The Second World War was two separate wars for the Soviet Union, one to be entirely forgotten and one to be selectively remembered. Between 1939 and 1941, the Soviet Union fought as a German ally, invading or occupying Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. During this period, the Soviets committed mass murder among populations that had not been Soviet citizens before the war, such as the Poles at Katyń, in 1940. Between 1941 and 1945, after Hitler betrayed Stalin and Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Germany committed mass murders on a still greater scale, such as those of Belarusians at Khatyn in 1943. Between 1945 and 1991, from the end of the war to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet propaganda sought to displace the first war with the second, such that the Soviet Union and its citizens appeared unambiguously as victims and victors. German atrocities were supposed to annul Soviet atrocities. Khatyn was to supplant Katyń. In 1969, the opening of the memorial to the murdered Belarusians of Khatyn transformed the unfathomable suffering of Soviet citizens in Belarus into geopolitical propaganda. The chilling cynicism was required by the system: if all that mattered was the future of the socialist state, then the only past worth recalling was the one that served the present. The effect was to confuse minds about both the Soviet murder of Poles at Katyń and the German murder of Belarusians at Khatyn. As Soviet propagandists understood, few people can remember both.

more from Timothy Snyder at the TLS here.