The Soviet Union’s machine of lies

Stalin and Lenin at Gorki, outside Moscow, September 1922 (Source: Public Domain)

True history as a science was virtually non-existent in the USSR. Historical research was one big propaganda, built as a potential indoctrination tool for the communist authorities – says Prof. Mikołaj Iwanow, a historian at Opole University.

PIOTR WŁOCZYK: When did World War II begin for the Soviet Union?

PROF. MIKOŁAJ IWANOW: In the minds of most Soviet people, World War II began on June 22nd, 1941. Almost no one associates the Soviet Union’s aggression against Poland, together with the Third Reich, as participation in World War II. According to Soviet historiography, September 17th, 1939 marked the beginning of the “liberation march” to free the brotherly nations of Ukrainians and Belarusians from their “Polish masters”. This line is still the official interpretation of the Kremlin. However, it should be remembered that there are two Russias – Putin’s Russia and Navalny’s Russia. There are Russian historians, such as Nikita Petrov, who speak the truth and try to counter the official, in very many aspects completely hypocritical, vision of history.

This, of course, does not apply to scientific historiography, both Soviet and Russian historians indicate the true date of September 1st, 1939, but this applies only to the war in the West. The USSR was not “drawn” into World War II until June 22nd, 1941. Soviet and contemporary Russian historiography still claims that on September 17th, 1939, the USSR did not join World War II, but still stood aside.

Why, then, did the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact take place?

On this subject, virtually nothing has changed. The old Stalinist concept of signing the pact still applies. The Kremlin has held a consistent line here for decades: Stalin wanted to avoid drawing the USSR into the war ahead of schedule. He allegedly had no other choice in view of the indecision of the Western powers on a united front against Hitler. It was not the Soviet Union that made an alliance with Hitler, but Britain and France that refused to cooperate with the USSR. Thus, the occupation of half of Poland was, in a way, forced on Stalin, who wanted to save the brotherly nations: Ukrainians and Belarussians. Thus, aggression actually became defense. And this is the message that can still be heard from the Kremlin today. From the Polish perspective, it is certainly very painful to see that the Soviet vision of the Warsaw Uprising is still promulgated in Russia’s historical policy today. They say that the Red Army had no real ability to help the uprising. To say in Putin’s Russia today that in August/September 1944 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact sort of revived for 2 months and the Red Army allowed the Germans to murder 200,000 Poles is tantamount to trying to vilify Russia…

Probably the most painful for the Poles, after all, is the issue of Katyn. And here Stalin built an enormous propaganda machine.

Fortunately, today things are not as bad on this issue as they were under communism. It’s hard to say what would have happened if Gorbachev had not admitted this crime on behalf of the Soviet Union, and his successors were not forced to confirm it as a result. I am not sure that contemporary Russia would admit to the Katyn crime. Today, Russia is undoubtedly waging a propaganda war against Poland and the West. The Katyn massacre committed during World War II is a clear testimony to the criminal nature of the USSR’s participation in that war. It is a significant argument refuting the Soviet and Russian concept of the just nature of the Great Patriotic War. Stalin’s Soviet Union was the same aggressor as the Third Reich, and it bears shared responsibility for the outbreak of this war and for the millions of victims of this conflict.

Stalinist falsifications of the Katyn massacre are widely disseminated in Russia to this day. Historical books are sold in large editions all the time near Moscow metro stations. Among these authors, one of the stars is a certain Yuri Mukhin, who is credited with writing several books explaining the Stalinist “truth about Katyn”. I have at least 10 such books at home and it is a shocking reading. It never ceases to amaze me that someone can continue to repeat even the most absurd lies of the Stalinist investigators.

As if it weren’t enough that the Stalinist Soviet Union had an abundance of expert, highly capable history falsifiers of its own, they could still count on useful idiots abroad to support their historical propaganda. One of many such people was Alexander Werth, author of “Russia at War. 1941-45”. The chapters in which he wrote about Katyn and the Warsaw Uprising may not have completely and directly duplicated Soviet propaganda, but they differed only marginally from it. Werth was the leading “historical idiot”, but Soviet Russia had such many such people in the West.

Stalin’s lies not only targeted enemies, such as the Poles, but the Soviet Union also lied, if only about the true number of its own human losses during World War II. Shortly after the war, Stalin argued that the USSR lost only 7 million people…

This, too, is part of historical propaganda in its pure form. However, one can hardly be surprised by Stalin’s reluctance to provide true information on this subject. Prior to the war with Germany, in the USSR, the military capacity of the country was trumpeted everywhere. How could one not achieve a quick victory against Hitler with eight times as many tanks, ten times as many planes, and twice as many soldiers? Simply put, Stalin was embarrassing himself in front of his own people and the world, so he had to falsify history.

Why, then, was this number gradually increased officially until it reached an almost unimaginable size? Why didn’t the Kremlin take the simplest route in this case, namely, sticking to the first version?

This was part of the process of de-Stalinization. Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Congress came as a shock to everyone. Khrushchev built his authority on contradicting Stalin’s policies. It was during his time that the figure of 20 million Soviet victims of World War II appeared. In the 1980s this number was increased by 7 million. The very serious, reliable Russian historian Mark Solonin argues that these 27 million are the true number of Soviet citizens killed. These figures are difficult to grasp by the human mind, but if we compare them to Poland’s losses, the perspective is already radically different. In the USSR, one in nine citizens was killed, while in Poland, one in six…

One of the greatest crimes of communism in the entire history of this ideology is the great famine in Ukraine, which, according to various estimates, claimed between 6 and even 10 million victims. When did this topic first appear in the official debate?

This was already starting to be mentioned during Khrushchev’s thawing. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote a little about it1. With the beginning of perestroika, when it was possible to talk about everything, the topic of the famine in Ukraine also “exploded”. If 30 million out of 40 million Ukrainians were affected by the famine, this could not be hidden, although there was, of course, a ban on bringing the subject to light. The crime was an open secret, people knew about it perfectly well. The topic of famine constantly accompanied Soviet society since the October Revolution.

Is it even possible to talk about history as a science in the context of the Soviet Union?

True history as a science did not actually exist in the USSR. The study of history, beginning with antiquity, was one big propaganda, built as a potential indoctrination tool for the communist authorities. For people who never lived in the Soviet Union, it’s hard to imagine how hypocritical history could be. It all boiled down to class struggle theory. That’s why it’s no surprise that Spartacus was the pet of Soviet historians. A mass of books and poems were written about him….

…and every sports fan knows the various “Spartacī” scattered all over Russia.

Yes, clubs named after “Spartacus” were everywhere. When it was decided after the revolution to abolish Christian names, a list of new names recommended by the party and government was posted in front of every registry office. Spartacus always took first place, and thus became a true icon. To this day, there are very many Spartacī among the elderly in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. But the Electrins and Vilya (short for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin) were also popular.

Let’s return to the vision of antiquity according to historians implementing the Kremlin’s directives.

When it comes to antiquity, Greece was key. In the USSR it was explained that the best elements of Greek civilization were taken over by Byzantium, and from there this core went straight to Moscow. As a result, Russia was not a country that was – as geography would indicate – somewhere on the fringes of the world as it was known at the time, but was the center of civilization! We are, of course, talking about the unique Russian civilization. Russian civilization originated in Greece, and Western civilization in Rome – this is how the roots of this great geopolitical conflict were presented under communism.

Funeral of one of the deportees in the Soviet Union, 1944 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/

Communism was supposed to be universalist, but Red Moscow alluded to ancient culture and traditions. Under Lenin, this was unthinkable, but under Stalin it was very much so.

Lenin was first and foremost an internationalist. Under Lenin and for about 10 years after his death, until Stalin took full power, it was believed that in a single country communism had no right to prevail. Building it in just one country was seen as something that had no chance for the future – the imperialists, the capitalists would tightly surround it and suffocate it. Lenin argued that it was necessary to go outward with the revolution; he even wrote a paper on the United States of Europe. Stalin, on the other hand, was no longer an internationalist in the strict sense. He stated that since exporting the revolution was so difficult, it was necessary to focus on one’s own country. The emblem of the USSR, until the fall of communism, bore the proud slogan “Proletarians of all countries unite”. Until the mid-1930s it still had some meaning, but after that it was a completely empty slogan. Stalin set his sights on nationalism, which is actually in total contradiction to communist orthodoxy. He began to build a very twisted story of Russian history.

During World War II, Stalin, a Georgian, became Russia’s greatest nationalist. For him, history was a tool for conducting politics. A famous toast he gave read: “Let us drink to the best nation in the Soviet Union. Here’s to the Russian people, who bore the entire burden of World War II on their backs.” Stalin concluded that the Russians must be privileged. If under Lenin there were many Jews in the government, representatives of other national minorities, including many Poles, this was unthinkable under Stalin. Russians were the backbone of the government.

What did this transition from total condemnation of the tsarism to seeing the good things about it look like in practice?

In the Soviet Union, the first party historian to combat the traditional Russian school of history was Mikhail Pokrovsky. He was the first to say that history is propaganda, only that it works retroactively. This is a very famous statement. Pokrovsky talked about Czarist Russia as a prison of nations. This was the first “commandment” in Soviet historical policy – it was clearly stamped in every textbook. But all of a sudden, when Stalin began to move in the direction of Russian nationalism, Pokrovsky became an enemy of the people…It was a shock. Fortunately for him, he died in 1932, at the beginning of this nationalist path. Thus, he could not be hanged or executed. Shortly thereafter, Stalin was solidified in power for good and began to execute his “order”. And then all those who had been Pokrovsky’s students were sent to prisons and lost their lives as a result.

How did the new Stalinist school of history tell the story of pre-revolutionary times?

Tsarist Russia brought a higher culture to the conquered territories, educated these peoples. Had it not been for Russia, there is no telling what would have happened to these nations. If the Caucasus had fallen to the Turks, and the nations of Central Asia had become British colonies, they would have met with cultural annihilation – that’s what the new historical interpretation stated. Stalin himself told the story that the Russian people were civilizing other nations. The Tsar was, of course, portrayed as a generally evil institution, but some tsars were nevertheless shown by the Soviet dictator as good rulers who positively served the Russian people. One of these was Peter I, among others, who civilized the country and began to develop it. Tsarina Catherine II was also considered by Stalin to be a wise ruler who developed culture and science (she founded the Academy of Sciences in Russia). Stalin’s historians explained that if the Belarusians and Ukrainians had stayed under Polish rule, they would have completely lost their identity. And so the Russian brothers saved them.

You mentioned that perestroika was a shock in this respect – suddenly it was possible to speak the truth about even the worst crimes. It’s hard to even imagine how much work had to be done to save history as a science after so many years of communist order.

Gorbachev began perestroika hoping that the system could be saved if one simply allowed openness, which would be a kind of vent for society. Gorbachev probably wanted to carry out the Chinese variant. But it turned out that the USSR was a completely different country, inhabited by 150 nationalities. And this enormous diversity shattered it from the inside. Despite great hopes and a window of more than a decade when the truth about history could be written without much interference, the situation returned to “normal”. Whether Russia is Red or Orthodox, as it is today, it treats history extremely instrumentally, as one of the tools of power.

Prof. Mikołaj Iwanow is a historian from the Opole University, author of many works on the history of the Soviet Union. His best-known book is “Forgotten Genocide. Poles in Stalin’s State. ‘Polish Operation’ 1937-1938”. [„Zapomniane ludobójstwo. Polacy w państwie Stalina. >>Operacja polska<< 1937–1938”]

1 The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (pub. 1958-1968)

This article was published in 2020 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine