Over the past 24 hours I have been receiving slightly ironic congratulations by email from fellow historians. They were prompted by the order from the Ministry of Education in the Yekaterinburg region of Russia towithdraw all my books from schools and colleges. They are to be removed “from the access of students and teaching staff”. (It is interesting that teaching staff are not to be allowed to make up their own minds.) I am accused of “promoting stereotypes formed during the Third Reich” and developing the “propaganda myth” of Joseph Goebbels that Red Army soldiers committed mass rapes of German women.
In some ways I am amazed that it has taken them so long. Thirteen years ago, in 2002, when my book Berlin: The Downfall was published, the Russian ambassador in London, Grigori Karasin (now deputy foreign minister), accused me of “lies, slander and blasphemy against the Red Army” and then invited me to lunch. “A vodka lunch, just the two of us,” he proposed, rather to my surprise. I was glad to accept and we discussed the treatment of the past. He made the valid point that the horrors and hardships that the Soviet people had undergone over at least three generations – the first world war, the revolution and civil war, the famines, the purges and the unspeakable suffering of the Nazi invasion – meant that even those opposed to Stalinism saw the victory in 1945 as “sacred”. By including the mass rapes I would be causing great offence.
This was clearly true, but to pretend that they did not happen would have been a Soviet propaganda myth. The sources in a number of Russian archives could hardly be plainer. General Tsygankov, the head of the political department of Marshal Konev’s First Ukrainian Front, reported to Moscow on the mass rapes by Red Army officers and soldiers committed against young Soviet women who had been deported for forced labour in Germany. Tsygankov urged that the female victims should not be allowed to spread negative stories about the Red Army when they were repatriated.
Reports from NKVD rifle divisions in East Prussia covered the suicides of German women who could not face any more assaults. These were sent to Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD, and to Stalin. The diaries of Soviet war correspondents and officers recount what they saw. One female journalist described the troops as “an army of rapists”, but that is going too far. Not all raped, and many devout communists were appalled by the behaviour of fellow soldiers. A number of accounts also indicate that Jewish officers, who might have far greater reasons for revenge, did what they could to save women from attack.
It was extremely dangerous for officers to attempt to install discipline, as those who had drunk alcohol to give them courage for “the evening hunt” could just as easily turn their guns on their own commanders. We think of the absolute control of Stalinist society; and yet the Red Army, with huge numbers of men drafted in at the end of the war without training to replace the fallen, was astonishingly ill-disciplined. Soldiers simply wandered off to loot and rape almost at will whenever there was no fighting.
What depresses me most is that once again we are faced with a government trying to impose its own version of history. I am fundamentally opposed to all such attempts to dictate a truth, whether it concerns denial of the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide, or the “sacred victory” of May 1945. When Sergei Shoigu was minister for emergency situations back in 2009, he tried to bring in a law to criminalise anybody who criticised the Red Army in the second world war. He said it was “tantamount to Holocaust denial”. Shoigu, who is now minister of defence and widely tipped as a successor to Vladimir Putin, has managed to have the law passed by the Duma with penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment. So in Russian terms I am technically a criminal, and yet I am still getting invitations from the current Russian ambassador. Churchill was right about Russia being “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.