I used to go to school with someone who claimed to be a communist. He wore a ‘worker’s’ cap, didn’t wash very often and called everyone comrade. I’d assumed this was just a phase and that he’d grow out of it. A glance at Seumas Milne’s career ought to have disabused me of that notion. He’s written another piece defending the Soviet Union, and attacking those who say that it was an aggressor in the Second World War.
In his introduction to this week's Guardian history of the war, the neoconservative historian Niall Ferguson declared that Stalin was "as much an aggressor as Hitler". Last month, the ostensibly more liberal Orlando Figes went further, insisting the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact was "the licence for the Holocaust".
Given that the Soviet Union played the decisive military role in Hitler's defeat at the cost of 25 million dead, it's scarcely surprising that Russians are outraged by such accusations. When the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev last week denounced attempts to draw parallels between the role of the Nazis and the Soviet Union as a "cynical lie", he wasn't just speaking for his government, but the whole country – and a good deal of the rest of the world besides.
Of course the Soviet Union was an aggressor in 1939. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union invaded Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – retaining them within the Soviet Empire until the collapse of communism 50 years later, as well as invading Poland without a declaration of war and in conjunction with the Nazis. The two sides even held a joint victory parade. The USSR tried to invade Finland as well, but was repulsed.
There's no doubt that the pact of August 1939 was a shocking act of realpolitik by the state that had led the campaign against fascism since before the Spanish civil war. You can argue about how Stalin used it to buy time, his delusions about delaying the Nazi onslaught, or whether the Soviet occupation of the mainly Ukrainian and Byelorussian parts of Poland was, as Churchill maintained at the time, "necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace".
Balls. You can’t argue that Stalin used it to buy time, because he showed no interest in doing so, instead believing that he had bought off Hitler and was thus free to act in the Baltic States. And implying that the Soviet invasion and partition of Poland was legitimate because it included land that had previously been Russian is pretty grisly – especially given that it was the partitions of Poland in the 18th and 19th centuries that had made the territory Russian in the first place. It was the cynical act of a blood-stained totalitarian monster.
But to claim that without the pact there would have been no war is simply absurd – and, in the words of the historian Mark Mazower, "too tainted by present day political concerns to be taken seriously". Hitler had given the order to attack and occupy Poland much earlier. As fellow historian Geoff Roberts puts it, the pact was an "instrument of defence, not aggression"
And no-one has claimed that. Only that the Soviet Union was one of the four aggressor nations in the Second World War: in chronological order Japan, Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. Equally, it is not the pact with Germany that was the act of aggression, but the invasions of five European countries. Does Milne really not believe that invading a country is not an aggressive act?
That was a good deal less true of the previous year's Munich agreement, in which British and French politicians dismembered Czechoslovakia at the Nazi dictator's pleasure. The one pact that could conceivably have prevented war, a collective security alliance with the Soviet Union, was in effect blocked by the appeaser Chamberlain and an authoritarian Polish government that refused to allow Soviet troops on Polish soil.
Yes, the Allies could conceivably have prevented the war at Munich. But the fact that they didn’t was not because they were aggressively seeking their own territorial ends in Eastern Europe, it was that they were desperately trying to avoid war. And I wonder why on earth the paranoid Poles didn’t want Soviet troops on Polish soil. A fear that they might not leave for fifty years perhaps?
The Second World War in Europe was largely a fight to the death between two vile totalitarian ideologies. Soviet Russia under Uncle Joe was every bit as blood-stained and hideous as Nazi Germany under Onkel Adi. Oh, and my communist friend? He’s now a junior research fellow in Russian history, specializing in the history of the CCCP. Once they get you, there’s no going back…