Window on Eurasia: Russians Divided on Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

by Paul A. Goble  |  June 13, 2005  |  ARTICLES

Russians remain almost equally divided on whether the Soviet Union should have signed the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, an agreement that most historians argue opened the way for the start of World War II in Europe.

According to a poll conducted this month by the Public Opinion Foundation, 30 percent of Russians believe that Moscow was correct in signing that accord, but 28 percent think it was a mistake – a difference within that poll’s margin of error. The rest of the sample did not answer (http://www.polit.ru/research/2005/06/20/fom23_print.html).

These figures are striking given the Kremlin’s upbeat presentation of virtually all actions by the Soviet Union during World War II during the recent commemorations in Moscow of the 60th anniversary of the end of that conflict in Europe. And they suggest that ever more Russians are shifting away from officially supported views.

But the reasons the two groups gave for their respective positions are even more intriguing. Those who believe that signing the agreement with Hitler was the right thing to do argue that it gave the Soviet Union additional time before the war engulfed that country as well – the standard official justification in both Soviet and post-Soviet times.

Those who believe that the pact was a mistake offered more varied reasons.  Approximately one-third of them suggested that the territorial gains the Soviet Union acquired as a result of the secret protocols of that pact continue to cause diplomatic and political problems for the Russian Federation.

Another third of those who said that the pact was a mistake said that no accord with Hitler could have prevented the outbreak of the war because the Nazi leader’s plans for aggression were both so obvious and so well-developed that hopes for taming him without the use of force were naïve at best.

And still another third of those calling the agreement a misstep said that the pact had in fact interfered with the Soviet Union’s preparations for war.  The accord, this group said, helped Germany deceive the leadership of the USSR and thus left the country less prepared to defend itself than would have otherwise been the case.

In response to an open-ended question about the meaning of the pact, supporters and opponents again presented very different arguments.  Supporters of the signing of the agreement with Hitler argued that Moscow had no choice, that the USSR was forced to take this step because of the policies of its future Western allies.

Opponents argued that the accord did the country no good at all.  And what is perhaps especially interesting, half of them mentioned the secret protocols that called for the division of Poland between Germany and the USSR and the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries.

Given the continuing significance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and especially its secret protocols in the Baltic countries and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the results of this poll give reason to hope that over time ever more Russians may come to accept what Moscow continues to deny – namely, that the USSR occupied the Baltic countries.

But these results also suggest something that many may find paradoxical: Russians are moving toward a negative assessment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact less because of pressure from abroad than in reaction to the ever less convincing arguments offered by their own government on its behalf.

But if Russians do for whatever reasons finally come to terms with the meaning of Stalin’s pact with Hitler, then World War II will finally be over both for them and for all the others who were victims of that long-ago accord, an agreement that one Russian told the pollsters was nothing more than an occasion when “two tyrants divided Europe.”