President Obama missing the Paris demonstration against terror on Sunday was a serious error, but his nonattendance did not detract from the overall impact of the march. Vladimir Putin’s absence from the upcoming commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on the other hand, would be a travesty that would detract attention and potentially cast a dark shadow over the event as a whole.
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Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Tuesday that the Russian president hadn't received an invitation, but he was being disingenuous. No foreign head of state has been personally invited to the January 27 ceremony: the governments that have contributed funds to the site, including Russia, have been informed of the event. It is up to them to decide who will represent them.
The background to Putin’s announcement, of course, is the tension between Putin and the West in general, and possibly Poland in particular, over the crisis in Ukraine. According to a report by Associated Press, “Poland has been one of the harshest critics of Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and Moscow's support for a pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine.” Warsaw, apparently, has not gone out of its way to make Putin feel welcome.
There are several, possibly overlapping, explanations for Putin’s decision to stay away. The Russian president might be concerned that he will be given the same chilly reception he received at the G20 Summit in Australia in November; he could be trying to humiliate his Polish critics or to coerce them into bending over backwards and issuing him a personal invitation; and he could be punishing his adversaries in the West for the tough sanctions regime which, together with the steep drop in the price of oil, have brought the Russian economy to the verge of collapse.
Political realists in Washington and elsewhere might not mind Putin’s absence: it will only highlight his growing international isolation in the wake of his misadventures in the Ukraine. But for anyone interested in the commemoration of the liberation of the place in which over a million people, most of them Jews, were slaughtered, Putin’s nonappearance at the ceremony is intolerable: it is an affront to the memory of the victims themselves. Of all the foreign leaders that ought to be present at the ceremony, Putin is first in line. In many ways, he should be the guest of honor.
After all, it was the Soviet 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front that first opened the gates of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. It was the 472nd Regiment that lost 230 soldiers in the battle for Auschwitz, including its commander, Colonel Siemen Lvovich Besprozvanny, who is buried near the camp. It is the Soviet photographers who first documented for posterity the site that came to be known as hell on earth.
And it was Soviet soldiers who were greeted by the camp’s remaining 6,000 prisoners as angels from heaven.
“We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies, and chocolate,” Primo Levi wrote in The Truce. “Being so alone, a hug meant more than anybody could imagine because that replaced the human worth that we were starving for. We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness. And the Soviet Army did provide some of that.”
The Poles, for their own reasons, take a dim view of the fact that it was the Soviets who liberated Auschwitz. Even the website of the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum notes “that it was a paradox of history that soldiers representing Stalin’s totalitarianism brought freedom to the freedom of Nazi totalitarianism.” But no matter what one thinks of Putin’s actions or indeed of what many perceive as his own brand of creeping totalitarianism, he is no successor to Stalin. He is, however, the duly elected head of the state that was most responsible for the liberation that is being commemorated.
If Putin stays away from the ceremony, this will be the main headline of the day, the focus of commentary and analysis. Current international tensions will supplant the horrors that took place over 70 years ago; the legacy of anti-Semitism’s potential to turn countries and societies into inhuman monstrosities – a lesson that is perhaps more pertinent in today’s Europe than ever before – will have been lost. Countries and organizations around the world – including the American and Israeli governments - should rise to this unique occasion and do everything possible to change Putin’s mind: the commemoration is too solemn and significant for it be marred by realpolitik.