Putin’s Embrace of Poland Hard to Explain

Anne Applebaum takes a stab at explaining Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s sudden change of heart to improve relations with Poland, and recognize the Katyn massacre of 1940.  It is certainly not hard to understand why a 70-year-old problem like this which has nothing to do with either current government should be resolved in this open and respectful manner, nor would anyone argue that these latest moves by Putin are fundamentally positive and very welcomed.  But the argument that this gesture represents a signal that the Russian leadership has “seen the error of its ways” and wants to roll back the Stalinist revival just doesn’t seem convincing in the slightest. 

Whenever something doesn’t add up in Russian foreign policy, we should probably be looking for domestic explanations … is Putin trying to brush back the nationalists and distance himself from people like Luzhkov?  That certainly was the indication when they opposed the Stalin posters…

Why is this happening now? Putin hasn’t shown any previous inclination to dwell on Soviet atrocities — on the contrary, his official policy has been to play them down. His government has sponsored history textbooks describing Stalin as “the most successful Soviet leader ever,” and he has brought Soviet flags and songs back into Russian public life. He also has a lot on his plate at the moment. Surely last week’s terrorist attacks in Moscow, Russia’s economic troubles and the rumblings of popular protest across the country take precedence over the commemoration of a crime committed seven decades ago — unless, of course, these accumulating difficulties are themselves the explanation for the change of heart.

Perhaps Putin, having more difficult issues to worry about, has tired of this ancient quarrel. Perhaps he wants something — oil and gas concessions — from the Polish government. Or perhaps the Russian elite has finally worked out that their country cannot be modernized if Russia’s citizens maintain a Stalinist mentality and a Stalinist interpretation of history. If that is the case, then this will be the first of many such ghosts that will need to be laid to rest. But maybe, just maybe, a different Russian foreign policy would follow.