Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of open hostilities in World War II. During most of that time, the East and West waged the Cold War, and the downfall of the USSR and the reintegration of much of Central Europe into the West engendered great hope. But detritus of the world war remains, including land grabs, such as Russia’s takeover of Królewiec on the Baltic Sea and huge Sakhalin Island in the Pacific, the latter where tens of thousands of Korean slave laborers were stranded; mass expulsions, such as Germans from central Europe, Poles from Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania, and Armenians, Turks, and Greeks from the Black Sea coast; divided countries, such as Korea; and populations forced into diasporas all over Europe and Asia.
Russian military ventures today, including in Georgia and Ukraine, both formerly components of the USSR, stir the pot of these leftover problems.
Georgia turned west with the 2003 Rose Revolution. Russia invaded in 2008 and sliced off the large provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, declaring them independent. On November 24, 2014, Abkhazia signed a “treaty” with Russia, giving it even more control over Abkhazia’s economy and military. In February and March 2014, Russia invaded and then annexed the southern Ukrainian province of Crimea, gateway to the Black Sea. Later in the year it pushed further into Ukraine, proclaiming the new states of the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics,” which themselves then merged to form “Novorossiya” (New Russia). Novorossiya, a name from Czarist times, is envisaged as an expansionist state, ultimately to include all of southeastern Ukraine, thereby linking Russia with both Crimea and another breakaway state, “Transnistria,” in Moldova.
Is it now time to liberate Królewiec?
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Western scholars sympathetic to him, like NYU’s Stephen F. Cohen, plaintively explain that these takeovers are simply reasonable reactions to Western “aggression.” Indeed, Russia now escalates and claims that the West, by protesting the Russian takeovers, is seeking “regime change” in Russia itself.
Russia and its supporters note that the European Union and NATO have expanded eastward following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia, they reason, is the neighbor entitled to countries on its borders that look east, not west . Through crocodile tears, Putin claims surprise at Russia’s lack of appreciation, and says any appearance of an iron fist is only to encourage the return of rational behavior. While denying that Russia is in fact invading anyone, at the same time he justifies actions as “protection” of Russian-speaking populations within the invaded countries–the same pretext Hitler used to invade Czech Sudetenland and Polish Silesia. In short Russia is, to some, more like the “Neighbors” of Jan Gross’s 2001 book about Poles who turned on the Jews next door than any greeter from Welcome Wagon.
One need only take the example of one of Russia’s neighbors, Poland, to understand that reason, not paranoia, makes for a wary response to Putin’s proffered protection. Russia controlled large parts of Poland from the late 18th century to the end of World War I. Almost as soon as Poland was reconstituted after the war, however, another war broke out with the newly formed Soviet Union, when the USSR saw Poland as the bridge between it and Germany, which it viewed as ripe for the next revolution. Against odds, Poland rallied and prevailed over the invading Red Army in 1920.
On the eve of World War II, Russia and Germany, under the secret protocols of their treaty, invaded Poland from opposite sides in September 1939. With Poland destroyed once again, Russia proceeded to deport hundreds of thousands and to massacre and imprison Poland’s military and academic intelligentsia, including the perpetration of the Katyn Forest massacre. In 1941, breaking the treaty, Germany invaded Russia. When Poles rose up against the Germans in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Red Army stood idly by on the eastern side of the Vistula River, and waited until Warsaw was destroyed from the west by the Nazis before crossing and continuing their war effort against Germany.
After the war, Russia set up a satellite Polish state, and effectively ruled the country until Communism in Europe imploded in 1989. Russia has yet to apologize for these 200 years of hostile history or to move toward a friendly relationship. So, not surprisingly, Poland turned west with both EU and NATO membership. Lithuania, Latvia, and other former Soviet-controlled states have similar histories.
And Królewiec? At the Potsdam conference of July 1945, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt agreed to cede to Russia a coveted warm-water port on the Baltic, a some 5,000-square-mile wedge of land between Poland and Lithuania. The region had previously been Polish (Królewiec) and German (Königsberg) in culture and population, and had no border with Russia.
The Russians christened it Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the last “Old Bolsheviks” to survive Stalin’s purges (Kalinin’s wife, though, was arrested, tortured, and sent to the Gulag). The remaining population of the region was expelled and the land repopulated, including with Ukrainians, whose homeland is itself now under Russian reconfiguration. While many Russian city names have lost their Revolutionary associations, such as St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and Volgograd (Stalingrad), Kaliningrad stands as an anachronism–and not just in name. The region is accessible on land only through Poland or Lithuania, both of which are now are EU and NATO members. Russia is accessible by road by special permits.
Russia has a Pacific ice-free port in Vladivostok, and it had long held rights to a naval base in Sevastopol in the Crimea before it grabbed the entire peninsula. If a long-term trend of receding ice in the Arctic continues, by the end of the next two decades, parts of the Arctic could possibly be used more reliably for navigation, at least in the summer. So, at a time of Russian land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine, and with Russian threats to other countries of the former Soviet bloc and sphere of influence, perhaps it is time to begin a movement to liberate occupied Królewiec.
*Barry A. Fisher served on the multinational Holocaust claims negotiations team and was a signatory to the resulting treaty between Germany, Russia, Poland and others. He also serves as counsel to Chinese and Korean groups regarding unresolved Japan wartime claims. Of Ukrainian and Polish ancestry, he holds presidentially ordered citizenship in the latter.