The 2015 broadcast by Vladimir Putin’s government of a TV documentary justifying the tank-led Soviet August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia provoked understandable outrage in the now-democratic EU member-states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Both governments formally protested to Russia..The documentary praised the invasion as pre-empting an entirely fictitious Nato-backed “armed coup” being planned under the cover of the “legend of peaceful civilian uprising”.
Now Putin has changed his tune. Speaking last week in Vladivostok, Russia’s president suggested the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia were “wrong”, insisting improbably that he believed it was not right to do anything “in foreign policy that comes in direct contradiction with the interests of other peoples”.Russia, unlike the West, is not colonialist, he said.
In recent years Putin has burnished the banner of Great Russian nationalism by emphasising historical continuity between Tsarist, Soviet and contemporary Russia. The new history narrative for schoolchildren has rehabilitated brutal historical leaders from Alexander Nevsky to Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, while the Soviet Union got a makeover, its demise, according to Putin, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
So why the U-turn? Why now distinguish spuriously between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and those in Hungary and Czechoslovakia? Notionally, because for Putin Ukraine was in the Soviet Union, ethnic Russian, part of the motherland..
But the cynical about-face is really to do with shoring up support among apologists in Europe like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Slovakia’s Robert Fico, expected shortly to be re-elected prime minister, who have been willing opponents of EU sanctions on Russia. Or far-right politicians in France and Italy, Marine Le Pen, who characterise Ukraine as a “proxy war” with Nato and defend the annexation of Crimea as legitimate “reattachment”. Even they find the excesses of the old Soviet Union difficult to square And so rewriting history is all in a day’s work.