A placard depicting Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin on Kyiv's Independence Square.
Credit: Sergei Supinsky

If there's a guide book for how NOT to be a dictator, Vladimir Putin hasn't read it.

The Russian president — formerly prime minister and formerly president that other time — is well on his way to becoming one of the top autocrats of the twenty-first century. He's made huge strides in just the last few months. He invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. He's supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. And he got his face plastered all over a line of T-shirts.

And now he's saying that one of the most dictator-y moments in modern European history wasn't so bad — a 1939 non-aggression treaty between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler that, among other things, established the "secret protocols" that carved Poland into Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence.

You know what the Nazis did with their sphere? They built death camps. So it's more than just a little bit surprising that Putin is now saying the pact wasn't so bad.

He made the remarks, according to the Telegraph, to a group of historians in Moscow. 

"Serious research must show that those were the foreign policy methods then," he said of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. "The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treat with Germany. People say: 'Ach, that's bad.' But what's bad about that if the Soviet Union didn't want to fight, what's bad about it?"

What's bad about it? How about three million Jews exterminated in the Nazi's "sphere of influence" in Poland?

Putin didn't seem to fully accept the reality of what the pact did.

"People still argue about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact," he said, "and accuse the Soviet Union of dividing up Poland."

No, Mr. Putin, people do not argue about whether that happened, and neither does Russia, officially. Moscow admitted to the existence of the "secret protocols" in 1989.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Putin is screwing with the facts of history. When you're an autocrat, you've got to control a lot of things to keep the autocracy rolling smoothly. You've got to control the public, the military, and your closest allies (who are also your closest enemies and might need to be purged at any moment). And you've got to control the past.

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