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  • Writer's pictureShelly Sanders

The parallels between Stalin's Invasion of Latvia and Putin's Attack on Ukraine are Disturbing

I had no inkling of what was to come when I began writing about the Soviet invasion of Latvia during WWII for my latest novel. It was 2018 and I had no clue that history would soon be transposed to the current war in Ukraine. As I wrote a disturbing scene about a Soviet tank rolling over Latvians gathered in Riga’s central square, I never imagined that Russian tanks would cross the Ukrainian border, unprovoked, in 2022. And I had no idea, when I visited Rumbula, a mass grave of Jews in Riga—concealed for 50 years during the Soviet occupation—that today’s Kremlin would deny the existence of mass graves “found in the formerly Russian-controlled city of Izyum in Eastern Ukraine,” as recently reported by AFP News Agency.

All of this makes me wonder (and worry), how closely will history repeat itself?

While 82 years divides these invasions, the parallels between them and the despotic leaders who’ve led the fray are startling. Both Joseph Stalin and President Vladimir Putin are driven by monstrous egos that rank power over human rights. Propaganda over truth. At the core of these leaders’ regimes is censorship. Both fed their own people false narratives by getting rid of independent media and by banning books that contradict their phony versions of reality.

Stalin, for example, banned Daniel Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe, because it portrays one intrepid man, capable of performing heroic deeds. In the Soviet Union, collective actions outweighed individual efforts. At least, that was the assumption behind Stalin’s disastrous attempt to collectivize farming. Millions died of starvation. Additional books banned by Stalin include Animal Farm by George Orwell, and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, still commonly banned in parts of North America today, along with dozens of other great novels.

Censorship in Putin’s Russia used to be more nuanced, with publishers and bookstores operating within murky state parameters. Author Masha Gessen explains in a 2016 article in The Intercept, that “a critical mention of the Russian president was generally classified as ‘extremism.’ The charge can turn into a criminal trial for the editor or publisher, but more than anything else, it can cause a book to be banned…”

Since the attack on Ukraine, censorship in Russia has intensified, with access to Facebook and international news barred. Independent media organizations have shut down and the government has blocked access to Russian websites operating outside the country. Then, Putin established a law forbidding Russians from spreading lies about the invasion. Even referring to it as a “war” is a crime; instead, the Kremlin has declared it be called a “special military operation.” The punishment for saying the wrong words is up to 15 years in prison. Or worse.

Putin’s opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who has run for office promising reforms against corruption, almost died two years ago when he and his daughter were poisoned. Now, he’s in a Russian prison, serving eleven and a half years for embezzlement. Amnesty International calls his trial a sham. Since the war in Ukraine began, at least eight Russian oligarchs (wealthy business leaders with political clout) have mysteriously died.

The chairman of the board of Russia’s largest private oil company, “died in what Russian news agencies cited as an accidental fall from a hospital window.” Two weeks later, a September 22, euronews article relayed the death of “Ivan Pechorin, a top manager at the Corporation for the Development of the Far East and the Arctic,” who “was found dead in Vladivostok after allegedly falling off his luxury yacht and drowning…”

Curiously, the same company’s general director died of a “reported stroke after taking over the reins in May 2021.” He was 43 years old. An aviation expert “died under strange circumstances…after falling down ‘several sets of stairs’.” The former deputy director of the Russian national air carrier Aeroflot “was found hanged in his home” in 2018.

While the handfuls of dead Russian oligarchs don’t come close to the millions killed during Stalin’s reign, history tells us that autocrats become more depraved over time, not less. At the beginning of the Soviet’s occupation of Latvia in 1940, Stalin’s government obscured its collaboration with Nazi Germany, hidden within secret clauses of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. This pact divided Poland between the two tyrants, with Stalin getting the Baltic states, including Latvia, thereby allowing him to do exactly what Putin aspires to—expand Russia to its pre-revolutionary size.

Stalin brought Russian communists into Latvia to ignite rallies against the president in June, 1940; he was removed from office and eventually murdered. Latvian army officers were replaced by Red Army commanders. Most of the Latvian leaders were shot or exiled. The country was nationalized, which meant citizens lost their money and property. Latvian students were Sovietised through required classes on Marxism and Leninism, as well as compulsory participation in Communist demonstrations.

In a move that reeks of Stalinism, Putin introduced mandatory patriotic classes in schools in June, with teachers forced to echo the Kremlin’s propaganda that loyalty means doing whatever is necessary for the good of the people, such as going to war. Even more distressing, is the takeover of the review of history textbooks, from the Education Ministry to the head of Russia’s foreign spy service. Truth will be sacrificed, just as it was during Stalin’s reign, as seen in this passage about the Latvian occupation:

“Confronted by the demands of the working class, the bourgeois government stepped down…Democratic elections took place, and the new Saeima (parliament), heeding the demands of the working class, established the Latvian Socialist Republic…” This revised history, found in Soviet textbooks, shows how false statements diluted Latvia’s power, implying that the working class wanted to be taken over by the Soviet Union. In fact, it was an illegal occupation as the election was not democratic and didn’t fulfil the terms in the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia.

While the similarities between Joseph Stalin’s invasion of Latvia eight decades ago and Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine today are staggering, there is one crucial difference. The Soviets occupied Latvia days after troops set foot in the country, but it’s been six months since Putin invaded Ukraine and it’s clear, from Ukraine’s astonishing defense, that a Russian victory is not guaranteed. A few days ago, Putin ordered the conscription of all eligible men.

Yet, in an impressive departure from Stalin’s reign, Russians are protesting. More than a thousand dissenters were arrested following the conscription announcement.

With a sobering wave to Latvian’s Soviet past, Russian officials then forced Ukranians, often at gunpoint, to vote for referendums to annex Russian-occupied areas. Not surprisingly, a victory was announced by Kremlin leaders in Ukraine.

Looking at photos of people fleeing Russia in droves to avoid being militarized, I cannot help but think that Putin is getting desperate.

Just as Stalin must have become frantic when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Stalin retaliated by ordering the Latvian Cheka to deport and murder 3,600 political prisoners.

Now, Putin is threatening to deploy nuclear weapons. I consider what Stalin would do, in his place. And I fear the worst.

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