Tensions flare over 70-year-old Faustian pact that cut both ways

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BITTER enmities that still colour relations between Russia and its neighbours will resurface this weekend as Europe commemorates a deal between Hitler and Stalin that allowed the two dictators to divide the continent.

On 23 August, 1939, the foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a pact that has become a subject of friction between its victims and Moscow, and raises fears that an intellectual Iron Curtain now divides the two sides.

Under secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as it became known after the two ministers who drew it up, Berlin and Moscow carved up Central Europe.

Nine days after its signing, Hitler, knowing the Soviet Union would not intervene, triggered the Second World War by ordering his tanks into Poland. The Soviet Union, in keeping with the agreement, invaded and annexed eastern Poland and the Baltic states.

Like those under Nazi rule, national populations in the Soviet zones were subject to mass murder, terror and deportation.

To a host of countries, the pact remains a source of contention between them and an apparently unrepentant Kremlin.

Latvia has declared 23 August a day of commemoration, and has angered Moscow by equating the crimes of Hitler with those of Stalin, while in Poland, discontent is bubbling following Russian premier Vladimir Putin's decision to attend ceremonies in Gdansk to mark the start of the war.

Historian Sebastian Bojemski said: "If the Russians want to participate in any ceremonies, they should admit their guilt over the pact, as it helped start the war.

"The Germans have, and that's the reason they will be there."

German intellectuals, generally reticent about highlighting any Russian wartime guilt, in view of the crimes Germany committed, have even signed a declaration calling on Russia to condemn the "ill-fated pact".

"We are responding to those in Russia who are trying to defend Stalin. They don't seem to be living in the 21st century," said Hartmut Koschyk, one of the declaration's 130 signatories.

But Moscow views the 1939 agreement as a canny diplomatic move, buying Stalin valuable time before the inevitable showdown with Hitler, and has made it clear that it sees any attempt to besmirch the pact as an affront to its honour. To ram home this point, the Russian foreign intelligence service has published a book claiming the pact was "a righteous and moral agreement that helped defeat the Nazis".

At the book's launch this week, its compiler Lev Sotsov dismissed as "a lie" the notion the Baltic states were invaded, arguing that they wanted to join the Soviet Union.

He also stressed that Stalin had no choice to but to sign the pact after Poland had refused him permission to station Soviet troops on Polish soil.

Echoing the Kremlin's determination to protect its version of history from analysis in the West, Mr Sotsov said that "history is being massively falsified: especially in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia".

This attitude, along with a Russian threat to prosecute those who question its role in the war, has led to accusations that Moscow is using history to uphold an increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian agenda.