Ghosts of Russian History Still Alive in Europe

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Czech youngsters holding a flag stand atop an overturned truck as other Prague residents surround Soviet tanks on Aug. 21 1968 during the Soviet-led invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies.
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As Russia flexes its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea, for many former Soviet citizens, the present looks all too familiar to the past. 

This week, The Takeaway hears from former citizens of the Eastern Bloc as they share their stories of Russian occupation and life behind the Iron Curtain. 

Russia invaded the Czech Republic on August 21, 1968. Prague-native Michal Lebl was just waking up on his birthday when he heard on the radio that the Russians were taking over his country. He says the ghosts of Russian history are still alive in the region today. 

"I was 17 when the Russians came, and at that time, at 17-years-old, we didn't travel abroad so we didn't have too much of an idea of how it was in the West," says Lebl. "Then it started to turn a little bit 1968, while we were listening to more of the Western radio and some books were coming in. We learned a little bit about what was happening and we were curious. But then for another 23 years it was basically stamped out—you couldn't travel, you couldn't read whatever you wanted—you were really limited in what you could do."

Lebl says that when he looks at the people of Ukraine and their perceived embrace of the West, he believes that Russia will not be able to easily suppress their desires for Western culture as the were able to do back in 1968.

"In Ukraine, they've tasted it for almost 20 years so they know, and their connection to the West is pretty real," he says. "Now there's internet, there's radio, there's TV—you know what is happening and you cannot completely cut off information like back in the 60s."

When it comes to the possibility of the Crimea crisis escalating into a larger conflict, Lebl says the suggestion is not so far off.

"I think that Ukraine lost Crimea, and that hopefully that is it and it will not go further. It can happen, but I'm hoping it's not happening," he says. "Unfortunately the power of Putin is not very controlled by anything. He doesn't care what the world thinks, he is just one of the new, total, absolutist rulers. The only big opposition inside of Russia might be the people who are very economically connected to the West—the oligarchs. But once you have a mad man in the hat, it's hard—it's uncontrolled power, which is the worst that can happen to any country in the world."

Crimean Crisis Conjures 'Deep, Existential Fear'

The memories in the lands that lie between Germany and Russia are also suddenly alive. In the past few weeks, Vladimir Putin has been speaking of Russian territorial rights, and Germany has been trying to reassure Belarus, Latvia and Estonia that the political crisis in Ukraine is not a chilling replay of a brutal 20th century history.

Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University and author of "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin," explains what the turmoil in Eastern Europe means for the region at large.

"There are couple of things that are worth remembering, and we in America look at all of this from a great distance, and when we think about history we use big concepts like Hitler or appeasement," says Snyder. "But from the point of view that live in independent states in Easter Europe or Central Europe, the 1930s were a period when independence and nation-statehood were chipped away at and destroyed."

Snyder says that for those living in Austria, Germany, Lithuania or Poland, the situation currently playing out in the region is reminiscent of several incidents from the World War II era, including the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, and the destruction of Czechoslovakia by Germany following Germany's annexation of The Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia inhabited by German speakers. Additionally, Snyder says one analogy can also be found in the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.

"A lot of Poles remember [the German-Soviet invasion] in this connection because the argument the Soviet Union used to invade Poland in 1939 was that the Polish state no longer existed," he says. "That's the exact same argument which Russian leaders make now about Ukraine—that despite appearances, there is no longer a Ukrainian state."

For others, Snyder says today's crisis conjures memories of 1940 when the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states.

"And the there's a second element, a much deeper, darker element," says Snyder. "The lands between the Soviet Union and Germany in the 1930s were the places of a huge colonial competition between Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union in which, all in all, about 14 million human beings were killed. In that period between 1933 and 1945, the absolute worst place to be of all was Ukraine. About half of the people who were killed, maybe a bit more, were killed in Ukraine—first as a result of Soviet policy and then as a result of German policy."

Snyder says that about 3 million children, women, and men in Soviet-Ukraine were starved to death in 1932 and 1933. Additionally, another several hundred thousand were killed during Stalin's Great Terror, which began in 1934 before the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany.

"The worst of the German occupation was precisely in Ukraine," says Snyder. "Another 5 or 6 million people were killed as a result."

Despite the reassurance offered by President Barack Obama and leaders of NATO, Snyder says the brutal history of years passed has created a very deep seeded fear in the people of Eastern Europe.

"On the one hand there is a deep, existential fear—the fear that comes from a very recent history of having your state destroyed, which most of us would have difficulty understanding," says Snyder. "At the same time, it's precisely that existential fear that leads to the very rational political desire to belong to the West or to belong to a military alliance which promises protection. Naturally, this is a moment when people in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and countries that have tasted Soviet aggression that are now members of NATO are wanting further assurances and true presences."

Additionally, Ukraine—the nation under the most direct threat as Russian troops make camp on their border—wants to have closer cooperation with the West, even if such a relationship can not absolve all of their fears from the past. But Russia's connections to the West are also stirring mixed feelings in Ukrainians.  

"[Putin] is using Barack Obama to try increase these fears at the moment," says Snyder. 

Snyder says that Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is regularly in talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, bypassing direct discussions with Ukrainian officials. Those talks, says Snyder, look to produce a solution without including the people currently involved in the crisis—Ukrainians—which revives feelings of the Munich Pact in 1938 in which British and French prime ministers Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier signed an agreement with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. The agreement averted the outbreak of war, but gave Czechoslovakia away to German conquest.

"States were destroyed without the consent and indeed without even the voice of the people who were most directly concerned," says Snyder. "Putin is perfectly aware that these types of discussions with America terrify East Europeans. If you read the Russian press releases, they're edited in such a way as to maximize these fears—the Russians keep suggesting that the Americans are about to sell them out."

While Snyder doesn't believe that the United States would "sell out" Ukraine, he does say that Russian-American discussions about issues that are fundamentally Ukrainian are a ploy designed by Russia to frighten Ukraine and create an atmosphere of distrust. 

"It's a concern which the Russians are very consciously trying to maximize—they're trying to present the Ukrainians as having no friend," says Snyder.