As the continent of Europe endures a barrage of crises the likes of which haven’t been experienced since at least the 1930s, tumultuous historical parallels with that era are coming into sharp focus.
Perhaps the most significant – the single largest annexation of sovereign territory by an aggressor since the second world war – occurred on 30 September 2022 when Russia declared the four Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia “a new constituent entity within the Russian Federation”.
An area of Ukraine equivalent to the size of Hungary or Portugal falling forcibly into Russian hands through savage barbarism and rigged referendums was greeted in the State Duma with rapturous applause. In a protracted and jingoistic speech to the Duma railing against the familiar trope of western neocolonialism and brazenly insistent on Russian moral superiority, Vladimir Putin asserted that, “the ballots have been counted and the results have been announced. The people have made their unequivocal choice … this is the will of millions of people”.
The referendum results in all four regions predictably secured majorities for joining the Russian Federation of over 80%.
Referendums or war crimes?
It is, of course, absurd to even speak of these ‘events’ as referendums; it is illegal to hold such ballots during ongoing hostilities, the infrastructure to hold such ballots has been devastated by the Russian war machine and the Russians do not even hold all the territory in which the referendums have taken place.
To further the obscenity of this, more than three million Ukrainian citizens have been forcibly removed from the four regions and are now incarcerated in camps within the Russian Federation. This, without even considering the war crimes – 100,000 Ukrainians killed in Mariupol and mass graves found scattered over any territory the Ukrainian forces have liberated from the Russian occupiers.
The primary impetus for such a masquerade then isn’t just to fraudulently establish some international legitimacy to the annexation of Ukrainian sovereign territory. In the words of historian Timothy Snyder:
“What Russia is undertaking is nothing more than a media exercise designed to shape how people think about Russian-occupied Ukraine.”
It is an exercise in propaganda. Putin is losing the war and requires a pretext to further mobilise the Russian citizenry militarily. If the ‘liberated’ regions are seen to overwhelmingly welcome the intervention from the ‘motherland’, then the grand narrative of Russian heroism repelling the forces of NATO neocolonialists gains domestic plaudits and therefore legitimacy.
The Kremlin also seeks to create an alternative discourse which presents Russia as ‘the defender of civilisation’. Zelensky has vowed to retake the annexed regions and any Ukrainian action to further this enables Putin to claim that Russian sovereign territory is under attack – a pretence to justify escalating the war beyond its already horrific levels.
History seldom repeats but it does rhyme
As a matter of historical record, there is nothing novel about Russian use of propaganda and rigged ballots in order to secure a favourable domestic narrative. On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded the western half of Poland. Just over two weeks later the Soviet Red Army invaded the eastern half and immediately began incorporating it into the Soviet Union.
What follows below is based on an extract of my book Two Years in a Gulag describing the event with a Pleszak family first-hand account of the forced elections that took place in my father’s village of Szwakstzy, 100km east of Wilno (Vilnius) in what is now Belarus.
As early as 17 September, the first day of the Soviet invasion the Red Army had reached Kobylnik. Blue-capped khaki uniformed Russian soldiers began distributing leaflets to the frightened population. They simply read:
“We have come to liberate the population from the Polish yoke.”
In some areas Soviet aircraft dropped leaflets proclaiming that landlords and settlers were to be crushed, and that Polish soldiers should turn their weapons against their officers. There was going to be no ambiguity in the Russian intentions towards the Poles.
By the Byelorussians, and to a certain extent the Jews, the Soviet army was met with open arms and regarded as a liberating or rescue force. The residents of Kresy – the Polish eastern borderlands, and particularly those around Kobylnik in the north had often had an uneasy relationship in particular with the pro-Russian Byelorussians.
Even though the new Soviet regime immediately imposed many changes, the Byelorussians and Jews held the hope for better times ahead. The Poles, however, didn’t share this optimism and were immediately wary; there had been too much Polish-Russian history and recent rhetoric to be complacent. There were also widespread concerns of how the Polish Byelorussian/Ukrainian relationship, fraught at times, would be affected.
Securing the ‘liberation’
It wasn’t long before the tentacles of the NKVD (the interior ministry of the Soviet Union) reached out and touched my father’s village of Szwakszty. As was happening across the whole of Soviet occupied eastern Poland, the NKVD followed immediately behind the Red Army and began the introduction of Soviet administration. Committees were formed with local Byelorussians (and in the south Ukrainians) as members. They were infiltrating, surveying, and documenting every village and its inhabitants. The local NKVD peoples committee was created in the nearby town of Kobylnik and was soon making its presence felt in Szwakszty.
On 22 October ‘elections’ were held for the People’s Assembly of the Western Belarus. These were organised on the Soviet pattern, candidates were selected by the Soviet government, no other candidates were allowed to stand and so there were no alternatives for ‘the voters’. The representative for Szwaksty will have been appointed by the head of Postavy County, at that time a Captain Brykov. The election is described below for the village of Szwakszty in a hand-written attestation of the NKVD process.
“…… Julian Kisty was chosen as the village representative, he used to be the village chief. The Russians wanted somebody else in this position but the people did not agree, because our village is totally Polish and we had no police. Julian Kisty was warning everybody, and was helping us, that’s why at the beginning there were no searches or arrests.
Russian propaganda meetings took place every day with officials from Kobylnik, often the meetings were held by local communists and two brothers Szuszkiewicz from the village of Czuczelice and police chief from Kobylnik called Choruzy who originated from the village Pleciesze. These meetings were voluntary, in principle, but the leader/spokesman had to inform everyone by himself. As well as this, all political speakers threatened us if we did not attend.
About the political matters, spoke Soviet political spokesman Trzeciak who said that Russia plays a waiting game and when England ‘The Prostitute’, ‘War Monger’, ‘Cause of all the Evil in the World’, will completely stick with the Germans in the war, then the almighty Red Army will go across Europe, will take over England, crush the capitalistic, rotten ideology of America, and set a new way in the world.
During these meetings when people asked for the children to be taught in Polish at the local school, and not in Byelorussian, they were told not to think about Poland, there is no Poland, and there will be no Poland and wherever the Red Army walked into, there will be nothing else but communism.
During those meetings they proposed a female candidate, a midwife from Kobylnik into the so called ‘Assembly of Western Byelorussia’ and we were told that she would be our representative and stand for us and our interests in Moscow. Then the officials walked around the village to document all people for the election of the representative (all ages).
The voting took place in October. Everybody had to vote. When voting, our names were checked, we were given a paper with the name of the one candidate and we had to vote behind a screen.
We either had to cross her name out or leave it as if we agreed. There were armed Policemen around and NKVD representatives. After voting Julian Kisty told me personally that 75% of votes were crossed out. After counting the Russians put away the crossed out votes and replaced them with the votes for the candidate, then sent it away to Kobylnik.
In the end we found that our village very happily chose our midwife as the candidate with a 90% majority!
Those who did not want to vote were brought over forcefully and the sick were brought on carts. I swear that in our village no one knew that these elections were part of some sort of plebiscite.”
The ratification of tyranny
By the end of October, following the election of the delegates there were meetings of the Supreme National Assemblies which addressed the government of the USSR with a request to join the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (Eastern Belarus). All resolutions were passed, and Western Belarus was duly incorporated into the USSR. Wilno (Vilnius) itself was handed over into the jurisdiction of the Republic of Lithuania, and the southern part of Kresy was incorporated into the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine. Chillingly, at the same time a resolution was also announced to confiscate ‘landowners’ land’ without recompense.
On 31 October Vyacheslav Molotov boasted, “One swift blow to Poland, first by the German Army and then by the Red Army, and nothing was left of this ugly offspring of the Versailles Treaty!” The following day, 1 November, the Supreme Council of the USSR declared that all Polish citizens who found themselves on land taken over by the USSR were now Soviet citizens.
Very rapidly the administration of the annexed land was transformed along the lines of the Soviet model. This was undertaken by the army, the NKVD, and by the newly arrived Soviet party activists appointed to the higher administrative posts. Polish education and language were phased out, libraries closed, and books burned. Churches were destroyed, priests arrested, and the wearing of crosses was forbidden. Owning a typewriter became a crime. Properties were confiscated, bank accounts closed, and the Russian Rouble replaced the Polish Zloty. Poles were fired from their jobs, and seemingly random arrests became more frequent.’
Choosing between truth and illusion
Snyder explains the Goebbelsian logic of Russian electoral propaganda: “to tell a lie that everyone knows is a lie, and then to show by force that there is no alternative to living as though the lie were true.”
Understanding this inevitably unlocks much that might seem impenetrable in Putin’s geopolitical strategy and may prove an invaluable guide in responding to both conventional and hybrid warfare waged by Russia against the West. Moreover, as certain populist political movements across Europe are increasingly making use of similar techniques, albeit at a smaller, less overt scale, we must be very watchful. History often whispers its lessons quietly but when it raises its voice we must all hasten to listen.
On 12 October this year the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the “illegal so-called referendums” and the “attempted illegal annexation”, demanding that Russia immediately withdraw its forces from Ukrainian sovereign territory.