Editor-In-Chief of Izvestia Newspaper Vitaly Abramov: I’m sure you recall, Mr President, how people used to say that not a single family in our country was spared by the war. How did the war affect your family’s life?
President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: I think that phrase sums up the situation completely. It is not just some figure of speech simply there for decoration, because the war really did affect every single Soviet family in one way or another. For a huge number of people the war meant the loss of loved ones, for some the war years meant living through all of the hardships that everyone faced in our country at that time.
On both sides of the family we were also affected by the war. Both of my grandfathers, my paternal grandfather, Afanasy, and my maternal grandfather, Veniamin, fought in the war and went through the various trials of battle. I still remember when I was a little boy and we would go to Krasnodar, where my grandfather Afanasy lived. He would tell me about the war, and you know, his tales made a great impression on me because he always spoke from the heart, spoke with tears in his eyes, and he talked about things that were not written about much those days. He fought a long war, fought in different locations, was seriously shell-shocked, and was awarded numerous medals and orders. I soaked up all of his words and they really settled deep in my heart.
Veniamin, my other grandfather, also talked quite a lot about the war and told me about the various emotions he felt. I still remember how he told me about how difficult it was to shoot at people, what complex emotions one felt and how hard it was to make that kind of decision, even when you knew you were defending your country, your family, and knew that the aggressors had invaded our soil and were killing our people, burning our towns and villages. But this is something extremely personal even so, something I did not really think about back then when I was a boy. Growing older, you understand what a frontline is about when you oppose an enemy face-to-face.
My parents were evacuated. My mother was sent to Tajikistan. She was only a few years old when the war began and she went off to Tajikistan with my grandmother. Meanwhile, my two grandfathers were fighting. All of this created the particular atmosphere in the family that was present when we celebrated May 9. I remember when we celebrated the 30th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War in 1975, and I was 10 years old. In St Petersburg, the veterans were all so happy, wearing their medals and orders, music was playing and they were embracing each other, and there were so many of them. Wherever we went, to the Victory Monument, to the Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery, everywhere there were a huge number of war veterans and a holiday atmosphere. This is something I will never forget.
Vitaly Abramov: You were born 20 years after victory. The war is therefore not part of your personal biography, but part of history.
How has the way you view the history of the Great Patriotic War changed over the years? Who or what could change the way you saw this or that fact about the war?
Dmitry Medvedev: I would not say that my views have changed radically in any way. My views remain unchanged when it comes to the basic facts.
What was the Great Patriotic War for our country? It was an invasion by an immense army of foreign aggressors who brought with them death and pain. There is nothing we can add or remove here, no matter how many years pass. I was born long after the war, and today’s generation knows about the war only from books, films and veterans’ stories, but I think that everyone in this country, especially in this country, knows what the war meant. The war is certainly part of history, but it is part of recent history, and this is something I want to emphasise. One can always reflect on how this or that event could have developed. But regarding the specific events of the Great Patriotic War, there are still a huge number of people who took part in those events and are living witnesses to what took place. This is not the same situation as events 200 or 300 years ago, although back then too, global catastrophes occurred and there were big problems and big wars.
That is why my views have not changed dramatically. Of course, a lot of material became public only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they began to open up the archives and we gained access to previously confidential sources. For a long time the war was presented only as the great victory of the Soviet people and Red Army, but the war was also the vast number of victims and the countless hardships that the Soviet people endured then together with peoples in other European countries. In this respect, the nuances have changed somewhat perhaps.
Vitaly Abramov: Some time ago you started fighting history falsifications by establishing the Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests. What historical facts are being distorted, in your opinion?
Dmitry Medvedev: This decision was motivated by the shameless behaviour of some politicians who in pursuit of their own petty, tin-pot aims started using various pseudo-scientific interpretations of those events quite simply in order to score political points. But the aim was not to respond to specific people. Let God be their judge. The aim was to address the question of what future we will build, what memory we will leave our children and grandchildren, what they will know and think about the war and what lessons they will learn from it.
For people of our generation, same as for older people, and for younger people too, the words ‘fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ are unambiguously negative. But regretfully his is not the case for everyone today. In Europe, in many countries, Nazis are being rehabilitated. Even in our own country we see individual monsters who try to use Nazi symbols and organise various groups under Nazi slogans. This is therefore not simply some idle matter. The most important thing is to share the truth with people, and what is this truth?
First, our people had no choice. Those living in our country at that time could either die or be enslaved. There was no other option. This is a fact one cannot dispute.
Second, when it comes to the question of who started the war and who is guilty for this crime, the answer is absolutely clear too and is contained not only in the records of the Nuremberg trials, but also in the memories of a huge number of people. Attempts to distort these historical facts look quite simply like malicious intent.
I think we therefore need to make this truth known. This does not mean that we should direct our efforts against the different interpretations of wartime events or various scientific theories. Let people put forward and defend their theories and interpretations, but there are facts that do not require proof because they are absolutely self-evident or are fixed in international documents such as the records of the Nuremberg trials. There can be no discussion on these particular issues because discussion here could only be in the wrong direction.
If we see at some future point that this work has been completed there will obviously no longer be any need for the commission to continue its activities.
Vitaly Abramov: The events in the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia over recent years evidence that the history of World War II is being interpreted to fit some political interests there. Yet at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that different peoples have a different historical memory. What can we do to ensure that memory of those who died fighting Nazism is kept sacred in every country?
Dmitry Medvedev: Of course every country has its own history, and it would be senseless to say that the post-war events brought all of the liberated countries nothing but blessings. But the thing is, there’s a certain cunning in these arguments. We need to remember that if the Soviet Union, together with the other countries in the anti-Nazi coalition did not liberate Europe, Europe would be a different place today and would probably be one big concentration camp put to work for a single country. Most people living in Europe today would simply not be alive at all. This was something I talked about recently when marking the anniversary of national liberation together with our Slovakian colleagues.
But at the same time, the post-war events already mark a different period in history, a period in which ideology played the biggest part, and obviously, during that period, the Soviet Union as a state pursued its own aims. The Soviet Union was a very complex state and, frankly, the regime that emerged in the Soviet Union, can only be described as totalitarian in nature. Unfortunately, this was a regime that suppressed basic rights and freedoms, and not only those of its own people, some of whom, sadly, came home as victors after the war, only to be sent to labour camps, but also those of other peoples in the socialist countries, and this is something we cannot erase from history.
But the historian’s art and the ordinary person’s common sense lies in the ability to make the separation between the Red Army and Soviet state’s mission during the World War II and the events that followed later. Yes, in real life this can be very hard to do, but it is something that we must do. I say again, were it not for the Red Army, were it not for the colossal sacrifice the Soviet people laid on the altar of war, Europe would be a different place. There would be no prosperous, flourishing, steadily developing Europe of today, that is for sure. I think one would have to be deaf not to heed these arguments.
I think that we need to quite simply not be shy of talking about these things, of returning to the events of that time and speaking about this at different forums, here at home, and in neighbours’ countries, in Europe, from the tribune of the United Nations, and at all different kinds of meetings and debates. Quite simply, we need to not be shy about telling our truth about the war, this truth that came at such tremendous cost. I think this would be the most honest and true road to take.
You mentioned a number of countries where we have seen examples of Nazi criminals being turned into heroes. This is very sad. Of course, no one idealises the Soviet Union’s role in the post-war period, but under no circumstances can one make victims of executioners. Those who describe Red Army’s mission in the same terms as that of the Nazi aggressors are committing a moral crime.
I just want to say that in this respect the Germans behave with far greater dignity than do some representatives of the Baltic states, although for Germany this is all a very painful issue. At the same time, there are valid post-war verdicts, including the verdicts of the Nuremberg trials – verdicts that I hope can never be revoked. These rulings qualify the Nazis’ crimes as crimes against humanity. These crimes have no prescription and must be answered for no matter how much time has passed.
Vitaly Abramov: After recent trials of Nazi criminals in Europe, there are public debates whether it is really worth putting these old men on trial at all. Maybe it is time to pardon everyone who is still alive, even Nazi criminals, in order to make those terrible days really the past, once and forever?
Dmitry Medvedev: You perhaps had in mind the now notorious Demyanyuk case, but the matter is not even one of specific individuals. Whatever is the personality, there should be no prescription for such crimes. This is our moral responsibility towards future generations. If we close our eyes now to these crimes and pardon the acts committed, we could see a repeat of such crimes, in other forms and in other countries. It might sound harsh therefore, but these crimes really do not have a prescription, and those who have committed such acts must answer for them no matter how old they are.
Vitaly Abramov: Meanwhile, while we in Russia are busy writing rather poor textbooks on history, the Western society starts taking the view that Nazi Germany was defeated by Western allies alone. Only historians and politicians, at best, know about the tremendous price the Soviet Union paid in this war, or that it was the Red Army that seized Berlin. It seems that victory slips between our fingers.
Dmitry Medvedev: I think that in this respect we have little to worry about in our country, because despite the existence of various points of view, which I mentioned before, overall there is nothing capable of changing the way we see this victory.
The truth is that around three quarters of the Nazi troops’ total losses were inflicted by the Soviet forces on the eastern front. The Nazi forces suffered around 70 percent of total losses of arms, equipment and material resources at the hands of our soldiers. This is the truth. Of course this is the kind of thing you can make movies about. Our partners do this with skill, and that is how we end up with this idea that it was they who achieved victory and that the film, Saving Private Ryan, is the final truth on the matter. Actually, this is not a bad film and is very well made, but this does not mean that it tells the truth. It is a blockbuster about war, and its authors no doubt had fine aims in mind when they made it. But we need to remember the real events that took place.
Actually, I think that our filmmakers, both Soviet and modern, are of the highest level in this sense. True, films from the Soviet period were overly laden with ideology and have not always stood the test of time, but there are really top-quality Soviet-era films about the war such as The Cranes are Flying, Belarussky Railway Station, and They Fought for Their Motherland. Even Seventeen Moments of Spring, though it is really more of an adventure film, is also about the war and is brilliantly made. The more we show these films the better, and we should make new films too, using all the new possibilities open to cinema today. There is no need to copy the past experience. I think that experiments are entirely possible in this respect. The main thing is that they achieve their aim and tell the truth. That is what matters most of all.
As for textbooks, this is another matter and something we could continue discussing later. I think that books really do play an important part in shaping views on the war, shaping people’s attitudes at the moment when they begin to read, and in this sense textbooks and historical literature have a clear and important mission. There are a great many works on the Great Patriotic War being published now, and these works are constantly being updated and added to as new research appears, new facts emerge, and new subjects of discussion come up.
But I think that the quintessence of all these various works should be distilled in our textbooks, keeping in mind, as we discussed, the importance of not distorting self-evident facts, because all children, whether in Russia or in other countries, are completely receptive to new information, and if they are fed false information right from these early years it becomes very hard to change these points of view later on. We know how hard it was for many of our fellow citizens, following the events that we know, to open their eyes to the difficult and dramatic pages in our history connected to the deeds of some leaders of our country.
Vitaly Abramov: Over the past decades, the officially recognised losses of the USSR during the war kept changing. They were put at 14 million under Stalin, 20 million under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, and rose to 27 million under Gorbachev. Do you think the day will come when we can give a full and accurate figure of this scaring statistics?
Dmitry Medvedev: This is a very complicated matter. I remember clearly how the last episode in the series, Liberation, ended with running captions citing the different countries’ losses in World War II. The figures were terrifying. The Soviet Union’s losses were quoted last in a line that read: “More than 20 million Soviet people lost their lives”. Fourteen million, 20 million, 27 million – these are all enormous figures, figures too big to comprehend. But we must not try to simplify the situation and need to continue this work to the end.
What does this work involve? We need to first clarify which losses we are talking about exactly. There are direct military casualties – those killed in battle – and there are also those who died of their injuries, during and after the Great Patriotic War. And then there are those who died in prisoner of war camps, those who died of hunger, were killed during bombing raids, or died during the occupation. All of this needs to be carefully and thoroughly researched. The archives are all open now and so in this respect there are no obstacles. Armed Forces General Staff is overseeing this research work today and they have even set up a special working group. I hope that it will complete its task. This is something we need to do as thoroughly as possible.
Vitaly Abramov: You were recently asked a question about Stalin's role in the victory. And we at Izvestia [newspaper] can’t side-step it either. And the context is as follows: it’s true that Stalin ruled the country that defeated fascism. But does this give us the right to turn a tyrant who committed many crimes against his fellow citizens into a hero? Hitler, for example, saved Germany from unemployment, built highways and so on, yet there are no highways named after him in Germany. And no one hangs his posters on holidays.
Dmitry Medvedev: There are things that are absolutely clear — our people won the Great Patriotic War, not Stalin, not even the generals, as important as their role was. Yes, of course the role they played was quite significant but, all the same, it was the people who won the war as a result of enormous efforts and at the price of millions of lives.
As far as Stalin's role is concerned, different people see this differently. Some believe that the Supreme Commander played an extraordinarily important role, others don't think he did. That's not the question – the question is how we generally assess Stalin as a figure. If we are talking about the official view of him, about what our leaders think of him since the emergence of a new Russian nation in recent years, then the verdict is clear: Stalin committed a vast array of crimes against his own people. So despite the fact that he worked hard, despite the fact that under his leadership the country flourished in certain respects, what was done to our own people cannot be forgiven. That is the first thing.
Second, those who love or hate Stalin are entitled to their points of view, and it is no surprise that many veterans and people from the generation that went through the war admire him. I think they have the right to do so. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. That this kind of personal assessment has nothing to do with official attitudes towards Stalin is a different question, and I just reiterated them for you. I think that sometimes these things get exaggerated. If you talk about respect for Stalin and other leaders, I'm sure that in the 1990s there were many who admired this man, but nobody was talking then about the renaissance of Stalinism. Whereas now all of a sudden everyone is talking about that. True, historical figures can become the object of worship or idolatry. Sometimes it's young people who get involved in this, especially young people on the left. But in the end that's their business, although of course most people in the world see this particular figure very clearly: he does not evoke any sort of warm feeling.
In any case it's not true to say that Stalinism is once again part of our everyday life, that we are coming back to that symbolism, that we are planning to use some posters, or do something else of this kind. We are not going to do this and never will. That is absolutely out of the question, and that answer is both the view of current authorities and my assessment as President of the Russian Federation. So I would always insist on separating our official assessment in this regard and individual assessments.
Vitaly Abramov: Mr President, as a politician, can you explain why during an entire year Stalin ignored numerous warnings about possible aggression by Germany?
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I'm not a historian. Although like any politician, like any person who holds a public office, I am of course very interested in our history. I cannot take the liberty to say why he ignored those signs, although many books have been written and many movies have been made about this subject. I think he just wanted it to be true. He believed that some of his agreements would be firmer, more dependable than, for example, the one that Chamberlain and Daladier were counting on when they signed the Munich Agreement. As you know, they got something quite different from what they expected. There’s the famous phrase by Churchill who once said that “they had a chance to choose between disgrace and war”; they got disgrace first and then war. For Stalin too the choice was very difficult. He hoped to delay the onset of this awful sequence of events. Perhaps in some ways he miscalculated. But it is clear that this assessment of events had to be paid for later. And the price was very high: it was the lives of our people. Although, as everybody knows, history does not know the subjunctive mood.
But this is a very complex question. I would stress that this is not a comment on Stalin as a person who was responsible to the Russian and, at that time, Soviet people. It is an assessment of Stalin as a leader during that period. Because it's obvious that he made some very poor decisions and some very good ones, including during the war period. That too should not be ignored.
On the other hand, everyone understands that our country could perhaps have been better prepared for the war with Hitler, if there had been no purges against the generals, if there had been no hypothesis that Hitler would not attack our country, for example, during this period.
Vitaly Abramov: Among other things, any war is a hard lesson for both the winners and the losers. And the future of world countries depends on how well these lessons have been learnt by the politicians.
For you personally, as the third president of Russia, what are the lessons of the Great Patriotic War?
Dmitry Medvedev: The main lesson is that we must work together with other countries, with other members of the international community, to try to eliminate such threats. But as a rule attempts to appease aggressors or dictators do not yield positive results, especially when the dictator has already established himself and, as they say, snatched at bit. Therefore, our task today is to create a strong system of international security. And what does that entail? Meeting this challenge entails staying in constant contact and creating an international framework to address such problems.
Humankind learned some very serious lessons after the Second World War, and some very important international instruments were created. Such as the United Nations, for example. We created international courts. We now have many international conventions, which are directed against crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes that are committed by international criminals.
But, at the same time, the current international security system is far from perfect. I have been compelled to speak to this issue repeatedly, and that's why we came up with the idea of creating a new European security structure, a Treaty on European Security. It seems pretty obvious, although it has certainly elicited some very different reactions. Some believe that this is a cunning Russian plan to weaken NATO, to drive a wedge between the United States and European countries and to play some sort of game. I have repeatedly said that this treaty has very different goals. We simply need a framework capable of helping us to coordinate a whole range of very different problems. We need to find a way to resolve our differences.
Obviously, if we had had effective European security institutions, then perhaps the events that occurred in August 2008 could have been avoided. Perhaps some sort of international arbitration between those parts of Georgia that wanted independence and the main part of Georgia could have been effected by some international mechanism. This did not happen and something else happened that was very sad: people died, there was a military conflict, it had to be resolved. So this problem of ensuring security on our continent – it is not abstract or simply diplomatic, it is completely practical. I think that some of our predecessors thought the same thing in the 1930s, but they did not have the courage to make the appropriate decisions. And we know the result: the most vicious, the bloodiest war in human history. That is why we must get on with the creation of modern international mechanisms.
We remember how hard we worked in the post-war period to create the Helsinki Final Act on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975. But time does not stand still: a great deal of time has gone by since then, it's been more than 30 years. What needs to be done? We need to create a new framework, not by rejecting the old, but by supplementing it with our recent experience.
Vitaly Abramov: The post-World War II European and transatlantic order was finalised in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, 30 long years after the victory. But it took only 14 years for it to become irrelevant and for its provisions to be violated. It happened already in 1989. And the map of Europe has been constantly changing ever since. Many perceive these changes as a kind of defeat for the Soviet Union and an example of Russia's weakness. What do you think?
Dmitry Medvedev: In any case, what happened 14 or 15 years after the Helsinki Final Act was signed effectively united Europe. That's one thing.
Second, it marked the end of the Cold War. And in this Cold War everybody was a loser, so the end of it signified victory for everyone, because afterwards, unlike before, there was no confrontation, no direct military threat, and no overheating of the atmosphere in Europe. People are free to communicate, to travel to each other's countries. Generally speaking, we live in a different Europe – that is simply the truth. But of course the events of that period were quite dramatic in many European countries including Russia. Being part of a big country, the Soviet Union, we all went through the dramatic period of the collapse of our great country and the formation of new nations, including modern Russia. It was a very complicated process. Of course everyone is free to give their own assessment: some believed that this was humiliating for a significant number of people in our great nation, others see it more positively. I think that history will have to make the final judgment on all of this, especially since every one of us has a subjective view of this era, and we all participated in the events in one way or another. Again, no matter how we feel about what happened, these were very dramatic events.
Vitaly Abramov: Since the Iron Curtain fell, you can sometimes hear people in Russia ask bitterly: why do the winners live worse than the losers? In the past twenty years no politician answered that question.
Dmitry Medvedev: I would not want to be held responsible for everything that has happened in our country since the end of the Great Patriotic War, because I am legally and morally responsible only for the period when I had the privilege and responsibility of leading our country. But of course as someone who lived in the Soviet Union and lives in Russia, I have my own view on this matter. It comes down to the following.
The Soviet Union managed to achieve its most important goals during the Great Patriotic War – that is to overcome a very strong enemy, to destroy it and create conditions for the free development of Europe. It achieved this at the cost of enormous sacrifices. Then the Soviet Union went its own way. It maintained a very inflexible, in effect a totalitarian society, which prevented the development of many economic options and weighed heavily on its people. This resulted in victims and everything a dictatorship entails.
So unfortunately that era – and I should stress that this is just my opinion – was not made full use of (despite the fact that we were able to rebuild the economy, we created an impressive capacity for industrial development). At that time it was possible to develop a nation and its economy somewhat differently, and that’s what we actually have been doing in the past 20 years. The post-war period was an era of great accomplishments, but at the same time an era of great trials and great challenges. I do not think that the economic structure that existed in the post-war era and the political system that we had could be adapted for normal development. Hence the difference in living standards, hence the difference in how people feel.
This is really a shame, and these are emotions that we have all felt, especially on our first trip abroad. But we knew the price that had to be paid for Europe's well-being: the material abundance that we saw there, the bright shop windows, happy and successful people with smiles on their faces. And we had no definitive answer as to why things were a bit different in our country. But it's not a good idea to depict this era in excessively sombre colours, because it's an era in which our fathers and our grandfathers lived and worked. We lived in this era. There were many bright pages too. But truth to tell we were not able to solve a number of problems. And, incidentally, this was in no small measure a reason why the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
If the Soviet Union had been more competitive, if it had the conditions for personal development, if it had the conditions for economic development based on modern principles, its fate would have been different. It would have been more attractive to our people. And then the dramatic events of the late 1980s and early 1990s, would not have occurred.
Vitaly Abramov: A large amount of the wartime archives are still not completely open to the public. Do you not think the time has come to digitalise these archives and give people the chance of accessing these documents via the internet, at the least (same as done via the state services or state procurement sites, for example). This would permit many people to learn about the fate of their grandfathers and help people to be able to write their family histories.
Dmitry Medvedev: Not only has this time come, but this is something we are already busy doing. As you know, I am a big supporter of digital technology, which really does provide a very convenient means of storing large amounts of information. In the past, finding this or that particular document required going through whole huge books and files, digging through all this paper and keeping track of findings. Actually, this also had its pluses because in the process you inevitably ended up stumbling upon a whole mass of other interesting material that happened to be in the particular book or collection.
Now the process is simpler. It’s enough to make the files and documents available in electronic resources, and once you enter your search in the computer, you get the information straight away. This is very convenient. This is something we need to do, and we need to do it openly, declassifying the various documents from that period. Enough time has gone by now – 65 years, and people must know the truth about the war, the truth about events of that period.
Let’s remember the pre-war years as well, the events at the start of the war, the events that took place at Katyn, for example. This is a black page in our history, a black page on which we had no access to the truth, what’s more. I have seen that people still discuss in all seriousness who actually took the decision to execute the Polish officers. The documents on these events had already been declassified, but I decided to make them public. But these events remain debated even so. Why, because this subject was kept hidden from the public, and because it was presented from a false point of view. This was precisely an example of how history can be falsified. After all, it is not just people beyond our borders who allow history to be falsified, people in other countries, but we ourselves too, who have allowed our own history to be falsified. The time has finally come to open up the truth on these events to our own people and to foreign citizens with an interest in these matters.
This is just one page among others, but it is perhaps a very important one, because the more archival materials we publish, the more we give people free access to these materials, the better. Ultimately, I think that we need to establish a system of military archives that would give any Russian citizen and any interested foreign citizen free access to all documents that have been declassified, and this is something we need to do now for practically all kinds of documents.
Vitaly Abramov: Mr President, the anti-Nazi coalition was put together by countries that themselves had seemingly nothing in common in their different systems. By forming an anti-Nazi bloc we were able to defeat a strong and well organised adversary. This bloc-based approach continued through the years that followed. Countries seek to join military blocs, seeing them as practically the only real guarantee of their security. Russia is part of the CSTO bloc now, but the CSTO countries’ combined forces are not comparable to those of NATO. Could Russia join a military alliance of any sort, and is this something we need?
Dmitry Medvedev: I think that the end of the Cold War and bloc-based logic could unite Europe and give us a Europe that offers a comfortable life and is interesting to visit. By Europe, I mean Western and Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation. The bloc-based system does not bring any benefits. Some people say that the existence of such blocs creates a balanced situation. We used to have the Warsaw Pact on one side and NATO on the other, for example, but as soon as one bloc disappeared wars broke out and attempts to re-carve up territory resumed. But although counterweights are certainly needed in the world this is a one-sided view. The whole question is what kind of counterweights we need. Should they be based on weapons alone, or on strategic deterrent alone? In my view, no.
This is why we are talking about a multipolar world today, because the alternative would be to accept the view that only one bloc-based system is capable of guaranteeing peace and prosperity in our world, but this is not the case. The events in the 1990s in Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus and other places show that, unfortunately, no bloc can address all the challenges on its own and maintain security at the proper level. This shows the need for mechanisms operating outside the bloc-based system.
We have our partnership commitments. We are a member of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which includes countries very close to us. This is not a military bloc in the traditional sense of the word but is an organisation responsible for guaranteeing the security of a group of countries that have come together in union. Let me remind that according to the CSTO Charter, an attack on any one of the member countries is considered to be an attack on all of them, the same as in NATO. But this does not mean that we should return to the bloc-based logic and try to turn the CSTO into a new Warsaw Pact, pumping it up with weapons and forces and endlessly competing with NATO. We know what effect this kind of competition had on the Soviet Union. We know how the arms race bled our country dry and we know the results it brought: an ineffective economy, endless arms race, and finally, the state’s collapse.
But at the same time, we need to preserve our strategic capacities. We live in a complex world in which many countries seek to possess nuclear arms and some are testing new weapons. In this context we cannot ignore our security. Our strategic nuclear deterrent is a highly effective means of protecting our national interests. We should not overestimate its importance, but nor should we underestimate the possibilities it gives us and its impact on the global balance of power. We need to continue efforts of enhancing our defence system and at the same time strive to reach agreements with our main partners. We have been doing just this in recent years, as is evident, in particular, in the signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the US. This compromise that we reached enables us to protect our interests and the Americans to protect their interests while not inflaming the situation in any way. I think that this is right direction.
Vitaly Abramov: When the Perestroika years opened a new window onto the world for the Soviet people, we had the impression that civilisation had matured, the world order had gained a more solid foundation, and nothing like World War II could ever happen again. Twenty years have passed since then and the world is once again torn by contradictions. Do you think there is a chance, even if only hypothetical, of a new conflict comparable in scale to World War II?
Dmitry Medvedev: Sadly, such a conflict is possible. This arises from the fact that our world has such different countries with diverse interests. Our world has a vast amount of weapons, and there are still people who see war as the means to achieving their political goals. Finally, there is also the chance element. We therefore need to be ready for such a possibility. What do we need to do in this respect?
As I have said before, we need to work within the international community, the United Nations, the OSCE here in Europe, to conclude new agreements such as the European Security Treaty. We are doing just this and will continue these endeavours.
Of course, we need to be strong. We need to be ready for the eventuality of problems arising. This is something we simply cannot ignore. No matter how peace loving we are we need to be ready to defend our country. This means paying attention to our Armed Forces and their needs, developing modern arms, giving our servicemen decent wages and living conditions, and building a compact and effective, strong and well-trained army manned by professional officers and soldiers. These are goals we simply must carry out, indisputable priorities in our life. As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces I will continue to give these tasks my utmost attention, because otherwise we could find ourselves in a weak position before threats that arise.
Vitaly Abramov: In Soviet times, the perpetual Cold War was perceived as an unpleasant, though a quite understandable phenomenon resulting from the struggle between two opposing political systems. Now the USSR and communism have both been gone for almost twenty years. Nevertheless, the Cold War goes on. Why do America and some other countries still distrust Russia? And is there a way of minimising that distrust?
Dmitry Medvedev: I would go even further: in our country there are a lot of people who distrust America, as well as other NATO countries and major world players. Why is that? It’s explained by our history, our perception of each other. You and I remember what it was like in the Soviet era when there was some set of views and ideas of the other side. Remember what we were told at school about the Americans, about the Europeans. It was the clearest example of an ideological viewpoint which was wrong, or at least, not true in many respects but which pursued quite apparent purposes of making us think of people who lived in the West as our enemies. It was a way of maintaining effective governance in Russia, as well as achieving certain political objectives.
And it was the same way in the Western countries. In my view, if we’re talking about the current situation, it’s shaped by the same old stereotypes. In fact, they are especially wide-spread in the Western world. Because to be perfectly frank, many of our people in the late 1980s and early 1990s were attracted by the new way of life. As you know, we took a very romantic view of our relations with the West then. We expected that they were waiting to embrace us, that once we are completely open-minded and up-to-date, and no longer threatening anyone, we could quickly and easily join the ranks of civilised, developed countries.
Things didn’t work out quite that way. First, we ourselves were not always ready to take respective steps quickly, because there was a certain inertia in our thinking, and we also needed – and still do — to create a modern economic mechanism in our own country. Then, there is the civil society maturing process which may not be over accelerated. In the West too not everyone was ready to abandon their stereotypes.
If you look at what is being discussed in the parliaments and in the political organisations of other countries, at times it’s absolutely amazing. There are still those vestiges of the Cold War, and it’s such nonsense, to put it bluntly. Some of the restraints imposed on the Soviet Union are still in place, and some of the ideas about how we live in Russia, even at the level of everyday life, are absolutely outdated. When I watch movies that Hollywood produces I’m astonished by the way modern Russia is portrayed. This is an array of purely phantasmagorical concepts. But this sort of fantasy slowly takes over reality, and they look at us through the prism of promotional products, movies and books: Russia is the country where it’s always raining or snowing, where everything is falling apart, where people are nasty, drink vodka by the gallon and are totally useless, aggressive, always getting into fights, about to attack at any moment, you must never turn your back on them or they’ll get you from behind. All this is appalling.
I even understand that maybe this is not intentionally designed to upset people. But these stereotypes have a pernicious effect on the potential for mutual understanding and ultimately poison the atmosphere of the planet. This applies, incidentally, not only to Russia. There are stereotypes for a number of other large developing countries, our neighbours. I think we have to free ourselves of these stereotypes and we really have a lot to do in this regard. I don’t want to throw stones at the Americans or the Europeans alone, because we live in a fairly glassy house ourselves. But it seems to me that we in Russia have made some much more serious progress in this area.
Vitaly Abramov: Russia and Japan still have not signed a peace treaty. The Japanese insist that they won’t sign until the South Kuril Islands are returned to them. Is there a chance of coming up with a compromise and concluding such a treaty?
Dmitry Medvedev: As you know, we have not been in a state of war with Japan since 1956, when the respective [Soviet-Japanese] Declaration was signed. Relations between our two countries were normalised, political and economic contacts have developed. True, there are some problems, of which the territorial issue is the most notorious, and the problem of the peace treaty, which the Japanese have linked to the resolution of the territorial dispute. This is a very complicated problem, but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore it. We are trying to deal with this subject, keeping in mind our own convictions about how it could be resolved, especially with regard to the interests of the Russian Federation. And our Japanese partners are doing the same thing.
I believe if we actively and fairly address the subject, if we abandon so-called extreme points of view, then ultimately in a historical perspective this problem is solvable.
Vitaly Abramov: Today, May 7, marks exactly two years since you assumed the office of President of Russia. Caring for war veterans and those who served on the home front, providing them with higher pensions and improved apartments – this is one of the most impressive achievements of those two years. In your view, what other unqualified successes have there been during the two years that you have been running the country?
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, it seems to me completely wrong, even shameless to talk about personal successes. One must be critical of what one’s done. If we have done something good, so much the better. But in connection with the veterans, I will tell you one thing that I think is of really fundamental importance. On May 7, 2008, the day of my inauguration, I signed an executive order designed to resolve the problem of apartments for war veterans, and it’s been resolved. In the immediate future apartments will be available for those who registered [for improved housing] a bit earlier, and very soon everyone who registered after March 1, 2005 will receive theirs.
You know, somebody said: “Well, why did they decide to do that, there aren’t many veterans left, it should have been done before, so why wasn’t it done long ago?” I can’t answer for those who dealt with the subject in the past. But I felt a moral obligation to do so now. And I think what we have just done was absolutely the right thing to do.
The veterans really are the focus of our special attention. We have come up with various programmes to help them. I recently visited a hospital, and it was pretty impressive, a hospital for veterans of the Great Patriotic War. We have more than fifty such hospitals around the country. They are receiving additional funds and new medical equipment. We even held a contest and awarded money prizes to the doctors who work there.
We have somehow managed to brighten up the difficult lives of our veterans, at least in terms of financial benefits. The sums are not out of this world, but currently a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, a war participant or disabled veteran, receives an average of about 23 thousand rubles [$800] a month, taking into account the various benefits and extra payments. It seems to me that this is a small token of our appreciation, of our obligation to them for what they did. We will certainly continue these policies. This is extremely important for our future, so that future generations will also treat future veterans properly. This must be done in order not to break the thread of time between people, between generations, between the current generation and those who won such a hard-fought victory for us.
Vitaly Abramov: Mr President, there are many monuments in Russia and other European countries dedicated to the events and heroes of the Second World War. Which of these monuments made the most powerful impression on you and why?
Dmitry Medvedev: I'm from Leningrad, so of course for me the ones in Leningrad were special. When I was at school and later I often went to Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery in St Petersburg. A huge number of people are buried there. Not only do we not know their names, we don’t even know how many there are. There aren’t even any gravestones there. All that is recorded is that they were buried there in 1941, in 1942, etc. It’s very sad and indelibly etched in one’s memory, same as a metronome that beats as you approach the monument …
Of course I have visited other places besides the Leningrad Piskarevskoye cemetery. I feel obliged to single out Mamayev Kurgan [the memorial complex commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad], which is absolutely magnificent. I have been there several times in recent years. It is a unique place, and not only in terms of the role it played in the Great Patriotic War and the War’s outcome, but also because it has a unique energy. When you go there you feel in harmony with, in contact with the events of that era.
I cannot but mention another event that occurred relatively recently and in which I was personally involved. It was the ceremony of lighting the eternal flame after the restoration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Garden in Moscow. The emotions I felt were absolutely personal, but they were so strong that I simply have to say something about them. You know, for me in an emotional sense that was certainly one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had: it was an enormous responsibility and a direct contact with our history. That day I shall never forget.
Vitaly Abramov: Thank you, Mr President, for this interview.
Please accept my congratulations on Victory Day.
Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you very much.
I wish you and your newspaper every success. And I would like to use your newspaper to sincerely congratulate all of our war veterans on the upcoming holiday and pass on my congratulations to the entire country, because Victory Day in Russia is celebrated by absolutely everyone.