In April 1940, in what would come to be known as the Katyn Massacre, members of the feared Soviet secret police force, the NKVD, began the systematic murders of more than 21,000 Polish prisoners of war. The victims of the massacre — which, in addition to military officers, included many civilians — were buried by the thousands. When German forces discovered and exhumed the first of these mass graves in 1943, Soviet leader Josef Stalin swiftly dismissed the allegations his forces were responsible and claimed the Nazis themselves had been the perpetrators. The Kremlin would continue to deny and cover up any evidence of its atrocities until 1990, when then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted the NKVD had carried out the attacks.
In April 2022, Moscow again stands accused of a massacre. As reports of mass graves and images of civilian corpses pour out of the Ukrainian town of Bucha, horrified world leaders are calling for war crimes investigations. But as with the Katyn Massacre, the Kremlin’s response has been to deny and deflect. On Sunday, the Russian Defense Ministry stated: “All photographs and videos published by the Kyiv regime, which allegedly attest to some sort of ‘crimes’ by Russian forces in the city of Bucha are yet another provocation.”
How, nearly a century later, with our post-World War II structures of international governance, and myriad mechanisms for atrocity prevention and international justice, has history come to so closely repeat itself? The answer may lie in one of the Kremlin’s recent favorite talking points: “denazification.”
Vladimir Putin has infamously cited “denazification” as the reason for his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. While his use of the term against a democratic country with a Jewish president has a perverse, Orwellian quality, a deeper historical understanding of “denazification” provides critical insights into how Russia arrived at this juncture. Russia’s failure over the past 30 years to undertake an honest reckoning with the myriad atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, both at home and abroad, laid fertile grounds for this attack. In short, Russia’s failure to undergo a “de-Sovietification” process set the stage for Putin’s aggression.
The “denazification” process Germany undertook after World War II was neither an easy nor a seamless process, but it ultimately proved essential in creating the peaceful, prosperous, democratic nation that exists today. In the immediate aftermath of the war, with their country occupied by Allied troops, most Germans were inclined to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators. They saw “denazification” as a policy objective of the Allied occupiers, a form of re-education imposed by foreign troops on a hostile population. Even for a German-Jewish refugee like the young Henry Kissinger, sent to help with the American occupation, “denazification” was an unpleasant process, one that involved arresting collaborators in front of their crying families, while making a calculus about which former Nazi officials would be necessary for the reconstruction of Germany, especially in the face of the Soviet threat. It was not until the late 1960s, as the post-war generation came of age eager to force a reckoning with their parents’ crimes, that Germany truly began to come to terms with its past and take responsibility for its crimes.
The Soviet Union not only murdered millions of its people through political repression in the name of class struggle; it also committed crimes of a nationalist and ethnic nature. Following the revolutions of 1917, the Bolshevik Party built the Soviet Union on the framework of the Russian Empire they had overthrown — but did so through the use of force against nascent independent states, from the Republic of Georgia and the Central Asian Khanates of Bukhara and Khiva in the 1920s to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 which led to the conquest of the Baltic states and the seizure of Polish and Romanian territory. The Soviet regime conducted mass purges of the conquered territories to quash local nationalisms, and it deported whole ethnic groups from their territories, including Koreans before the war and Chechens after it. After World War II, Moscow imposed its empire on the so-called “Eastern Bloc” largely through force, including invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and through the specter of force, such as that which persuaded Polish General Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski in 1981 that it would be better to impose martial law on his country with Polish troops than Soviet ones.
But in the wake of the Soviet collapse, there was no occupying army to force the Russian people to make a similar reckoning. Particularly since Vladimir Putin took power, Moscow has largely identified not as a perpetrator, but as a victim.
In his bid to rewrite history, Putin has made memory politics a top strategic priority. He has taken every opportunity to describe Soviet occupations as acts of justice and bravery, to erase the truth about former Soviet leader Josef Stalin from the history books, and to rebrand him as a war hero. In December, Russian courts shuttered Memorial International, a respected organization that had spent decades scouring archival evidence to highlight the plights of victims of the Soviet regime, as well as its subsidiary organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, which focuses on allegations of political persecution in present-day Russia.
As a consequence, Stalin has seen an improbable boost in popularity. As of 2021, 56% of Russians agree or mostly agree with the statement, “Stalin was a great leader,” compared to 28% in 1992. Over the same period, the proportion who entirely or mostly disagree with that statement has dropped from 37% to 14%. As history teacher Tamara Eidelman explained in a 2016 interview with Körber-Stiftung, “In textbooks, Stalin is hardly mentioned, and if he is, then in a very neutral tone. If the teachers want to add something to the books’ content, they can do that. At the same time, mass media have already started to show Stalin in a good way, and the old, silly idea that “Stalin won the war” is always present.”
From its fears of NATO’s expansion to its lingering bitterness over NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia, Russia’s post-Cold War foreign policy narrative has consistently been one of victimhood in the face of Western hegemony, while Moscow seeks peace. Just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, when asked about NATO’s concerns over Russia’s troop buildup, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, “For Russia, peace is a core value. Russia constantly had to fight aggressors on its territory, aggressors whose unexpected invasions destroyed villages and cities, people, and infrastructure. We know what peace is and how to defend it.”
Russia’s refusal to reckon with its own aggressive past, and its insistence on adopting a narrative of victimhood instead, has set the stage for the Kremlin’s current aggression. Russians were not consulted about the decision to invade Ukraine, and to their credit, tens of thousands have bravely protested at great personal cost, while countless others have fled a country that they no longer feel they can call home. But this aggression has been building, step-by-step, for more than a decade through the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and then Ukraine in 2014, mostly with the overwhelming support of the Russian people, who seemed to buy the Kremlin’s story that it was fighting a defensive battle against an aggressive West. In short, the lack of reckoning with the past made it easy for them to absorb the narrative of victimhood.
This lesson of caution about the failure to reckon with the past unfortunately does not only apply to Russia. China’s Communist Party has also conspicuously failed to “de-Mao-ize.” The CCP under Deng Xiaoping did not come to terms with the tens of millions that had been killed under Chairman Mao Zedong, instead declaring that the latter had been “70 percent right, 30 percent wrong,” and ending the debate. China’s failure to reckon with its past should be deeply unsettling not only to its people but to its neighbors, as the Russian example shows. George Santayana famously remarked that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Few historical events have demonstrated this as clearly as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where “denazification” is indeed what was needed — albeit in Moscow, not Kyiv.
Jeremy Friedman is the Marvin Bower Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. A historian of Russia, he has published two books on Cold War history, including most recently Ripe for Revolution: Building Socialism in the Third World (Harvard University Press, 2022).
Ingrid Burke Friedman is the Features Editor at JURIST and a fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.