on our planet, and they have all kinds of interests. This planet has a huge amount of weapons, and there are people who still consider war as a means for solving their political problems. After all, accidents will happen. So we must be prepared. What do we need for that?

As I have mentioned, international efforts are necessary. We need to work with the international community, in the United Nations, and in the OSCE in Europe. We need new treaties like the European Security Treaty. We are working on this and will continue to do so. And, of course, we must be strong.

It’s been 20 years without the Soviet Union, but it seems as if the Cold War is not over. Why do you think some in the United States and Western Europe still view our country with suspicion? And what should be done to dispel this suspicion?

In fact, I can tell you more: people in Russia, too, are suspicious of America, other NATO members and even other countries that are simply major players on the international arena. Why is that? It’s because of our history, the way we used to perceive each other. You and I remember well what we had in the Soviet period. We had a set of stereotypes concerning each other. Just recall what they used to tell us at school about Americans and Europeans. This position was totally based on ideology. It pursued obvious goals – to make us consider people who lived there as our enemies.

They had the same thing. In fact many stereotypes of the past are still here today, more or less. Perhaps, it is particularly true in the West, because, frankly speaking, many of our people wanted a new life in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. And there was a kind of romantic period in our relations with the West. We thought they would welcome us as an open, modern country that no longer threatened anybody. We thought we would quickly and easily be integrated with other civilised developed nations.

Something different followed though. First of all, we ourselves were not fully ready to do this quickly. But they, too, were not fully ready to give up their stereotypes.

If you listen to what parliaments and political circles in other countries discuss, you may be amazed. There are all sorts of vestiges from the Cold War, some absolutely foolish things. For example, restrictions that were imposed on the Soviet Union long ago. Or their concept of how things work in Russia. Or even their idea of how we live in our daily life. You know, sometimes I watch Hollywood movies, and even though they have excellent actors, an excellent cast, perfect scene sequence and a big budget, the way they portray Russia today is just a bunch of absurd, ludicrous ideas. Russia is a country where it is always raining or snowing, where everything is bad, people are mean, all they can do is drink vodka all the time, they are aggressive, they like to fight, they can attack you any moment – you have to keep an eye on them, otherwise, they will stab you in the back. Everything is bad!
I understand that perhaps they don’t do it on purpose. It’s not like they want to create a conflict between our countries. But these stereotypes prevent us from understanding each other and poisons the atmosphere on our planet.

Russia and Japan haven’t signed a peace treaty yet. Japan refuses to sign the treaty before Russia returns the South Kuril Islands, and this story has been dragging on for 65 years. Do you think a peace treaty between Russia and Japan will ever be concluded? And what would be its terms?

As you know, we are no longer at war with Japan after we signed a declaration in 1956. We have normalized our relations, and we are developing our political and economic contacts. There are problems, of course, including the well-known territorial problem, the problem of a peace treaty that Japan links to the territorial dispute. It is a very complex problem, but it does not mean we should not address it. We are working on it. We have our own ideas about how it could be resolved, taking into account, first and foremost, the interests of the Russian Federation. Our Japanese partners are doing the same.

I believe if we work actively and fairly, and if we abandon extreme positions, eventually this problem may be resolved at some point.

Thank you, Mr. Medvedev, for the interview! Our best wishes on Victory Day!

Thank you very much. I wish you and your newspaper all the best and through your newspaper, I would like to congratulate our veterans and our entire country, because this holiday is extremely popular among our people.

Originally published at

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