Amid the row over Moscow’s claim that it was the Red Army that rescued the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust, Russia’s embassy said that it recognises the heroic “contribution” of the Bulgarian people to this.
But the embassy also posted the opinion of the “scientific director” of the Russian Military History Society saying that were it not for the Red Army, many more than six million Jews would have died in the Holocaust and the Nazis would have forced Bulgaria’s authorities to carry out a Holocaust in their own land.
The Russian embassy’s Facebook post was the latest turn in a row that followed a statement by the foreign ministry spokesperson in Moscow, Maria Zakharova, who credited the Soviet Army with the prevention of the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi death camps of the Second World War.
This caused indignation in Bulgaria. In Sofia, the Foreign Ministry pointed out that the prevention of the deportation in 1943 was the achievement of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and members of the political and intellectual elite of the time – while the Red Army was many thousands of kilometres from Bulgaria.
The Russian embassy, responding to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, said: “We recognise the indisputable heroic contribution of the Bulgarian people, including representatives of the intelligentsia and the Orthodox Church in the fight against Nazism, including the saving of the Jews living in the country from the death camps”.
“We honour the memory of all those who died to save the world from fascism.”
“Russia, which suffered the biggest losses in this war, will continue to firmly and consistently oppose any attempt to reconsider history and defile war memorials, ” the embassy said.
Zakharova’s November 2 statement was prompted by the daubing of an anti-Semitic slur on the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, the latest in a succession of episodes that messages of various kinds have been put on it in recent years.
The Russian embassy expressed its concern over the continuing acts of vandalism regarding the monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia.
“The Bulgarian authorities have so far failed to take effective measures to prevent ridicule of the memory of the liberators of Bulgaria and Europe from fascism, and those guilty of these crimes are not held accountable,” the embassy said.
The statement ends with a call for effective measures to punish those responsible for acts of vandalism and to prevent such incidents “that do not fit in the context of friendly relations between the two nations.”
A little later, the embassy posted on its Facebook page the opinion of Mihail Myagkov, described as the “Scientific Director” of the Russian Military History Society, who addressed himself to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry saying that it were not for the Red Army, many more than six million Jews would have been killed and the Nazis would have forced the Bulgarian authorities to carry out a Holocaust.
“So our Foreign Ministry is absolutely correct in saying that thanks to our warriors the deportation of the Jews from Bulgaria was prevented,” Myagkov said.
The present generation of Bulgarians live in a free country grateful above all to the ordinary Soviet soldiers, who had always treated Bulgaria as a brotherly country. “Forgetting that is not to respect your own history.”
Myagkov’s claims raise a number of problems with different approaches to the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust, to say nothing of how the September 1944 invasion of Bulgaria by Soviet troops is viewed in Bulgaria today.
In broad brushstrokes, there is a tendency for individual participants among the Allied countries to emphasise their own contribution to the victory over the Hitler regime. Bulgarians who grew up in what used to be the Soviet bloc remember hearing much about the Soviet victory over the Nazis, and if they were told anything about – say – D-Day, it was as if that were some minor sideshow.
(Soviet and Russian perspectives emphasising their own – enormous – contribution to the defeat of Nazism are not necessarily alone in this. Some British perspectives tend to ignore the involvement of Empire and Commonwealth forces, when putting forth a “Britain stood alone” outlook; across the Atlantic, Hollywood and others are responsible for presenting the idea that the US won the war singlehandedly. It would seem more accurate to say that the Allies won the war, and then consider in full detail the proportional contributions to this achievement.)
To delve deeper into the question of the Allied overruning of Nazi-held territory and the liberation of the Holocaust death camps, it is true that it was the Soviets who were first to liberate a death camp, Majdanek in Nazi-occupied Poland. The liberation by the Soviets of, among others, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz followed.
But it was the Americans who liberated Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenbürg, Dachau, and Mauthausen. And the British who liberated concentration camps in northern Germany, including Bergen-Belsen – where the liberation was carried out by British and Canadian forces.
Nor can it be omitted that the respective roles among the Allies in overrunning Nazi Germany had been agreed at Yalta. In spite of a rapid advance by the Western Allies, in mid-April 1945 Eisenhower ordered a halt at the Elbe and Mulde rivers. Western Allied armies were concentrated in efforts elsewhere, leaving the Soviets a free hand for the conquest of eastern Germany and most importantly, Berlin.
As to Myagkov’s statement that the September 1944 invasion of Bulgaria by Soviet forces meant that today Bulgarians live in a free country, many Bulgarians would – to say the least – take issue with that. The annual September 9 commemorations that continue to be held by those who take a favourable view of the Soviet invasion are deeply offensive to many Bulgarians who see that date as having brought subsequent decades of oppression under a communist regime.
Meanwhile, after Bulgarian President Roumen Radev hit out at Zakharova’s statement as either deep ignorance of history or an attempt at a provocation, and endorsed the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry statement, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov said that the Russian foreign ministry claim amounted to a “historical scandal”.
According to Karakachanov, it would be more correct to say that VMRO (the nationalist party that Karakachanov leads) has greater merit in the rescue of the Jews than the Soviet army.
Amid all of this controversy, it is an open question to what extent Zakharova’s statement may be seen as just a message to the Bulgarians. Much more, it most likely was an exercise in self-image for a Russian domestic audience. Reinforcing the narrative about the glory of the Soviet victory in the Second World War (to Russians, the Great Patriotic War) remains today a crucial element of the identity of Putin’s Russia.
For a Russian domestic audience, probably – like much of the world – unfamiliar with the truth of the prevention of the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews, giving credit to the Red Army would likely be a comfortable fit in this narrative.
The unfortunate irony, however, is that an ahistorical claim for an achievement that was not the Red Army’s may risk diminishing the enormous and legitimate achievements of that army during the war. But those who punt propaganda seldom understand irony.
(Photo, of a frieze from the Soviet Army monument in Sofia: Ferran Cornellà)