Russia's disapproval of what happened in Czecho-Slovakia in and after November 1989, is precisely the sentiment that can be identified in the manner of how the Russian pro-government media reports on historical disputes.
Recently, differing interpretations of history have become an increasing problem in relations between Russia and several European countries. Indeed, it seems that the greater the time gap since a given event, the more markedly the differences in its interpretation affect relationships between Russia and the concerned countries.
The interpretation of historical events involving Russia (or the former Soviet Union) and former Soviet bloc countries is now an official narrative in Russia.
Not upholding this narrative is criticised by the state both inside and outside the country. Russia is trying not to allow different historical narratives to be promoted abroad because it fears that this might be seen as a defeat. Therefore, the Russian state is fighting for a ‘correct’ interpretation of history so that Russian citizens do not feel that their homeland is losing its struggle for the past.
However, if we take a closer look at the essence of this struggle, we can see that while it looks like a struggle for the past, it is in fact something else – the choice that a particular country has made (and insists on) in its development, is considered problematic by the Russian state.
An example may be the historical disputes that Russia provoked in the Czech Republic recently. It might seem that these disputes were about assessing the role of the Soviet Union in the liberating of Czechoslovakia from German Nazism – this was the core of disputes surrounding the statue of Marshal Konev or the proposed installation of a monument to the so-called “Vlasovtsi” (the nickname for troops of the collaborationist ex-Soviet general Vlasov).
Under the surface of this dispute, however, is Russia’s disapproval of what happened in Czecho-Slovakia in November 1989, with the pro-Western orientation of the Czech Republic and its membership in the European Union and NATO. It was precisely this sentiment that could be identified in the manner of how the Russian pro-government media reported on these cases.
Marshal Konev vs. general Vlasov
How did the Russian media cover the cases that have affected Czech-Russian relations in recent months – about the events connected to the statue of Marshal Konev and the possible installation of the memorial to members of Vlasov’s army?
Describing developments at the end of the Second World War in Europe, the Russian media depicted “Vlasovtsi” (i.e. the soldiers of the collaborationist Russian Liberation Army, ROA) as allies of Nazi Germany (which really corresponded with reality from 1942–1944) and refuted the part they played in the liberation of Prague in May 1945 (which was not true). Claims of ROA soldiers participating in the liberation of Prague were described as a myth. According to RIA, a state press agency, “Vlasovtsi” were just trying to save themselves at the end of the war, to fight their way through to reach the Western Allies, thus some of them got into “clashes” with the Germans.
RIA commentator Vladimir Kornilov combined the Konev statue case with the case of Vlasov’s army monument and wrote that in Prague they decided to dismantle the memorial to Marshal Konev and build a memorial to the “leader of Russian collaborators, General Vlasov”, giving the impression that the inhabitants of Prague decided to replace Konev’s statue with Vlasov’s one.
This statement is misleading and untrue: it is not a dismantling, but a consideration of a possible transfer of Konev’s statue from the Interbrigade Square to either one of the Prague museums, the gardens belonging to the Ministry of Defense, or to the Russian Embassy; and it is not an actual statue of general Vlasov, but an artefact that commemorates the participation of ROA soldiers in the liberation of Řeporye, the district of Prague.
With this statement, the agency aimed to suggest to readers that the rehabilitation of Nazis was widespread in the Czech Republic:
“As usual in countries that have decided to fight against the memory of [Soviet] victory, when the memory of victors is destroyed, an inevitable rehabilitation of Nazis and Nazi collaborators begins. It is never different. … This is the inevitable formula: every attempt to humiliate, insult, and strike through the memory of the Soviet liberators of Europe from Nazism will necessarily be followed by the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators. The Baltic countries and Ukraine have already seen it. The Czech Republic is next.”
The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Deputy Chairman of the State Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, had no doubts about the causes behind the “revision” of history of the Second World War in Central Europe (including Czechia). He “expanded” it fully for the RIA: “The Czechs intend to demolish monuments to the Russian heroes of the Great Patriotic War and build monuments to traitors such as Vlasov. That’s disgusting. Our country’s mistake was to withdraw troops from Eastern Europe. In the presence of the Russian army, they would be afraid to even speak of Vlasov-like villains.”
In other words, only thanks to the absence of Soviet occupation troops, who had to leave the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the fall of Communism, Czechs now “dare” to behave like this.
Where does the “revision” come from?
In a number of instances in which pro-government Russian media covered the development of the Russian-Czech dispute over the circumstances of the liberation of Prague in 1945 (“Konev vs. Vlasovtsi”), they were placed in the wider context of the period of communism and the internal development and foreign orientation of Czechoslovakia (respectively the Czech Republic) after 1989.
They argued that the Czech public is divided on this issue. They noted that the position of Russia was supported by President Miloš Zeman, representatives of the Communist Party and the SPD party. On the other side, they said, are “radical Czech nationalists” from the “extreme Russophobic” TOP 09 party and former dissidents.
In addition to Pavel Novotný, the mayor of the Řeporyje district of Prague, who Russian media openly ridiculed, and the mayor of Prague-6 Ondřej Kolář, who was attacked as an alleged sympathiser of Nazi collaborators, they have mentioned Karel Schwarzenberg, whom they referred to as someone who considers Russia an “enemy”; Pavel Žaček from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes; a “furiously anti-Communist and Russophobic” member of European parliament Jaromír Štětina; and Petr Kolář, former Czech Ambassador to Russia (and father of Ondřej Kolář), reportedly “known for his sharp anti-Russian statements.”
The official newspaper of the State Duma, the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, wrote that TOP 09 “associates citizens with far-right views who are exclusively pro-Western oriented and reject everything connected with Russia and the socialist past of their country.” According to the newspaper, this party’s popular support has been declining in recent years, leading to its radicalisation. Allegedly “the weaker the positions of “Westerners”, the stronger their anti-Russian rhetoric and actions”.
A sociological explanation of divided opinions within Czech society on the interpretation of the WWII history was provided by the information-analytical server EurAsia Daily (EADaily.com), which wrote that anti-Russian actions do not find significant support among Czech citizens in rural areas, where support for the Russophobe parties (TOP 09, ODS, STaN) is low, whereas in Prague the electoral support of such parties exceeds 50 per cent, and “prosperous districts – such as Prague-6” are the breeding ground of Russophobia.
The author of the commentary, political scientist from the Russian State Humanitarian University Vadim Truchachev, praises President Zeman for his defence of Konev’s statue, and goes on to add that the “unfortunate fact is that in the Czech Republic, unlike Russia, the power vertical works poorly and the powers of communal administration are too broad.”
The past in the mirror of the present: from November 1989 to the statue of Konev
At the exact same time as the Russian-Czech war of words over the memorials was escalating, some pro-governmental Russian media published articles dedicated to the 30th anniversary of November 1989. What could a Russian reader learn from them? What context to what was happening in relations between the Czech Republic and Russia could be found there?
The daily newspaper Izvestija reported in an article on the 1989 revolution in Czechoslovakia that “it is clear today that the ‘non-violent’ dismantling of the social-political systems of the Warsaw Pact countries took place with the very active participation of Western intelligence services, media and non-profit organisations with the full consent of the then Soviet leadership, which at that time was in a deep crisis, in a morally and psychologically hopeless situation”. The author adds: “In a country changed to an unrecognisable extent the pro-Western activists united on the ideological platform of Charter 77 began to occupy leadership positions in the country.”
Political scientist Truchachev admitted in a large contribution to Eurasia Daily that, by the end of the 1980s, most Czechs and Slovaks were dissatisfied with the communist regime, and that the causes of his fall were mainly internal. However, he pointed to an external factor that was no less significant.
According to him, its fall was also in part caused by massive meddling from the West in the preparation and duration of the November Revolution, and in the indifference (or even betrayal) of the Gorbachev USSR leadership: “The more time separates us from these events, the more there is talk about the external intervention in Czechoslovakia, the decisive role of the American CIA, the betrayal of the Soviet Union … USSR left its allies to the mercy of fate, despite the fact that it was possible to prevent the Czech Republic and Slovakia (and other countries of the region) from joining NATO.”
The author believes that “it was possible to agree on the conditions of the transfer of power. For example that in the future, Czechoslovakia (or the Czech Republic and Slovakia) will not join NATO. Or that the Soviet troops will not withdraw from Czechoslovakia to the “land of nowhere” or that they will remain there “just in case” for another 20 years”.
In essence, according to the Russian governmental political scientist, November 1989 manifested like this: “The Americans played their part in creating opposition coordination centres – OF (Civic Forum) in Prague and VPN (Public against Violence) in Bratislava, which were directly funded by the Soros Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy. Student leaders and other associations also maintained contacts with American and other secret services, and although the representatives of the Czechoslovak secret police ŠtB were clearly aware of this, in fact, they did not hinder this process. The US Embassy made a ‘selection’ of candidates for future leadership positions.”
According to the author of the article, “the consequences of the Velvet Revolution can be felt even today. Many of its participants are still alive and they (or their children) determine Czech and Slovak politics” – and now the author is heading to the point – “for example, the idea of relocating the monument of Marshal Ivan Konev in Prague comes from the son of dissident Petr Kolář, Ondřej Kolář.”
It is hard to find a better demonstration than this quotation that the Russian-Czech ‘monument war’ is not so much a dispute over the past, but rather a struggle for the present.
This article is the second of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media“ run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It is also available in Slovak on Denník N.