The making of war: The complicated history of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Germany explained
“There is no Ukraine!” The Kremlin’s narrative is not new and it’s not restricted to the conflict-hit nation alone. The Communists and the Nazis believed that many countries between Russia and Germany — Poland, Romania, Belarus, Finland — had no right to exist. A look at where it all began
On the eve of the Russian invasion, President Vladimir Putin argued that Ukraine has no right to exist; that the latter has historically been a part of Russia. Anyone with a brief knowledge of history will tell you that this was bad news. The part of Europe sandwiched between Russia on the east and Germany on the west is where both world wars began. And whenever a German or a Russian leader starts talking about which countries in this region have no right to exist, it’s ominous.
Of late, Indian television audiences have been bombarded with images of the war in Eastern Europe. Over the past weeks, we have become all too familiar with the names of Ukrainian cities (often difficult to pronounce): Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and countries that we rarely think of are on top of our mind: Belarus, Romania, Poland, and so on. But what does it all mean? Who is trying to take over whom? What are their motivations and historical rationalisations?
The history here is messy, further complicated by the fact that this is an area of shifting borders. For instance, the city of Lviv in western Ukraine is currently a staging area for people making their way across the border into Poland. But Lviv was not a part of Western Ukraine, but Eastern Poland only a few decades ago. So where does Poland end and where do Ukraine and Belarus begin? Here’s an explainer.
“The greatest criminal conspiracy of the 20th century”
On 17 September 1939, Polish army soldiers were huddled in the trenches, desperately trying to establish a defensive line against Hitler’s forces pouring into their country from the west. The lightning advance of the German Wehrmacht had pushed the Polish government to relocate from Warsaw to the city of Brest-Litovsk. Then it came, like a stab in the back. Legions of Soviet tanks, rolling across the eastern frontier of Poland to link up with the Germans.
Less than a month before this development, the Nazi regime in Berlin and the Communist regime in Moscow had concluded what historian Robert Forcyzk has labeled as the “greatest criminal conspiracy” of the 20th century. The Germans and the Soviets had reached a non-aggression pact on 23 August 1939. But unknown to the world, this treaty, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (named after Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop) contained several secret protocols, splitting Eastern Europe into Nazi and Communist spheres of influence. The Molotov-Ribbentrop line ran right through the heart of Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, and from Romania in the south to Finland in the north.
A few days after the German invasion began, the Soviets summoned the ambassador of the beleaguered Polish government in Moscow. To his surprise, the ambassador was told by the Soviets that the Polish government had ceased to exist. Accordingly, the Red Army would be marching to “protect” the people of Eastern Poland, which the Soviets now called “Western Ukraine” and “Western Belarus,” and thus part of the Soviet Union itself.
In short, both the Nazis and the Communists agreed on one thing: Poland and most other modern-day countries between Germany and Russia had no right to exist. They were, just as Putin argued the other day, artificial inventions and/or historical mistakes.
What was the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth?
From 1569 until 1795, for nearly 250 years later, there existed in the region between Germany and Russia, a state that was rather uniquely enlightened by the standards of the time. This was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, comprising as the name suggests, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was a multi-ethnic state, with Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarussians, and more, living in relative harmony. The position of the monarch was an elected one, though voting was restricted to noblemen, and there were strict constitutional limits to the power of the crown. The constitution even guaranteed freedom of religion.
But then, as it happens so often, this rather enlightened state began to face aggression from its more militant neighbours: the kingdoms of Prussia (mostly modern-day Germany), the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the west, and the Russian Empire to the east. This resulted in what came to be known as the three partitions of Poland. Finally, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist in 1795. From then onwards until 1914, the territory of this former multi-ethnic state remained divided between the three empires.
The man who the Germans smuggled in through Finland
During World War I (1914-1918), the German and Austro-Hungarian empires were fighting against their Russian counterparts. By 1917, the Russians began to crumble, their economy left in tatters by the war. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated the throne in March 1917, leaving his country tottering. The Germans now needed to provide a final blow. For this, they turned to a socialist who had been exiled from Russia in 1907, after a couple of failed efforts to overthrow the Tsar. That man was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin.
And so, Lenin, who had spent most of the war in neutral Switzerland, was smuggled in by the Germans across their territory into Finland, and from there to Russia. This last part of the journey, which was on a train from Helsinki to St Petersburg, is now part of Communist lore, which of course omits the role of the German empire in it.
Once in Russia, Lenin and his revolutionary Marxist faction, the Bolsheviks, organised the famous October Revolution, which ultimately ended the Tsarist regime. At once, Lenin’s new government settled for peace with the Germans, pulling Russia out of World War I. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which conceded most of the Russian Empire to Germany was signed. It gave rise to a number of independent states, such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, and of course, Ukraine. Russia also gave up claims in Finland, and soon lost parts of modern-day Moldova, then known as Bessarabia, but later handed by the Germans to Romania. This is what Putin calls the “mistake of Lenin”.
Lenin miscalculates, tries to fix it, but fails again
Unfortunately for the Bolsheviks, Lenin had misjudged the outcome of the war. Within months of the Russians settling for peace with Germany, the German empire itself capitulated. The victors of World War I, namely Britain, France, and America, dictated terms to the Germans at the Paris Peace Conference and eventually the Treaty of Versailles.
Lenin’s government tried to back out of the treaty they had signed with the Germans only months ago, but it was already too late. The Treaty of Versailles resulted in the rebirth of Poland as a state. The Red Army tried to wiggle back into the region but was soundly defeated. The armies of the new Polish state pushed all the way into Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. Incidentally, one of the top Soviet military handlers who was defeated in this war was Joseph Stalin. Unlike Lenin, however, Stalin would get his revenge.
Stalin’s Great Terror and the genocide covered up by The New York Times
“There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation..,” wrote Walter Duranty, the Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times on the famine in Soviet Ukraine, known as the Holodomor, that roughly claimed 3.9 million lives from 1932 to 1933. The New York Times journalist received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.
In the 1930s, Stalin’s government began a process of mass persecution of Poles and Ukrainian nationalists in the Soviet Union, who were seen as enemies of the regime. The party believed that a society had to be more or less industrialised for Communism to work effectively. This was a problem because most of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, was a largely agrarian society at the time. The Communist Party’s solution to this problem was chilling. Everyone who lived in the countryside in Ukraine had to be starved to death.
Communist Party officials were sent into the countryside to snatch every last bit of grain from Ukrainian farmers. Desperate, people began eating seed grain, a tiny portion of the grain that farmers set aside for sowing the next year’s crop. Then the party took away seed grain. The farmers tried to eat grass, then they ate their animals, then human corpses, and were even reduced to cannibalism.
The Communist Party would not relent. Neither would The New York Times. The Great Terror continued to unfold. By 1937, Stalin signed his infamous order No. 00447, which set targets for party officials in every local area for executions (the so-called “death quotas”) and securing prisoners to be sent for forced labor in the gulag.
Katyn forest and NKVD prisoner massacres
After the Soviet invasion in 1939, the city of Brest-Litovsk (now Brest in Belarus) was established as the frontier between the German and Soviet zones of occupied Poland. As part of his arrangement with the Nazis, Stalin then launched a series of wars with countries that were to the east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line. Finland was invaded in the winter of 1939 and put up an unexpected resistance, but ultimately crumbled three months later. The next in line were the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which were occupied by the Soviets in June 1940. The final step was the Soviet occupation of the Bessarabia region in Romania, which now lies in Moldova.
In the occupied territories, Stalin began in earnest the process of “Sovietisation.” This meant the seizure of land, private property, and herding of the population into collective farms. From the Soviet-run prisoner-of-war camps in Ukraine and western Russia, wave after wave of Polish prisoners began to leave. They were given good food, a promise of being sent home, and even a farewell by a marching band. They were then driven towards Katyn forest near Smolensk in Russia and murdered. The ones, especially chosen for these executions, were Polish Army officers and intellectual elites. The Soviet aim, as on the German side, was the “decapitation” of Polish society, based on the idea that Poland should never have existed. Many of the Polish Army officers executed at Katyn came from the prison camp in Starobilsk, now in Ukraine, but lying in the breakaway region of Luhansk, recently recognised as independent by Putin.
By 1941, the situation in Europe had changed. With security guaranteed in the east by the Soviets, the Nazis had finished occupying Western Europe, including France. In June 1941, Hitler turned around and invaded the Soviet Union. He was soon joined in his efforts by the Romanians, Ukrainian nationalists, the Tartar Muslims of Crimea, and other groups looking to avenge the occupation by the Soviet Union. A number of these pro-Nazi groups remain active in Eastern Europe even today. Taken by surprise, as the Soviets withdrew, their secret police or NKVD began a series of mass executions of prisoners across Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. At the NKVD prison in Lviv, the floor was covered in a slush of blood and organs from human bodies. Historians estimate that some 100,000 people were murdered by the NKVD in a few weeks.
The Holocaust, and Hitler’s “Garden of Eden”
Throughout 1942 and 1943, trains carrying Jews continued to arrive at what appeared to be a railway stopover near the village of Treblinka in occupied Poland. It was certainly made to look like a quaint old railway station, with a clock, train schedules, a ticket window, and even a flower garden nearby. The prisoners were then ordered to alight and filed into the well-hidden area at the back, where they were gassed immediately. The extermination camp at Treblinka, where nearly 900,000 Jews were killed, was one among the many death camps set up by the Nazis in Eastern Europe. The other most infamous ones were at Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, all in Poland.
At the beginning of the invasion in 1941, Hitler’s forces had marched across Soviet territories with relative ease. Despite the failure to take Moscow, German forces rapidly occupied Minsk (Belarus), Kyiv and Kharkiv (Ukraine) and laid siege to St. Petersburg in Russia. By mid-1942, the Germans had taken over the Crimean peninsula, then reaching towards Rostov-on-Don in Russia and finally the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) situated between the Don and Volga rivers. This is as far as Hitler’s Third Reich would ever go in the east.
Inside Germany, the genocide continued, despite the war turning against the Wehrmacht. From as far as France and Netherlands in the west, to Hungary, Russia, and Yugoslavia in the east, Jews were deported to concentration camps inside the Reich. Around six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Hitler’s dream had been to establish a “Garden of Eden” by colonising the vast expanses of Russia and Ukraine. By the time the war ended, some 30 million people had lost their lives on the eastern front.
Yalta, FDR’s weakness, and the reoccupation of Eastern Europe
By February 1945, it was clear that the war was almost over, and the Germans had been defeated. Accordingly, US President Franklin Roosevelt, Soviet Premier Stalin, and British prime minister Winston Churchill met in Yalta in Crimea to decide on the future of post-war Europe. At this conference, Stalin got his way, reoccupying all the lands east of the original Molotov-Ribbentrop line and much more. Accordingly, Communist governments were established in Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Albania. The original Soviet zone of occupation in Poland in 1939 was absorbed into the Soviet Union itself, incorporated as western Ukraine and western Belarus.
On the other hand, Poland was expanded into the west, by taking land from Germany. The borders of Germany were pushed westwards to the Oder river, which became the new line between Communist Poland and Eastern Germany. And for good measure, Stalin took eastern Germany as well, which he later turned into the Communist-run German Democratic Republic. Roosevelt offered little resistance to Stalin’s assertiveness. The President’s health was failing at the time, and he died two months later.
“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”
“The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson, who was dubbed as the “foremost academic economist of the 20th century” by The New York Times. The words are taken from the 1989 edition of his legendary textbook Economics, which has been translated into 49 languages to train generations of economic theorists since it was first published in 1948.
However, outside of economics textbooks, the Soviet economy was a complete mess by 1989. As the economy crumbled, so did the power of the Soviet state. Communist governments collapsed all across eastern Europe–in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Then, the constituent republics of the USSR began to revolt, among them Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. On 25 December 1991, the Soviet flag was removed from the Kremlin in Moscow. The USSR and the Warsaw Pact, which bound all Communist countries together, ceased to exist.
With the end of the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact, the reasons behind the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had also ceased to exist. But NATO continued to expand eastwards, pushing closer and closer to Russia, incorporating Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. NATO also established some levels of partnership with Georgia and Ukraine.
There are two narratives that matter greatly to the current turn of events. The Russians argue that America had agreed not to expand NATO further, a promise that does appear in a speech by Manfred Wörner, the secretary-general of NATO, in May 1990. The Americans, on the other hand, insist that no such agreement was ever made in writing. Beyond these opposing narratives, what we do know for sure is that war is back in eastern Europe. Again.
The region between Germany and Russia is what historian Timothy Snyder has labeled as the “Bloodlands.” The centuries-long struggle between empires and contrasting worldviews in this region has sent millions of people, even hundreds of millions, to their deaths. Two world wars, and more. The world is playing with fire, again.
In his book Bloodlands, Snyder records a heartbreaking episode about a girl starving during the 1930s Soviet-sponsored famine in Ukraine. When a stranger offers the little girl a piece of bread, she eats it gratefully. But having seen what happened to her entire village, the girl is under no illusions about her ultimate fate. “Now that I have eaten such wonderful things, I can die in peace,” she tells the stranger.
No war. Not again.
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