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Bush's Moscow misstep

MOSCOW WAS the last place President Bush should have gone to mark the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Russian soldiers goose-stepping through Red Square, dignitaries assembled in front of Lenin's tomb, the strains of the Soviet anthem introduced by Stalin in 1944 -- this was not a scene that the leader of the free world had any business being a part of.

Of course it cannot be forgotten that the Russian people paid an enormous price during World War II -- 27 million dead, more than the losses of the other allied nations combined. Without Russia's enormous sacrifice, the Allies might never have prevailed.

But neither can it be forgotten that Russia did not enter the war on the side of the Western democracies. On the contrary: It helped unleash the war as accomplice of the Germans. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed by the Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers in August 1939 paved the way for the invasion of Poland by the Wehrmacht and the Red Army a month later. For nearly two years, Germany and the USSR were allies -- two years during which the Nazis overran Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France and sent wave after wave of bombers to attack Britain from the air. In the same two years, the Soviets occupied Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and unleashed a vicious war against Finland. Only after it was invaded by Germany in June 1941 did Moscow belatedly become an ally of the West.

Sixty years after V-E Day, moreover, Russia is the only major combatant in the European war that is not today a free democracy. Vladimir Putin has strangled his country's independent media, abolished the election of regional officials, driven a major corporation into bankruptcy in order to seize its assets, launched egregious prosecutions of businessmen who oppose him politically, and grossly interfered in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries. He is conducting a brutal war of butchery and scorched-earth destruction in Chechnya, and openly encourages nostalgia for the days of Stalinist empire and repression.

The Bush administration may have no choice but to work with him on issues like nuclear proliferation and terrorism. It doesn't have to reward his creeping fascism with high-prestige presidential visits -- least of all on an occasion intended to mark the victory over Nazi fascism.

What made all of this so much worse -- and the president's attendance at the Kremlin-sponsored pageant so much more troubling -- was Putin's repellent defense of Russia's prewar collaboration with Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union had been justified in signing the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Putin claimed, because it had to ensure the ''security of its western borders." His foreign ministry denied any wrongdoing in the Red Army's bloody occupation of the Baltic republics. ''One cannot use 'occupation' to describe those historical events," said the Russian ambassador to the European Union. But occupation was exactly what the Soviets inflicted on the Baltics, along with slavery, mass killing, and exile.

Putin also described the end of the Soviet Union -- which led to the liberation of Eastern Europe and the emancipation of tens of millions of human beings -- as ''the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." In fact, the crumbling of the Iron Curtain was one of the 20th century's finest chapters, and Putin's inability to say so speaks volumes about his hostility to democracy and freedom.

The real geopolitical catastrophe of the last century was not the fall of Soviet communism but its rise and rule -- the 70-year reign of a murderous ideology that killed more people, crushed more souls, and inflicted more cruelty than any other ''ism" in history. Nazi Germany in all its malignance never came close to matching the degree of evil achieved by Soviet Russia.

But whereas a conscience-stricken Germany has deeply and contritely admitted its sins -- most recently on Tuesday, when every senior member of the German government attended the dedication of a new Holocaust memorial in Berlin -- Russia never has. It would be unthinkable for an official German celebration to include swastikas and pictures of Hitler, yet the Victory Day celebration in Red Square featured banners with the communist hammer-and-sickle and images of Vladimir Lenin. Russia's communist heritage has never been meaningfully repudiated. The atrocities of Soviet communism have never been punished -- or even, in most cases, owned up to.

Which is why the pomp and circumstance in Moscow this week could not help being as much an exaltation of Russia's Stalinist empire as of the Nazis' defeat. So long as Russia refuses to break with its past, it will never be inoculated against a return to autocracy. No American president belongs on the Red Square reviewing stand next to the man who is dismantling what remains of Russian democracy -- and who still makes excuses for crimes like Molotov-Ribbentrop and the occupation of the Baltics.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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