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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Red Partisans

In 2004, Vasily Kononov, the former leader of a pro-Soviet commando unit in Nazi-occupied Latvia during World War II, was convicted by Latvia’s highest court for killing nine civilians in the village of Mazie Bati in 1944. On May 17, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights upheld the ruling.

As usual, the Russian authorities were outraged by the decision. Members of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement demonstrated outside of the Latvian Embassy in Moscow.

Kononov insists that the victims, including a young pregnant woman, had been collaborating with the Nazis.

To understand the nature of the wartime actions of the “red partisans,” not only in Mazie Bati but in all occupied territories, it is important to remember the directive issued by the Council of People’s Commissars on June 20, 1941, “Do not leave the enemy a single kilogram of bread or a single liter of fuel,” and the order from the headquarters of the Supreme Command of Nov. 17, 1941, instructing saboteurs “to destroy and burn down all the settlements in the German rear at a distance of 40 kilometers to 60 kilometers from the front and within 20 kilometers to 30 kilometers of both sides of the road.”

These orders applied to all Nazi-occupied territories. NKVD troops were deployed to create diversions in the enemy rear, and they had to find a way to gain support of the local people whom they knew were already sentenced to death by Stalin. Their solution was to win support by terrorizing and plundering.

Kononov and others like him are typically referred to as “partisans,” but this is a misleading term. The word “partisan” usually refers to a local resident who has the support of the local population in waging war against the occupiers. But none of these conditions applies to Kononov.

First, Kononov was not a civilian but a special forces agent. Second, he did not fight the occupiers. On May 27, 1944, he was fighting against the civilian population. Among the nine people his commando unit killed were three women, one of whom was nine months pregnant. She was shoved back into a burning building from which they had only just managed to escape. Third, Kononov’s unit obviously did not enjoy the support of the local population. The locals hated the partisans even more than they did the Nazis. In fact, the Nazis — who themselves were occupiers — were not afraid to issue rifles to the locals so that they could protect themselves from the “reds.”

It is true that the verdicts of the Latvian court and the European Court of Human Rights are vivid examples of an attempt to rewrite history. But this is precisely the history that needs to be rewritten.

Soviet propaganda created a glorious picture of the “people’s war in the enemy’s rear.” But the reality is that a civil war was fought behind the front lines. From 1941 to 1944, the red partisans behaved exactly like the Vietcong did during the Vietnam War — that is, by terrorizing the civilian population even more than the ruthless enemy did.

The Latvian and Strasbourg court rulings have shed valuable light on a small, but extremely important, historic episode. Lets hope the correct lessons will be learned.


Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.