Sunday, August 23, marks the 70th anniversary of the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact - the non-aggression treaty signed in 1939 by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. The pact included a secret protocol dividing Eastern and Central Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence. Days after it was signed, first German and then Soviet forces invaded Poland.
The anniversary's approach has sparked a debate in Europe. Western governments condemn Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as two equally murderous variants of totalitarianism. The Russian government calls that comparison a "distortion" of history.
On August 17, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service issued a statement saying it had declassified documents showing that the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the Soviet Union's "only available means of self-defense."
The spy agency's demarche was just the latest in a series of Russian government statements that critics say appear to defend Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and justify actions he took shortly before and during World War II.
In early May, Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu introduced legislation in parliament that would make it a crime to deny the Soviet victory in World War II.
Later in May, President Dmitri Medvedev issued a decree setting up a presidential commission to counter what he called attempts to "falsify history."
At a meeting in early July, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed a resolution designating August 23 - the anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact - as a day of remembrance for the victims of both Stalinism and Nazism.
Russian delegates to the European security body walked out of the meeting, in protest. Russia's Foreign Ministry denounced the OSCE resolution as "an attempt to distort history with political goals," while Russia's parliament called it a "direct insult to the memory of millions" of Soviet soldiers who, in the words of the parliament, "gave their lives for the freedom of Europe from the fascist yoke."
Former independent Russian parliament Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov says what he calls the "official" Russian position on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is "extremely strange."
Ryzhkov asks why today's Russia, which has a democratic constitution and new democratic legitimacy, should justify the division of Europe between Hitler and Stalin.
He says that this view is now included in Russian history text books and has caused "enormous moral damage" to Russia's reputation, particularly in the countries of Eastern Europe that were the main victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Ryzhkov says the only explanation for the Russian leadership's position on the issue is what he calls "sympathy for Stalin."
Public opinion surveys suggest many ordinary Russians share at least some of their government's views.
A poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency, following the OSCE resolution condemning Stalinism and Nazism, found that 53 percent of the respondents across Russia viewed it negatively, while 11 percent viewed it positively and 21 percent viewed it neutrally. In addition, 59 percent of those polled said the resolution was aimed at undermining Russia's authority in the world and diminishing its contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Dmitry Furman of the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Europe calls the presidential commission to counter what it deems historical falsification an "idiotic undertaking" and a "very bad idea." He also says Stalin's government killed as many, or even more people than Hitler's.
But, given the suffering Russians endured after Hitler turned on Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, Furman says it is natural that many resist equating Stalinism and Nazism.
Furman says it is "very difficult psychologically" for Russians to put what they see as their "victors" in the Great Patriotic War, as they call World War II, on the same level with the vanquished Nazis.