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Russia Counters Criticism over World War II Role

As the world marks the 70th anniversary this month of the start of World War II, there is a debate underway in Russia over the role the Soviet Union played in the events leading up to the outbreak of the war. The Kremlin has created a presidential commission to examine and counteract what it considers examples of "historical revisionism" that harm Russia's image. This has alarmed critics who view the move as a blatant throwback to Soviet methods of intellectual control.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of the countries that were Russia's enemies and allies during World War II .... at a gathering in Gdansk, Poland, September 1, to mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the war.

Despite the harmony at the ceremony, the way those countries view role of the Soviet Union in World War II is creating controversy in Russia today.

Some former Soviet Republics and Eastern European countries say the long years of Soviet domination was similar in nature to the Nazi occupation. For them, liberation arrived only when the USSR collapsed.

In May, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced the creation of a special presidential commission to deal with what the Kremlin calls "attempts to falsify history." He also proposed legislation that would make such actions a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Independent opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov says the initiative could lead to a ban on any criticism of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. "I think the concrete task for this commission is to oppose those people in Russia and outside Russia who criticize Stalin and Stalinist Soviet Union for this strange period of war when Stalin was practically an ally of Nazi Germany," he said.

One point of disagreement is the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, signed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany on the eve of war's outbreak. Under its secret provisions, Germany and the USSR agreed to divide up eastern Europe.

Russian historians recently published a book of declassified intelligence reports from that period in an effort to defend Stalin's role.

Alexander Dyukov is the director of the Historical Memory Foundation in Moscow - and the author of the book.

'It's impossible to separate Stalin from memories about World War II," Dyukov explains. "He's not the most pleasant figure but he can't be separated. And alongside his crimes, real crimes, he's also done a lot of things that our country is still based on, things that helped us in this war, saved our country and the nation."

Yet many Soviet archives are still classified, unavailable for students or teachers to study in history class. Teacher Elena Silkina says until all limitations are lifted, Russia - as well as the other former Soviet states and allies - will have a hard time coming to terms with the Soviet past.

"To accept, realize and pay for your mistakes, financially as well, is kind of a national heroic deed, not to hide anything," Silkina says. "It is clear that we have not processed the Stalin era - as well as the Soviet-era epoch and the 1917 Revolution, because not all archives are accessible, not all documents, and it all is still alive and painful."

Russia has also taken issue with the July resolution by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which said the countries of Europe suffered under two major totalitarian regimes during the 20th century - Nazism and Stalinism.

There are numerous objections, Alexander Dyukov.

"The OSCE's resolution contains a call for all participating countries to refrain from holding events that are aimed at glorifying Stalin's regime. What does this mean for Russia? This resolution is demanding a ban on holding the Victory Parade. This resolution means a ban on our memory, the memory of our victory in the war, victory over Nazism. And of course Russia will never agree to that," said Dyukov.

Vladimir Ryzhkov says Russia's inability to simply renounce Soviet crimes and turn a fresh page is bound up with its self-image as a superpower, which was a key outcome of the Soviet victory over Germany.

"It's not only about history, it's about [the] current days of Russia and it's an attempt to legitimize the current authoritarian regime as the only choice and the only way for Russia to be strong and to be efficient and to be respected in the world," he said.

On May 9 this year, just like every year since the end of World War II, a grand Victory Day parade took place on Red Square - including tanks, flyovers by fighter jets, and nuclear missiles. It was meant both to commemorate Russia's victory over Nazi Germany - and to demonstrate Moscow's military might in the 21st century. Next year's parade, on the 65th anniversary of victory, is likely to be even bigger.