Trapped between Hitler and Stalin: East remembers the day Europe split in two

'How can we celebrate with the Russians when we were forced to escape from them?'
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The Independent Online

To understand why the festivities in Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe will be less than universally appreciated, consider the story of Irena Koncius.

Now 79, she is living quietly in Massachusetts, but will never forget the trauma of her teenage years in Kaunas, Lithuania's old capital: the Soviet occupation of her country in 1940 and the terror of the night of 15 June, 1941, when the Russian trucks rolled in to collect thousands of Lithuanians for deportation to Siberia. More than 60 years on she recalls how her father hid in the woods to escape them.

A week later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and German occupiers arrived in Lithuania, bringing their own brand of terror.

Then came Stalingrad and, in 1944, Soviet armies were again at the gates of Kaunas bringing once again the fear of deportation and forcing Irena and her parents to flee westwards towards Germany, their possessions loaded on to a horse-drawn wagon.

Declared a displaced person at the war's end, she finally arrived in the United States in 1949. By then Lithuania and the other Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, had vanished from the map of Europe, "voluntarily" subsumed into Stalin's Soviet Union.

This, perhaps, will be the last major anniversary celebration; in 2015 few will still be alive with direct personal experience of the conflict.

In 1975, history's wounds were too raw and the Cold War too hot for much to be made of the event. In 1985, Ronald Reagan went to West Germany to mark the 40th anniversary only to be mired in controversy when it emerged he would visit a cemetery where SS soldiers were buried.

A decade later however, with relations between the US and Russia thawing, Bill Clinton was able to travel to Moscow, acknowledging the colossal part played by Russia in Nazism's defeat.

Next Monday, George Bush will follow in his footsteps. But Valdas Adamkus, the President of Lithuania will not go, nor will Arnold Ruutel, his Estonian counterpart. And for the leaders of former Soviet satellites who will attend, the occasion will be tinged with bitter memories of how liberation from one brutal foreign power was followed by enforced subservience to another.

But there is no arguing with the choice of venue. Of the victorious powers of the Second World War, the Soviet Union paid immeasurably the highest price in terms of human lives and destruction. Six decades on, communism may be no more but Russia - with its aspirations, its neuroses and its special view of itself - remains the great piece that refuses to fit into the jigsaw puzzle of a modern, ever more united Europe.

For Moscow, the "Great Patriotic War" is an utterly glorious moment of Russian history. But Ms Koncius sees no reason to celebrate: "It's absolutely right that the Lithuanian President is not going to Moscow. It's unthinkable. How can we celebrate with the Russians when we had to escape from them?"

What she didn't know about then, of course, was the secret protocol appended to the non-aggression pact of 1939, in which Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland and the Baltic countries between them. Even in the era of glasnost and perestroika, the mere admission that the document existed had to be extracted like a sore tooth from Mikhail Gorbachev - perestroika, glasnost and all.

For Lithuania, the least to be expected next week would be some acknowledgement and apology from Vladimir Putin for the cynical bargain of 1939. Alexander Kwasniewski, the Polish President will be in Moscow. He too insists that Poland's wartime history must be heard: this anniversary, he has said, "must be full of dignity and historical truth".Earlier this year, the Russians infuriated Warsaw by saying that Poland should be grateful for the Yalta agreement (which in effect consigned it to the Soviet bloc).

On top of anger there is unease too - at Mr Putin's apparent throttling of democracy, at the renewed nostalgia for Stalin and at the Russian President's recent lament that the demise of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century". Mr Putin wants to rebuild Russia as a great world power; such aspirations make half of Europe wince.

Ironically, the person who will perhaps have it easiest in Moscow is Gerhard Schröder, leader of the country that started the war. George Bush, by contrast faces the trickiest of diplomatic tasks. Unencumbered by any national experience of the bitter turmoil that ravaged Old Europe, this US president will happily deliver his lines about democracy and freedom, exhorting his audiences to look to the future, rather than the past.

However, he must also chide Mr Putin for his creeping authoritarianism and for the war in Chechnya, while avoiding gestures that might provoke Russia and increase its ancient neuroses and insecurities.

On his way to Moscow, Mr Bush will visit Latvia, the one Baltic state whose leader will attend the celebrations but which is now a member of the EU and Nato, institutions highly suspect to Moscow.

On his way home he will stop in Georgia, whose democratic revolution in 2003 was an inspiration for the uprising in Ukraine last year that carried the pro-American Viktor Yushchenko to power.

For Mr Bush, these upheavals are part of freedom's march. But in the Kremlin they arouse the same fears of encirclement and constraint that contributed to the Soviet Union's post-war occupation of eastern Europe.

Such are the treacherous currents of history and memory that will flow beneath the ceremonies in Moscow this week. As the American novelist William Faulkner once observed, and Irena Koncius's feelings prove: "The past is not dead, it is not even past."

Successor states

THE BALTIC STATES

Between the two world wars, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were independent states. They became part of the Soviet Union under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After being occupied by Germany in the Second World War, they were "liberated" by the Red Army in 1944 and became Soviet Socialist Republics. They remained so until the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991.

POLAND

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact sanctioned Hitler's invasion of Poland, the event that triggered the Second World War. Stalin gainedcontrol of Poland in 1945. But the disintegration of the Soviet Union began with the formation of the Polish Solidarity trade union in 1980. In 1989, Poland was the first Soviet satellite state to elect a non-communist government.

UKRAINE

Ukraine's borders have also shifted often. The east, religiously, culturally and politically, leans towards Russia. The Catholic west Ukraine leant towards the West and was long part of Poland. Stalin's famines of the 1930s created sympathy for invading Germans. After the war Ukraine, the Soviet Union's "breadbasket", was tightly controlled by Moscow.

FINLAND

Once part of the Tsarist empire, independent Finland was awarded to the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In the 1939/1940 winter war it resisted the Soviets, but succumbed. After the war, it escaped occupation, but underwent "Finlandisation", under which the country was basically Western but committed to a benevolent neutrality towards Moscow.

GERMANY

Germany started the Second World War by invading Poland, but ultimately sealed its own destruction by attacking the Soviet Union in 1941. After its defeat in 1945, it was divided between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, whose sector became East Germany in 1949. In November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. A year later, the two Germanys were reunited.

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