The Ghosts of Stalinism: Stalin, Georgia and Ukraine
August 20, 2008
Never, of course, did the Soviet Foreign Minister and Stalin's confidant mention the secret protocol which provided the real reason for the Soviet invasion of a weaker neighboring state. After the War and during the Trial against Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg the Soviets bluntly denied the existence of such a secret protocol; but its text with proper signatures – Molotov and Ribbentrop – had been found in the archives of the former Nazi Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
On September 28, 1939, one day after the capitulation of Warsaw, the two invaders, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, concluded a "Boundary and Friendschip Treaty." There were three additional secret protocols. One of these protocols said "that the territory of the Lithuanian state falls to the sphere of influence of the USSR.10
A joint Soviet-Nazi declaration was issued that same day, saying, inter alia:
"After the Government of the German Reich and the Government of the USSR have, by means of the treaty signed today, definitively settled the problems arising from the collapse of the Polish state and have thereby created a sure foundation for lasting peace in Eastern Europe, they mutually express their conviction that it would serve the true interest of all peoples to put an end to the state of war existing at present between Germany on the one side and England and France on the other.11
The "liberated" Ukrainians and White Russians were quickly incorporated into the already existing Ukrainian and Byelorussian "union republics" of the USSR. Having no intention of becoming communists, the Polish Ukrainians were very much opposed to Stalin's policies which simply reflected traditional Russian expansionism. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, many Ukrainians immediately sided with the Nazi occupiers whom they welcomed as their liberators. Quite a number of Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to kill Jews.
Today, however, Ukraine is independent again and looking to the West for help. The serious errors of the past have not been forgotten, but relations between Ukraine and Israel are excellent. It was in November 2007 that Ukrainian president Victor Yuschenko handed to Israel hundreds of previously classified documents detailing mass grave sites of Jews murdered during the Holocaust in the former Soviet state. 12
During the long and dark night of the Soviet communist domination, anti-Semitism was rampant in Ukraine. Many a prominent Ukrainian communist was a fanatical anti-Semite. Books were published which presented the myth the "Jewish capitalist world conspiracy" as fact. One of these books, "Judaism Without Embellishment," was written by Trofim K. Kichko and published by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in October 1963. "A distinguishing feature of the work was the incorporation into it of a series of illustrative cartoons showing Jews with hooked noses, and similar vulgar stereotypes," writes William Korey in his thorough study on anti-Semitism in Russia. It reminds one of Julius Streicher's ‘Der Stürmer' in the halcyon days of Hitler.13
The catholic Lithuanians were equally opposed Soviet communist rule which began in the summer of 1940. Stalin's secret police deported thousands of so-called "anti-communist elements" to Siberian labor camps. When the Nazi armies entered Lithuania in June 1941 many Lithuanians – like the Ukrainians – welcomed them as liberators. The Nazis were well aware of these pro-Nazi sentiments. It was not difficult for them to channel the anger of these people into action against communists and Jews. Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942), the notorious chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), instructed his men to instigate spontaneous pogroms by local populations against the Jews. Between 25 and 29 June 1941, more than 1500 Jews were killed by Lithuanian mobs or militias in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (Kovno). Between 4 and 6 July nearly 3000 Jews were killed in the same city.14
After the Russians re-occupied Lithuania in 1944 and during the subsequent 46 years of Soviet occupation, communist authorities largely ignored the atrocities against the Jews. There was a tendency in the former Soviet Union to deal with the Holocaust as a non-happening.15
It was only after Lithuania regained its full independence in 1990, that the new Lithuanian government really began to pay attention to what happened to the Lithuanian Jews. A Jewish Museum run by the Lithuanian state was opened in the capital of Vilnius. I visited this museum in 1995 and was impressed by its extensive photo collection and documentation. I also interviewed a Lithuanian Jew who miraculously survived all these horrors. There are also important memorials in Kaunas.
Today, Russia acts in a manner similar to Stalin. It seeks to dominate and even incorporate weaker border nations using the same kind of pretexts like protection of ethnic minorities or so-called Russian passport holders in a neigboring country. The term "spheres of influence" is very much alive today, as it was in 1939. Indeed, the ghosts of Stalinism are not dead at all. A street in the South Ossetian capital of Tshkinvali has even been named after Stalin. The process of destalinization never really effected these people.
South Ossetia: "Republic of crime"
Georgian criminal gangs have a ruthless reputation, also in Europe. A Russian-Georgian mafia boss named Zakhar Kalashov was arrested in Spain in November 2006. His gang was specialized in money laundering, kidnapping and extortion. They had invested huge sums of money in real estate. In June 2005 Spanish police rounded up a Georgian mafia network led by Malchas Tetruasvili who also specialized in money laundering. Most Georgian mafia bosses are operating in cities along the Mediterranian Coast (especially in Barcelona). Georgian mafia bosses sent revenge killers to Spain.16 The Belgian port town of Antwerp is another European city plagued by Georgian organized crime.
Since he took office in 2004, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili initiated the complete overhaul of Georgia's corrupt police force and Interior Ministry, appointing new chiefs. He also targeted organized crime. It is possible that Georgian mafia bosses appealed to their Russian mafia friends asking them for help.
For years organized crime has been a dominant factor in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia an Abkhazia, even more so than is the case in Georgia proper. Dr. Mark Galeotti, a British expert on Russian and Eurasian organized crime, refers to South Ossetia as the "Republic of crime." Stolen and untaxed goods and narcotics are being smuggled into or out of South Ossetia, he writes. "South Ossetia and Abkhazia are the primary criminal havens within Georgia." "The relative freedom with which smugglers operate is a result of high levels of corruption, and reflects the degree to which local authorities are also involved." "The South Ossetian government is almost forced to collude with the clans and organized crime in order to survive, especially as many of the networks managing the higher-level illegal trades are eiter Russian or else closely affiliated with Russian based networks that have political influence either in Moscow or the neighboring North Ossetian republic. (...) It is certain that some Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are involved in smuggling.17
South Ossetia is also a paradise for counterfeiters. Galeotti: "The USD100 bill counterfeiting operation began around 1999 and has expanded steadily since then. In 2005, US intelligence detected US 5.3 million counterfeit currency produced by the operation and a commensurate improvement in the quality. (...) In 2006, an official from the South Ossetian Ministry for Trade, Eter Kachmazova, was arrested by the Georgian police after she was recorded offering an undercover officer millions of dollars in counterfeit currency. According to the Georgians, the operation moved its main printing press from Lenin Street in Tskhinvali to a new location when she was seized, but with no more than a week's break in production.18 The lame denials from the South Ossetian authorities that were not involved in any of these criminal activities were not credible.
Abkhazian authorities are equally involved in crime. Galeotti: "It is as a drug-trafficking node that Abkhazia causes greatest international concern. Opiates from Afghanistan and further east enter Georgia largely from Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea, but also via Iran and Armenia. They are smuggled to Abkhazia, where they are typically concealed witin trans-international route trucks and then either driven into Russia or along the coast to Poti or Batumi and sea-transfer to European ports, or alternatively Adjaria and then Turkey.19
Quickly after they invaded Georgia, the Russians occupied the port town of Poti (which is not very far form Abkhazia) and destroyed Georgian Coast Guard vessels. CNN reporter Michael Ware visited Poti and reported that five Georgian navy and Coast Guard vessels had been sunk.20 Should the Russians decide to leave Poti, Georgian counter narcotics capabilities will be severely hampered because their Coast Guard virtually ceased to exist. This will only serve the interests of the Abkhazian mafia bosses.
After the Russian invasion, South Ossetian criminals and paramilitary militias entered Georgia proper and were involved in massive looting and acts of violence, especially in the nearby town of Gori and surrounding villages. There are a number of credible news reports and eyewitness accounts from Georgian refugees about crimes committed by what obviously were South Ossetia militia members.
A man dressed in militia clothes and armed with a pistol noticed that he was being filmed by a cameraman. He grabbed the camera and walked away. Then he suddenly noticed that the incident had been recorded by another cameraman. The militiaman began to shout, and tried to grab the second camera as well. But the cameraman ran away and just managed to escape. The furious militiaman then fired a shot at the cameraman but missed.21 Both cameramen have been quite lucky. They could have been killed by this hot-tempered militiaman who obviously wanted to conceal his presence.
A Dutch cameraman named Stan Storimans was not so lucky. On August 12, 2008, he was killed in the main square of the Georgian town of Gori by what probably was a Russian cluster bomb.22 Storimans and Dutch TV reporter Jeroen Akkermans did not wear bulletproof jackets and Kevlar helmets, in the case of Storimans a fatal mistake. Akkermans was only lightly injured, but he, too, could have been killed. When I covered the war in Bosnia for Dutch TV and other media war I often wore a small non-military bullet proof jacket and a blue (Kevlar) helmet, but I must admit that I did not always do so. Some areas looked fairly safe, and local people usually knew the streets which were targeted by so-called snipers. Yet, I have been terribly lucky. When I was doing the same kind of reporting in the 1980s, I did not even have a bullet proof jacket. (Many journalists began to wear these jackets after the war in a former Yugoslavia had broken out.)
"BBC Newsnight" reported on the activities of "gunmen in civilian clothes" (possibly South Ossetians) near the town of Gori. These militiamen were shooting at civilians in a car. A German man, his Georgian wife and their two children were injured. When they tried to escape, the militiamen did not stop firing. They were shooting to kill. The four wounded civilians were taken into a hospital in Gori and later transfered to a hospital in the capital of Tblisi. The children, one year old Ilya and four year old Sofia, were only lightly injured and were subsequently taken care of by family members.23
Russian and South Ossetian provocations
Between April and August 2008, Moscow used its criminal and separatist proxies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to provoke Georgia into a military response. As Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili wrote in the "Wall Street Journal": "This war is not of Georgia's making, nor is it Georgia's choice. The Kremlin desired this war. Earlier this year, Russia tried to provoke Georgia by effectively annexing another of our separatist territories, Abkhazia. When we responded with restraint, Moscow brought the fight to South Ossetia.
Ostensibly, this war is about an unresolved separatist conflict. Yet in reality it is a war about the independence and future of Georgia. (...)
The Kremlin appointed Russian security officers to arm and administer the self-styled separatist governments. (...) Rather than serve as an honest broker, Russia became a direct party to the conflict and now an open aggressor.
In April, Russia began treating the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Russian provinces. Again, our friends in the West asked restraint, and we did. But under the guise of peacekeeping, Russia sent paratroops and heavy artillery into Abkhazia. Repeated provocations were designed to bring Georgia to the brink of war. When this failed, the Kremlin turned its attention to South Ossetia, ordering its proxies to escalate attacks on Georgian positions.24
Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said there had been assassination attempts against Georgian policemen and that Georgian villages in South Ossetia had been shelled before the Georgian army moved in.25 Gurgenidze refers to an incident on August 1, 2008, whereby five Georgian policemen were wounded by two remotely detonated explosions on a road in South Ossetia.26
Although the Russians deny these allegations, this is probably a true version of events. U.S. officials claim they repeatedly warned the government in Tbilisi not too let Moscow provoke it into a fight or allow the conflict to escalate. They were surprised when their advice went unheeded.27 The White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the possibly the CIA, too, did not know that Georgia planned to launch a major military operation in South Ossetia on August 7. "It was a decision on their (Georgia's) part," a U.S. admistration official said. "They knew we would say ‘no.'" "We told them they had to keep their unilateral cease-fire. We said, ‘Be smart about this, don't go in and don't fall for the Russian provocation. Do not do this.'28
Saakashvili ignored this advice. Russian claims that it was not them but the Americans who instigated the current war in Georgia are not credible. It is not the first time that the truth is turned upside down by Moscow. Former Soviet dictators Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) were masters of deceit. After invading weaker nations, they pretended it had been their sole intention to protect "ethnic minorities" (Stalin's lame excuse for attacking Poland in September 1939) or "defending the cause socialism" (Brezhnev's equally lame excuse for invading Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and Afghanistan in December 1979).
Disproportionate Russian reaction sets dangerous precedent
There is no doubt that the Georgian army also committed atrocities when it intervened in South Ossetia on August 7 and 8. Houses have been burned down, a hospital was targeted, civilians have been killed (but not as many as the Russians claim).29 There is no justification at all for such crimes.
Russia's response, however, was quite disproportionate. More than once did the Russians promise to withdraw their troops, yet they act very deviantly as if Georgia proper is already part of Russia itself, as if they are the real masters there. On Monday August 18, 2008, there was an incident on the road to Tbilisi. Just 20 miles from the Georgian capital two Georgian police cars blocked the road. Suddenly, a Russian tank moved in their direction. A Russian officer intimidated a Georgian policeman who refused to move the two police cars: "You'll do as I tell you," the Russian officer said bluntly. When the policeman failed to oblige, the Russian commander ordered his tank to drive forward, it smashed aside the two police cars and proceeded in the direction of Tblisi. 30
Due to strong international pressure, the Russians decided not to occupy the Georgian capital. But they may very well do so in a few months or next year, because they now know that the Georgian army and police will not stop them. Throughout history, military weakness never deterred an invader or expansionist power. And the Russians invaded Georgia before, in 1921, that is. Between 1939 and 1941 Soviet leader Stalin feared (and even admired) Nazi Germany because of its military strength.
On August 20, 1968, forty years ago now, Russian tanks rolled through the streets of Prague, crushing the so-called "Prague Spring" – an attempt by the militarily weak Czechoslovak communist leaders to introduce "communism with a human face." The hardliners in Moscow prevailed at the time.
It is not communism that today's hardliners in Moscow want to revive but former Soviet power. Just three years ago, in April 2005, Russian president Vladimir Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophy of the 20th century.31 Remember, it was Stalin, a Georgian, who was largely responsible for the creation, totalitarian constitution and expansion of the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."
In May 1980, the famous Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989) wrote a letter from exile criticizing the idea of "nationalist superiority which takes on a dark, hysterical and pogromlike form among some Russians.32 Let those who live in Russia take heed and pray that Russia will not evolve into a new kind of Nazi Germany, or that Stalinism will somehow be revived. Once again, anti-Semitism is on the rise in Russia where anti-Semitic conspiracy theories based on the notorious "Protocols of the Elders of Sion" abound. These "Protocols" were first published in czarist Russia in 1905 by a Russian Orthodox mystic named Sergei Nilus who believed that the "antichrist" (apocalyptic opponent of Christ) would be a Jew. In today's Russia you can buy new editions of the "Protocols" in bookshops of the Russian Orthodox Church where Nilus is revered as a saint. The same anti-Semitic book was translated in German and inspired Hitler when he wrote his semi-autobiographical book "Mein Kampf" in 1924. Once in power, the Nazis saw to it that the "Protocols" were distributed widely – also in the European territories they would occupy between 1939 and 1945. (For example, a Dutch edition came out during the Nazi German occupation of Holland.)
After Georgia, the Russians may find an excuse to invade Ukraine, as they did in Eastern Poland in September 1939. Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev used strong words when he visited Southern Russia on Monday August 18, 2007: "If somebody tries something like this again, our response will be devastating. We have all the means at our disposal – economic, political and military.33 In other words, "Do not resist or provoke us, or we'll retaliate with unprecedented force." There was an unusual fanatical look in Medvedev's eyes. The Russians are already imposing their will on Ukraine, threatening to cut off gas supplies. There are the additional problems of the Russian navy in the Crimea and the Russian minority in Ukraine. The Russian doctrine of protecting so-called "blood brothers," ethnic Russians or Russian passport holders could be applied Ukraine and other neighboring states of the Russian Federation. Perhabs it is a good idea if Ukraine soon joins the NATO Alliance. And the West should no longer be dependent on oil and gas from instable regions, totalitarian states or countries like Iran. Instead, Western nations must now give top priority to the creation of renewable energy infrastructures.
It is very much a pity that the Russians behave this way. Especially now, when the West needs Russia to face the common problem of Islamic militancy and terrorism. There is much more to gain from cooperation than from confrontation. A return to the Cold War would be most unwelcome. But so would be a return to Stalinism. As Sir Winston Churchill once correctly pointed out, it was not the West but Stalin who was largely responsible for the emergence of the Cold War after 1945.34
1. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, quoted in: Philipp W. Fabry, Die Sowjetunion und das Dritte Reich. Eine documentierte Geschichte der deutsch-sowjetischen Beziehungen von 1933 bis 1941 (Stuttgart: Seewald Verlag, 1971), p. 155.
2. David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew. The Enigma of Barbarossa (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 162. This is one of the best studies on the subject and based on interesting documents such as two letters from Hitler to Stalin, dated December 31, 1940 and May 14, 1941. Hitler told Stalin that he was not at all planning an invasion of the Soviet Union (see pages 256-258). ?I assure you, on my honor as chief of state that this is not the case.? Stalin fell for it.
3. Michael Morozow, Der Georgier. Stalins Weg und Herrschaft (Munich/Vienna: Langen-Müller Verlag, 1980), p. 75.
4.Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge. The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (London: Spokesman Books, 1971), p. 493-497.
5. Raymond James Sontag and James Stuart Beddie (Eds.), Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939-1941. Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Office As Released by the Department of State (New York: Didier Publishers, 1948), p. 125.
6. Ibid., p. 91.
7. Ibid., p. 96.
8. Jane Degras (Ed.), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy 1933-1941, vol. III (London/New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 374. Ibid., p. 375.
9. Raymond James Sontag and James Stuart Beddie (Eds.), op. cit., p. 107.
10. Ibid., p. 108.
11. www.reuters.com, November 14, 2007 (?Ukraine hands Israel Holocaust mass grave evidence?).
12. William Korey, The Soviet Cage. Anti-Semitism in Russia (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), p. 80.
13. Helmut Krausnick and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm, Die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges. Die Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD 1938-1942 (Stutgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1981), p. 205, 206. On pages 302 and 303 details about deportations of Lithuanian and Ukranian civilians to Siberia. These deportations were organized by the Soviet Security Service NKVD.
14. William Korey, op. cit., p. 83-97.
15. www.cuatrom.com, June 11, 2006 (?El Mayor responsable de la mafia georgiana extradito a España?);
16. www.elperiódicodearagon.com, September 1, 2005 (?La mafia georgiana envía sicarios a España en busca de venganza?); www.thinkspain.com, November 24, 2006 (?Nine men detained in crackdown on alleged Georgian led mafia?).
17. Mark Galeotti, Republic of crime, Jane?s Intelligence Review, May 2007, p. 50.
19. Ibid., p. 51.
20. CNN August 15, 2008 (Michael Ware also reported that Russian troops were in the harbor (?What were these troops doing here??) and that the Russians dominated a large part of the countryside near the strategically located town of Zenaki.
21. CNN and other international TV reports, August 14, 2008. I saw these TV reports myself.
22. Netwerk (Dutch TV), August 15, 2008. In this news report Mark Garlasco, the senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, says that there was a Russian strike and there were eight civilian deaths. ?It was a Russian cluster bomb that killed the Dutch cameraman.? See also: www.hrw.org, August 15, 2008 (?Georgia: Russian Cluster Bombs Kill Civilians?).
23. BBC Newsnight, August 12 and 14, 2008.
24. Mikheil Saakashvili, The War in Georgia is a War for the West, Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2008, p. A15.
25. CNN, August 16, 2008 (about 10 pm Dutch time), CNN, August 17, 2008, about 9:15 pm Dutch time, ?Russia?s Powerplay.?)
26. International Herald Tribune, August 19, 2008, p. 3 (?How a regional spat turned into a post-Cold War showdown?).
27. International Herald Tribune, August 14, 2008, p. 1, 3 (?U.S. warned Georgia to avoid war, official say?).
28. Ibid. p. 3.
29. WDR, Channel One, a German TV report on South Ossetia, August 16, 2008, 10:45 pm German time; Stern (an illustrated German weekly), August 14, 2008, p. 44-51 (?Russlands blutige Antwort?).
30. Tagesthemen (German TV), August 18, 2008 (about 10:15 pm Dutch time): ?Du machst was ich sage.? BBC News (TV), August 18, 2008, about 11 pm Dutch time); Het Journaal (Belgian TV, Channel One), August 18, 2008, about 7 pm Dutch time); International Herald Tribune, August 19, 2008, p. 3 (?Despite cease-fire, Russia bolsters military presence?). Also on CNN (August 18).
31. BBC News, April 25, 2005 (?Putin deplores collapse of the USSR?); Washington Times, April 26, 2005 (?Putin calls collapse of Soviet Union ?catastrophe??).
32. Edward D. Lozansky (Ed.), Andrei Sakharov and Peace (New York: Avon Books, 1985), p. 227.
33. Het Journaal Laat (Belgian TV Channel One), August 18, 2008 (about 10:45 pm Dutch time); International Herald Tribune, August 19, 2008, p. 3 (?Despite cease-fire, Russia bolsters military presence?).
34. Winston S. Churchill, Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill?s Speeches (London: Pimlico, 2004), p. 413-424.
© 2008 Emerson Vermaat
About the author: Emerson Vermaat studied international and Russian law at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, and is an investigative reporter specialized in history, terrorism and crime.