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7 May, 2010 09:15

Russian president gives his view on WWII

Dmitry Medvedev gave his take on World War II in interview with Izvestia newspaper. The victory over Nazi Germany belongs to the people first and foremost, not the military commanders, the Russian leader said.

Izvestia: Mr. Medvedev, you probably remember how in the past they often said that every family in our country was affected by the war in one way or another. How did the war affect your family?

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I think that it’s really a very accurate phase, pronounced not for the sake of beautifying the language, not just a figure of speech. The war really affected every Soviet family – some more, some less. For many people the war was accompanied by the loss of close people, for some by the difficulties which everybody who lived in that period in our country was to overcome.

My relatives, both on my mother’s and father’s side, naturally, were affected by the war too. Both of my grandfathers (Afanasiy on my father’s side and Veniamin on my mother’s) fought in the war, they both went through all kinds of trials during the war. When I visited my grandfather Afanasy as a little boy (he lived in Krasnodar), he told me stories about the war. It had a great impact on me. He always spoke from the heart, with tears in his eyes. He told me about things that no one really wrote about back then. He fought a lot, in different places, had a serious wound, and received many awards. His stories spoke to me. I really took them to heart.

My other grandfather Veniamin also told me a lot about the war and what he felt back then. I still remember him telling me how difficult it was to shoot at people, how awful it felt, how hard it was to do that, even though he knew that he was defending his country, his family, from the invaders who had come to our land, killing our people, burning down our towns and villages. It is a very personal thing. For some reason when I was little I didn’t think much about it. But as I grow older, I start to realize what it means – to be in the front line, to face the enemy.

My parents were evacuees. Mother, when very young, was in Tajikistan; she was just a few years old when the war started; she lived there together with my grandmother when my grandfathers were at war. The reminiscences about the past create a special atmosphere, when we mark the 9th of May. For example, I remember 1975, I was 10 back then. People celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. The war veterans with decorations and medals looked so happy. The music played and they were hugging each other, and there were so many of them. Whenever we went – to the Victory monument, to the Piskarevskoe Memorial Cemetery – there were a lot of veterans, there was a holiday atmosphere. I’ll remember it for all my life.

I: You were born 20 years after the victory. For you the war is part of history, not part of your life. How have your views on the Great Patriotic War changed over the years and who influenced your views? Who influenced you in changing your attitude towards this war and how?

DM: My attitude has not changed radically. It’s the same on the crucial issues.
What was the Great Patriotic War for our country? A huge armada of invaders attacked our country, inflicting pain and death. No matter how many years pass, you cannot change this fact. Despite the fact that I was born a long time after the war was over, and that the current generation knows about war only from books, movies and war stories, this thing is absolutely clear for everyone who lives in this country. So of course, this war is part of history, but it’s part of recent history, and that’s my point.

You can talk a lot that these or those events could have taken a different course. But as for the Great Patriotic War, we still have many people who participated in it and witnessed it happen. It’s not what happened two or three hundred years ago, though there were global catastrophes too and there were great wars.

So, my views on the war have not changed radically. Of course, something changed, because we got access to many materials only in the late 1980s, when archives were declassified and published, and we gained access to some sources previously closed to the public. For a long time the war was portrayed only as a great victory of the Soviet people and the Red Army. But the war was also a huge number of deaths and immense suffering that the Soviet people went through together with other European countries. So, in this sense, I guess my views changed to a degree.

I: Not so long ago you declared war on history falsification and created a special Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History. What exactly prompted you to do this? Do you think it’s possible to write an objective history and avoid political and emotional interpretations?

DM: What prompted me was the disgusting conduct of some politicians who used pseudo-academic interpretations of those events for their own petty purposes, just to score some extra points in politics. But our main goal is not to respond to specific people. After all, God will judge them, so to speak. The main thing is our future. What memories will we pass down to the next generation? What will our children and grandchildren think about the war? What will they know about the war? What lessons will they learn from this war?

For our generation, for those of our age, for older ones, and for those who are younger, the words “fascism” and “Nazism” have a strong negative connotation. But, unfortunately, this is not true for everyone. For instance, in Europe, in many countries, fascists are being rehabilitated. Even in our country there are freaks who use Nazi symbols and hold all kinds of gatherings under Nazi slogans. So, this is truly important. But the main thing is, we need to tell people the truth. And what is the truth?

Our people – those who lived in our country at that time – had no other choice. They could either die or become slaves. There was no other choice. So that’s the first thing. And that is an irrefutable fact.

Second, there is the question of who started the war, whose fault was it. The answer, again, is totally obvious. It can be found in the Nuremberg Trials materials, it was documented. But the answer could also be found in the memories of a great number of people. The attempt to reshuffle historic facts looks like an evil design.

We need to promote the truth. It doesn’t mean that our job is to argue over different theories. Scholars can propose their theories, argue their points, but there are facts that don’t need proof, because they are either obvious or they were carefully documented by international agencies, I am talking about such materials as the Nuremberg Trials records. These are the issues we shouldn’t argue about, because these arguments lead us down a bad path.

If at some point we decide that our work is over here, the committee will cease working as well.

I: The events in the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Georgia tell us that the history of the Second World War is being interpreted for the sake of somebody’s political interests. But we have to take into account the fact that different nations have different memories. What shall we do so that everybody will remember those who died fighting against Nazism with gratitude?

DM: Of course, every country has its own history, and it doesn’t make any sense to try to convince everyone that what happened after the war brought only good to the liberated countries. We would not be totally honest if we said that. Of course we have to understand that if the Soviet Union along with its allies had not liberated Europe, Europe would’ve been very different today. Most likely, it would’ve been one big concentration camp, serving one state.

Most of the people who live in Europe today would not have even been alive. I recently talked about this when we celebrated Liberation day with our colleagues from Slovakia. But on the other hand, post-war events are another part of history, which is absolutely idealized; but it’s clear that the Soviet Union as a state was pursuing its own purposes. The Soviet Union was a very complex state, and frankly, the regime that ruled the country after the well-known events was definitely totalitarian. Unfortunately, this was a regime which suppressed basic rights and freedoms not only of their own people, some of whom were sent to camps after they had won the war. The same happened in the other countries of the socialist camp. We can’t cross it off from history.

But this is what historians should be able to do – separate the mission of the Red Army and Soviet state during the war from what happened afterwards. Yes, it is hard to draw the line in real life, but we have to do it, in order to emphasize again – if it were not for the Soviet Army and the ultimate sacrifice that the Soviet people brought to the altar of this war, Europe would have been different. Obviously, there would not have been this prosperous, safe, wealthy, constantly developing Europe. And only a deaf person will not hear this argument.

I think that we simply should not be ashamed to talk about it, to return to the events of those times to speak about it everywhere: in our country, in the countries of our European neighbours, and from the UN as well as during any type of meetings, and talks. We should not be ashamed to tell the truth about the war – the truth we have suffered for. I think this will be a most honest and truthful thing to do.

You’ve mentioned several countries, in which they tend to make heroes of the Nazi criminals. This is very sad. No one is trying to idealize the role that the Soviet Union played after the war. But we should never say that the executors were the victims. Those who say that our army played the same role as the fascist invaders commit a moral crime.

I only want to emphasize that Germans in this sense act with a lot more dignity than certain Baltic States, for example, even though it is a very sensitive issue for them. On the other hand there are some post-war decisions that cannot be reversed. I am talking about the decisions of the Nuremberg Trials, for example. That’s when crimes committed by the Nazis were qualified as crimes against humanity. There is no statute of limitation on these crimes, and people should be punished for them indefinitely.

I: But, Mr. Medvedev, when Nazis are being prosecuted today, when these very old men stand trial, questions are raised if there is any point in prosecuting them. Maybe we should just pardon all of them? Many years have passed; somehow they survived, but maybe it makes sense to not prosecute them, so that awful history doesn’t repeat itself…

DM: Do you mean the crimes for which the notorious Demyanyuk is standing trial? It’s not about names, but the thing is that such crimes have no statute of limitation, whoever we are talking about. It is the issue of our moral responsibility before the next generations, and if we turn a blind eye to these crimes now, feeling sorry for the criminals, then such crimes could be repeated in the future in one form or another, in one state or another. So it may sound harsh, but these crimes really don’t have a statute of limitation, meaning that those who committed them should be prosecuted and punished, no matter how old they are.

I: While Russian history books contain most of the details, in Western countries victory is attributed to the West – the Allies won, and the Soviet Union just participated. So it’s like we are losing our victory. Many people don’t know anything about the major losses of the Soviet Union in this war, they don’t know that it was the Red Army that entered and seized Berlin, and they don’t know many things. What can we do in order not to lose our victory?

DM: I think that in this country everything is more or less fine regarding this issue, despite various viewpoints – and that’s what I’ve mentioned already – on the whole no power can change our attitude to the victory.

The fact is that Hitler lost about three quarters of his army on the Eastern Front to the Soviet Army. About 70 per cent of all losses – material, ammunition – were inflicted by our soldiers. That is the truth. But of course you can make movies about that. And if you do it professionally, and we know that our partners are very good at making films, then you can make everybody think that this is where the war was won, and then the ultimate truth will be the movie “Saving Private Ryan”. It is a pretty good movie. But it doesn’t mean that it tells the truth. It’s a blockbuster about war, although its creator might have been pursuing some good purposes. But we should remember what was going there in reality. I would like to note that our cinema – both Soviet and modern – in this sense is at the highest level of quality, as it seems to me. Even taking into account the fact that in Soviet times our cinema contained a lot of ideology, and did not stand the test of time in some respects, the movies from the Soviet period are high-quality: “The Cranes Fly”, “The Belorussky Railway Station”, “They Fought for the Homeland”; even “The 17 Moments of Spring”, which was actually an adventure film. But at the same time, it’s a perfectly made film about war. The more we show such films, the better. And we also should make new movies, using new film-making technology. It’s not necessary to copy what we have already. I think there is room for experiment here. But the main thing is that they reach the aim to tell the truth. That’s what’s important.

Text-books in Russia are a separate topic. And we can talk about it later. I think that the attitude to war is really being formed by books, when people begin reading. In this respect, the mission of text-books and historic literature is absolutely clear. At the moment a lot of books on the events of the Patriotic War have been printed. They are being updated and edited: new research results are added, facts are proved, and topics for discussion appear.

But in my opinion the essence of this research should be written in text-books, taking into account the facts I’ve discussed with you – that the basic facts cannot be distorted. Children wherever they live – in Russia or other countries – are absolutely open to new knowledge. If they start receiving incorrect information from a young age, it will be hard to change their viewpoint later on. We know how hard it was for some of our people when after certain events they had to face the truth about some dramatic pages of our history related to activity of some of the leaders of our country.

I: Over the years the official number of losses of the Soviet Union in this war changed many times. When Stalin was in power, the official number was 14 million; under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, 20 million; under Gorbachev the number grew to 27 million – and the issue is still being researched. Do you think we will ever be given the final number and find out how many people we lost?

DM: It is a difficult issue. I remember very well, at the end of the last series of an epic movie “Liberation” there were numbers of losses in the Second World War. The numbers were awful. And the last line was about the losses of the Soviet Union. It was written: “Over 20 million Soviet people died in this war”. 14 million, 20 million, 27 million are huge, gigantic numbers. But we should not simplify the situation. We need to finish this work.

What is this work about? We need to determine what kind of losses we are talking about. There were losses during the war itself – people who were killed in battle, died of wounds during the war and after the war. And there are also those who were captured by Germans and died – died of starvation, died in air raids, died on occupied territories. All archives have been declassified, no problems there. The General Staff is supervising this work. There is a commission working on this problem. I hope they will finish this work. But we are to make it very accurately.

I: Lately you have been asked to share your opinion on Stalin’s role in this war. Our newspaper can’t help asking the same question from the following angle – yes, Stalin led the country in a very difficult time. Yes, Stalin ended up the leader of a victorious country. But what right do we have to turn a tyrant into a hero, only because he held the highest post at the time. If we look at Germany, Hitler solved the unemployment problem in the country during the Great Depression, built roads and so forth, but no one there is trying to turn this terrible person into a hero. There is no road named after him. And they do not hang his portraits around the country on holidays.

DM: There are several obvious things – our people won the Great Patriotic War, not Stalin, not even military commanders, even though their role was very important. But the people won the war, this victory cost them many lives and enormous effort.

Stalin’s role could be viewed differently. Some think that his role as Supreme Commander-in-Chief was crucial, others disagree. If we talk about the official position of the leadership of the state, then we can say that since the new Russian state was formed, this position has been clear – Stalin committed many crimes against his people. And even though he worked a lot, even though the country achieved a lot under his leadership, we cannot pardon what he did to his own people. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, people who like Stalin or hate Stalin have the right to feel what they feel. It is not surprising that many veterans, people from the victorious generation, like Stalin. I think they have a right to that. Every person has the right for personal attitudes. But these personal opinions should not influence the official position of the state, which is clear, and I just reiterated it for you.

Sometimes I think that this topic is overemphasized. If we talk about attitudes toward Stalin and some other leaders, then I can say that in the 1990s there were also many fans of this man, but no one talked about renaissance of Stalinism. Now all of a sudden it becomes an issue. Yes, historic figures could become idols that people worship. Sometimes it is the young people who do it, especially young people with leftist views. But it’s their business. Of course in the hearts of the majority of people in the world Stalin’s figure does not cause any warm feelings.

But we should not be saying that Stalinism becomes our every day reality, because we are going to use some of the symbols of the past, some posters, something else. It is not happening and it will not happen. There is absolutely no chance, and this is today’s state ideology if you will. It is my position as the President of the Russian Federation. So here I would draw the line between personal opinions and the official position of our state.

I: Mr. Medvedev, as a politician, can you find an explanation to the fact that Stalin had ignored all kinds of warnings about the coming aggression on the part of Germany?

DM: As you know I am not a historian, although as a politician and official, I know a lot about our history. I can’t take the liberty to state why he ignored them, though there are films and books about it. I think, he just wanted it to be like that. He believed that his agreements would be stronger than, for example, what Chamberlain and Daladier were counting on when signing the Munich Agreement. As we know they did not get what they had expected. There is a famous quote of Churchill that they were choosing between shame and war, but they got first shame and then war. Stalin was facing the same situation of making a difficult choice. He planned to postpone the grave results and must have figured out something wrong. But it’s evident that later he had to pay for those wrong assessments, and the price was very high – the lives of our people. It’s common knowledge that history does not know conjecture.

But it’s a very sensible topic. I would like to emphasize that it’s already not evaluating Stalin as the person who is responsible in front of the Russian and Soviet people, but it is gauging Stalin as the country’s leader of that period. He made both strong and weak decisions, including during the war. You can’t cross out any.

On the other hand it’s clear that our country could have prepared for the war against Hitler if not for repressions against military officials, if not for the theories that Hitler would not attack our country at that time.

I: Any war is, among other things, a hard lesson both for those victorious and those defeated. The future of the countries depends on whether the leaders have learned the lessons of war. What are the lessons of that war for you, the third president of Russia?

DM: The main lesson is that we must, together with other countries, with other members of the international community, do our best to remove such threats. Any attempts to appease an aggressor, a dictator, usually don’t yield a positive outcome, especially after this dictator has grown strong and got going. Therefore our task today is to create a reliable system of international security. What does it mean? It means to be in contact constantly and create international conditions for solving such problems.

Mankind drew serious lessons from the Second World War; we created a very important international instrument, like for example the Organization of the United Nations. We now have international judicial authorities. We have many international conventions on crimes against mankind, crimes committed by international criminals.

The current system of international security is not perfect, and I had to mention this more than once. That is why we came up with the idea to create a new European security structure – a European Security Treaty. The idea is obvious enough, even though it caused a mixed reaction. Some think it is a clever plan Russia designed to weaken NATO, to drive a wedge between the United States and European countries and play them against each other. I have mentioned more than once that this treaty pursues quite different goals. We must simply find a forum where we can address a whole range of various problems. We must find a way to resolve differences.

If we had effective institutions for European security, we could have definitely avoided the events of August 2008. There could have been an international arbitration between the parts of Georgia that wanted independence and core Georgia, international mechanisms could have been used. That did not happen. Another, sadder thing happened. People were killed. A military conflict erupted, and we had to resolve it.

Therefore, this task is not abstract or diplomatic; it is absolutely practical. I think that our predecessors were thinking about the same in the 1930s, but they did not have enough courage to make the corresponding decisions. The result is well-known – the gravest and bloodiest war in the history of the mankind. That is why we have to create modern international mechanisms.

We all remember pretty well that after the war, in 1975, the Helsinki Act of the conference on security and co-operation in Europe was adopted. But time marches on, and a lot of time has passed since then. What are we to do? We are to create new frameworks without rejecting previous experience, and use the current knowledge.

I: The post-war order in Europe and the transatlantic region was fully established by 1975, 30 long years after the war had been won. Quite soon after, in 1985, violations of the Helsinki Treaty started occurring. Since then, the political map of Europe has been subject to constant change. A lot of people think that was a defeat for the USSR and a demonstration of weakness on the part of the new Russia. What can you say about this?

DM: On any account, the events that happened 14 or 15 years after the Helsinki agreement had been signed helped to unite Europe. This is one point I want to make.

Secondly, that was what ended the Cold War. The Cold War was essentially a war with no winners. Everyone lost. So to put an end to it was a victory for everyone because the confrontation that was there before went away. The direct threat of military conflict ceased, the tensions in Europe were relaxed. People could at last talk to each other freely and visit each other’s countries. On the whole we are living in a different Europe now. It really is different. But of course the historical events of those times were quite dramatic for many European countries, including Russia. As part of the large Soviet state, we saw a dramatic period when our country was broken up and smaller sovereign states were formed. These states included modern Russia. It was a very difficult process.

Anyone is free to look at that period any way they want to. Some think it was humiliating for many of our people. Others see a positive side to it. I think only history can give us a final answer about that historical period. But no matter how we feel about what has happened those events were extremely dramatic.

I: Mr. Medvedev, after the Iron Curtain fell and our people began to travel around the world, one could often hear a bitter question: “Why do the defeated live in better conditions than the victors?” In twenty years, we have not heard a satisfactory answer.

DM: I wouldn’t take responsibility for everything that happened in Russia since the end of the Great Patriotic War, because I can only be responsible, legally and morally, for the period when I had the honor and responsibility to take charge of the country. But of course, as a person who lived in the Soviet Union and who now lives in Russia, I have a viewpoint on this. My position is as follows:

During the Great Patriotic War, during World War II, the Soviet Union achieved the most important goal: it defeated a very strong enemy, destroyed it and created conditions for Europe’s free development. It paid a huge price for that, at the same time helping all the people of Greater Europe.

After that, the Soviet Union took its own path. It maintained a very rigid social structure, totalitarian in essence, that suppressed a lot of economic processes. There had been repressions, victims and everything else usually associated with dictatorship.

This is why, regrettably, this period has not been fully taken advantage of (apart from the fact that we managed to restore the economy and create a very substantial foundation for the development of our industry). The country and its economy could have been developed in a slightly different way, and that is what we have been doing for the past 20 years. The post-war period was a time of great achievements, but also a time of great trials and great problems. I don’t believe that the economic system and the political system we had after the war were fit for normal development. Hence the difference in living standards and the way people feel. Indeed, it hurts and all of us have had these feelings, especially when we went abroad for the first time. At the same time, we were aware of the price we paid for Europe’s well-being – for all that material abundance, bright shop windows, well-to-do people and the smiles on their faces. And we did not have a definite answer as to why what we had was different.

I would not want to “blackwash” that period, however. Our fathers and grandfathers lived and worked at that time. Indeed we lived through a part of that period. There were many bright moments as well. But the fact is we failed to find solutions to a number of problems. And, this, by the way, is related to the Soviet Union’s break-up.

Had the Soviet Union been more competitive and had conditions for economic development based on modern principles, everything could have been different and the Soviet Union could have been more appealing to our people, and we could have avoided those dramatic events of the late 1980s and the early 1990s that eventually led to its disintegration.

I: A massive number of military archives are still not completely accessible to the general public. Perhaps it is time to digitize these archives? It would help a lot of people find out what happened to their grandfathers and learn the stories of their families if they could access, or at least request access to archives over the Internet.

DM: Not only is it time, we are actually working on it. You know, I’m a big fan of digital technology. It’s very convenient to store large amounts of data by digital means. In earlier days, if you wanted to put together any official document, you had to pick up a huge book, dig around in it and make notes. There were advantages to that too, you know, since a person, whether willingly or not, would go through a lot of interesting material that would be in that huge book to get to what he or she was looking for.

It’s easier today. All you have to do is load up a digital document to a storage site, then punch something in on the keyboard and you have your information. Very convenient! We have to use this, and do so openly, declassifying all kinds of documents from the Great Patriotic War. Enough time has passed – 65 years – the people have to know the truth about the war, and the events that occurred in the period of recent history.

Let us remember the pre-war period too, and the events that took place at the start of the war. The Katyn incident, for example. This is a very sad page in our history. A sad page that we never learned the complete truth about. In spite of the fact that all the archives have been revealed to the public, people are still seriously arguing about who made the decision to execute the Polish officers. I have seen these discussions myself. I’ve given an order to remind the people that the archives have been made public. But there are still discussions. Why? Well, first of all because the subject had been, at a time, classified and secondly because false information had been given to the public. This is a classic example of historical falsification. History is not only falsified by those who live abroad. We, ourselves, allow this distortion of history to happen. The truth has to be told, in the end, both to our people and to those foreigners who are interested in hearing it.
This is just one page of our history, but it could be very important. This is why the more archives we make public and freely accessible the better. I think this should ultimately result in a system of wartime archives that would allow any Russian citizen or any interested foreign citizen to freely access any non-classified document, and by now all the documents pertaining to that period should be declassified.

I: Mr. Medvedev, the anti-Hitler coalition united countries that seemed impossible to unite, and this union was effective: they defeated a powerful, well-organised enemy. The bloc system remained after the victory, with two giant blocs created. But the situation changed, and today our country is no longer a member of a big, powerful bloc. Of course, we are member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Yet this bloc cannot be compared with, say, NATO. Does it make sense for Russia to join a military bloc today? If yes, which bloc should it join?

DM: As I have already mentioned to you, I believe the end of the Cold War and of bloc mentality helped unite Europe and produced a Europe where life is comfortable and interesting. I mean Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation. So, the bloc system is good for nothing, although some think that blocs provide balance. They say, “When we had the Warsaw Pact and NATO, everything was balanced. As soon as one of the blocs collapsed, conflicts and turf wars ensued.” It is a lopsided position, although it’s obviously important to have counterbalances in the world. The question is, what kind of counterbalances do we need? Should they be based on weapons only? Should they be based on a strategic deterrent alone? In my view, the answer is no.

This is why we talk about a multi-polar world. Otherwise, we have to make a conclusion that only one system of bloc security can provide security and prosperity on our planet. But that’s not true, and the events of 1990s – some of which, incidentally, happened in Europe – the events in the Middle East, in the Caucasus and other places have demonstrated that, unfortunately, no bloc can fulfil its purpose and maintain security at a proper level. Hence, we need to create mechanisms that would work outside blocs.

At the same time, we do have certain obligations to our partners. We have the CSTO – the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which comprises some nations that are very close to us. It’s not a military bloc in the traditional sense. It is an organisation that ensures security of its member states. According to the CSTO Charter, an attack against any of the member states is considered an attack against all, just like in NATO. But this does not mean that we should return to bloc mentality and turn the CSTO into a new Warsaw Pact, build up our arsenal and compete with NATO. We know what impact such competition had on the Soviet Union, how exhausting the arms race was for our country and what the outcome was: inefficient economy, no market, an endless arms race, and the collapse of the state.

At the same time, we surely should preserve our strategic capabilities. The world is complex, and a lot of countries are seeking nuclear weapons. From time to time, they threaten the world with a big nuclear stick, or threaten to produce nuclear weapons. They test new hardware. Considering this, we cannot forget about security. Therefore our strategic nuclear component is a very efficient element in protecting our national interests. We should not overestimate its significance, but we shouldn’t underestimate it as well—and the way it affects the balance of forces in the world. So we must improve our defense system and at the same time work out agreements with our main partners, which is actually what we did recently when we signed a new START Treaty with the United States. We set a certain limit, and we reached a compromise that allows us to protect our interests and allows the Americans to protect their interests without wreaking havoc. I think this is the best way.

I: During Perestroika when the people of the Soviet Union opened its doors to the world, you could feel that civilizations had grown up, the world order had matured and nothing like World War II would ever happen again. But 20 years later, the world is still torn apart by conflict. Do you think there is at least a hypothetic possibility of a military conflict that would be similar to World War II in scale?

DM: Unfortunately, such a conflict is possible, because there are all sorts of countries on our planet, and they have all sorts of interests. This planet has a huge amount of weapons, and there are people who still consider war as a means for solving their political problems. After all, accidents will happen. So we must be prepared. What do we need for that?

As I have said, we need to work within the world community, within the United Nations and the OSCE in Europe. We need new treaties similar to the European Security Treaty. We are currently working on all these things and we will keep on working.

Then, of course, we have to be ready to be strong. We have to be ready to face problems. This is invariable. No matter how much we love peace, we have to be prepared to defend our country. This means we have to maintain our armed forces, take care of the army and build modern weapons. This includes providing appropriate living conditions and salaries to servicemen. We need an efficient, well-trained army, compact but strong, composed of well-trained officers and soldiers. This is absolutely imperative, it’s a priority for us. As the supreme commander of the military, I have been and will remain dedicated to this to avoid being weak at a time of military threat.

I: In the Soviet era, the endless Cold War was seen as an unpleasant, but explainable phenomenon: two opposing political systems were fighting each other. It’s been 20 years without the Soviet Union, but it seems as if the Cold War is not over. Why do you think some in the United States and Western Europe still view our country with suspicion? And what should be done to dispel this suspicion?

DM: In fact, I can tell you more: people in Russia, too, are suspicious of America, other NATO members and even other countries that are simply major players on the international arena. Why is that? It’s because of our history, the way we used to perceive each other. You and I remember well what we had in the Soviet period. We had a set of stereotypes concerning each other. Just recall what they used to tell us at school about Americans and Europeans. This position was totally based on ideology. It pursued obvious goals—to make us consider people who lived there as our enemies. It was a way of keeping the government efficient and achieving certain political goals.

They had the same thing. In fact many stereotypes of the past are still here today, more or less. Perhaps it is particularly true in the West, because, frankly speaking, many of our people wanted a new life in late 1980s and the early 1990s. And there was a kind of romantic period in our relations with the West. We thought they would welcome us as an open, modern country that no longer threatened anybody. We thought we would quickly and easily be integrated with other civilised developed nations.

Something different followed though. First of all, we ourselves were not fully ready to do this quickly since there was a certain inertia to our thinking. The need to create a modern economy in our country remained, and remains up to the present moment. There is also the process of civil society institutions maturing. But the people in the West, too, were not fully ready to give up their stereotypes.

If you listen to what parliaments and political circles in other countries discuss, you may be amazed. There are all sorts of vestiges from the Cold War, some absolutely foolish things. For example, restrictions that were imposed on the Soviet Union long ago. Or their concept of how things work in Russia. Or even their idea of how we live in our daily life. You know, sometimes I watch Hollywood movies, and even though they have excellent actors, an excellent cast, perfect scene sequence and a big budget – the way they portray Russia today is just a bunch of absurd, ludicrous ideas. Russia is a country where it is always raining or snowing, where everything is bad, people are mean, all they can do is drink vodka all the time, they are aggressive, they like to fight, they can attack you any moment – you have to keep an eye on them, otherwise, they will stab you in the back. Everything is bad!

I understand that perhaps they don’t do it on purpose. It’s not like they want to create a conflict between our countries. But these stereotypes prevent us from understanding each other and poisons the atmosphere on our planet. This doesn’t go for Russia alone either. A number of our neighbours, major developing countries are stereotyped as well. I think we need to get rid of that sort of thinking. We have some work to do here as well. I would not want to be one to cast stones at Europeans or Americans alone, we harbour a lot of misconceptions too. But, as I see it, we have managed to make better progress in getting rid of them.

I: Russia and Japan haven’t signed a peace treaty yet. Japan refuses to sign the treaty before Russia returns the South Kuril Islands, and this story has been dragging on for 65 years. Do you think a peace treaty between Russia and Japan will be ever concluded? And what would be its terms?

DM: As you know, we are no longer at war with Japan after we signed a declaration in 1956. We have normalized our relations, and we are developing our political and economic contacts. There are problems, of course, including the well-known territorial problem, the problem of a peace treaty that Japan links to the territorial dispute. It is a very complex problem, but it does not mean we should not address it. We are working on it. We have our own ideas about how it could be resolved, taking into account, first and foremost, the interests of the Russian Federation. Our Japanese partners are doing the same.

I believe if we work actively and fairly, and if we abandon extreme positions, eventually this problem may be resolved at some point.

I: The title “City of Martial Glory” was established only four years ago. Over the four years it has been awarded to 27 Russian cities. With all due respect to these cities’ heads and defenders, one has to note that the “Hero City” title has only been awarded to 12 cities in the Soviet Union, six of which are in Russia. Is it really necessary to expand the list? Don’t you think it might devalue the concept of hero cities? If so, how do we avoid that?

DM: No, there will be no devaluation of that concept of course. Grand events occurred over the course of the war. Some of them were exemplary combat operations, some, such as the Leningrad Blockade, brought great suffering to our people. But there have been other events. They were less significant, but they ultimately affected the flow of very large-scale operations and helped our cause. If we talk about “Cities of Martial Glory”, the title is awarded not only to the cities that somehow played a role in the Great Patriotic War, but to all cities that have made a contribution to Russia’s history.

I recently awarded these certificates to five cities and it was not all related to the Great Patriotic War. Some of the cities’ histories were connected with the great Northern war, the War of 1812 and the overcoming the Time of Troubles. It is our history. I think it’s a very good thing, in any case, to return to the events of past times and address them correctly. This, at the same time, makes the inhabitants of those cities happy. They understand that their history is part to the unique history of our country.

I: Military and patriotic education was the base of any Soviet child’s upbringing. What’s important here is that “military” goes hand-in-hand with “patriotic”. How would you describe a modern Russian patriot, the new kind?

DM: This is a simple question. A Russian patriot is a man who loves his country, with all of her contradictions, in times of development and decline, in times of change, catastrophes and tragedies. It is a man who really, truly loves his country.

I: Today, May 7th, marks the two-year anniversary since you started your work in office as the President of Russia. The attention that has been paid to war veterans over this time, both those who fought at the frontline and labored at home. Providing new apartments for them and raising their pensions are the obvious achievements that have been made over these two years. What other indisputable achievements would you say have been made over that period?

DM: You know, it would be indiscreet and plain wrong of me to talk about achievements. A president has to have a critical approach to his own work. If we’ve done something good, that is a good result. But I have to say something I consider to be of prime importance about the veterans. On May 7, 2008, the day I took power, I decreed that the problem of veterans’ housing should be solved. We did it. Those who signed up for their apartments first will receive them in the nearest future. The others, who signed up on March 1, 2005, will be able to move into their apartments very soon too.

You know, some people say “I know why they decided to do this now – there are few veterans left. Why didn’t they do this before?” I cannot be responsible for those who worked on the problem before me. But I considered it my moral obligation to solve the problem. The fact that we did this now, at this time is, I think, absolutely positive.

Veterans are indeed being paid special attention. We are working on various programs to support them. Recently I paid a visit to a hospital for Great Patriotic War veterans. It was looking good. As of now, we have over 50 such hospitals in Russia. Funds are allocated to run them, to buy new medical equipment. We even organized a contest to help the doctors who work there with a little money.

I think we have managed to make the difficult life of our veterans a little brighter, if only by monetary means. It’s not a huge sum, but the fact that a Great Patriotic War veteran today gets paid about 23,000 rubles a month, including the various relief and security payments, I think this means that we have fulfilled a small part of our responsibility to take care of the veterans. We will keep working on it, of course. It is extremely important for our future, so that future generations have the right attitude towards future veterans. We need to do this in order to maintain the connection between generations and people, between today’s generation and the generation that brought us this precious victory.

I: Mr. Medvedev, there are a lot of monuments in Russia and other European countries depicting the events and heroes of World War II. Which of these monuments do you find the most impressive and why?

DM: I come from St. Petersburg, so, of course, that part of the country is special to me. As a schoolboy, and at a later time in my life, I would frequent Piskarevka. A lot of people are buried there. Not only do we not know their names and surnames, were still unable to ascertain their total number. There are no names on the tombstones, only plaques saying that this mass grave was dug in 1941 and the next in 1942. It is a very sad sight and it burns into your memory. The metronome that you hear when approaching the monument…

Besides that cemetery I have, of course, visited other memorial sites and I still visit them. I can’t fail to mention Mamayev Kurgan, absolutely epic. I visited it several times over the past few years. It is a unique place, not only for its role in the Great Patriotic War, but for its energy. When you come there, you feel like you are in touch with that historical period, with the events that took place there.

I have to mention one other event that happened fairly recently and that I personally participated in. I’m talking about the ceremony that marked the re-lighting of the Eternal Flame at the Unknown Soldier Memorial in Alexandrovsky Sad. The memorial had just been restored at that time. It was very personal, but the emotions were so strong that I have to mention it. You know, emotionally it must have been one of the most moving days in my life: I understood the huge responsibility and felt like I touched history. I will never forget that day.

I: Thank you, Mr. Medvedev, for the interview! Our best wishes on Victory Day!

DM: Thank you very much. I wish you and your newspaper all the best, and through your newspaper I would like to congratulate our veterans and our entire country, because this holiday is extremely popular among our people.