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For a brief moment in World War II, Russia regarded itself as a country with allies, fighting Nazi Germany. But that moment passed fairly quickly. Now, again, the Russian ruling regime imagines itself as standing alone in both the present and the past. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin has approvingly requoted Tsar Alexander III, who said his country had only “two allies, the army and the navy.” (More recently, Putin might have added the two Assads, father and son.)
Russia’s ruling regime continues to use the Great Patriotic War against Germany as its central political myth. There is no more vivid example of this than the way the Kremlin commemorates June 22, the day in 1941 when Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union.
In recent years, June 22 had been a “dissident” date compared to May 9, the holiday celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II in 1945. The date forced Russians to think about Stalin’s political mistakes that led to catastrophic defeats and panic in the months that followed the attack. After all, the armed forces were so badly prepared in large part because they had been decimated by Stalin’s persecution and mass arrest of senior Soviet military personnel.
Yet this June 22, the Kremlin held a “ceremony in memory of the defenders of the Fatherland, who died in combat with Nazi aggressors.” Whose fault was it that they died? Couldn’t we dig a little deeper? Instead, the president used the date as another excuse, as on May 9, to pompously shake hands with an endless stream of generals and to line up (left to right) a row of senior officials, beginning with head of the presidential administration Anton Vaino and ending with Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev. The result was an official ceremony that had nothing to do with the tragedy of June 22.
The official narrative of the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945 has reverted to a Stalin-era amnesia of the Soviet Union’s wartime allies. A public opinion survey conducted by the Levada Center in May 2017 recorded that 65 percent of Russians believe the Soviet Union would have won the war without its allies.
The very concept of having “allies” was already excised from Soviet political discourse, and thus from mass consciousness, by 1946. For a brief moment, Britain and America were comrades, as Soviet military correspondents Ilya Erenburg and Konstantin Simonov traveled to the United States, and Russian jazz singer Leonid Utesov and his daughter Edith sang a Russian adaptation of “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.”
Another finding from the same public opinion survey, however, is even more telling. Russians were asked “What were the causes of the Soviet Union’s colossal human casualties during WWII?” Twenty years ago, 34 percent of respondents said that the Stalin government did not care about the lives lost. By May 2017, this reasonable and fact-based understanding of history had been swept away by the archaic military-patriotic hysteria that has dominated the country in recent times. The number of Russians who are ready to attribute Soviet war casualties and failures to “the suddenness of the [Nazi] attack,” on the other hand, has grown over those same twenty years, from 27 percent to 36 percent.
Among possible explanations for the suddenness of the Nazi attack, in its polling the Levada Center has included the option, “The idea that it was unexpected was fabricated to cover up Stalin’s political blunders.” In 2001, at the beginning of Putin’s presidency, the majority of respondents—58 percent—shared this view. By 2016, this number was down to only 38 percent.
Levada has also consistently asked Russians who bore most responsibility for the millions of deaths the Soviet Union suffered between 1941 and 1945. In 2010, only 28 percent of respondents said that “no one except our enemy” was most responsible. But by 2016, in the era that follows the annexation of Crimea, the figure had soared to 47 percent. As one might guess from these trends, Stalin is also being gradually absolved of responsibility for the losses. Thirty percent blamed him in 2010, but only 21 percent in 2016.
These attitudes are not evidence of a nation regressing in its ability to understand facts, but of one adapting to changing circumstances. When you’re marching in step with the crowd and joining the parade, you grant yourself forgiveness for all your sins by tying a patriotic Ribbon of St. George to your car, bag, or stroller, and you regress a little. This is despite the fact that it is much easier in principle to learn the truth about history today than it was many years ago, if you are motivated to do so.
The increased frequency in Russia of military ceremonies and parades removes the need for reflection. It also encourages aggressive sentiments in the present. One year ago, the official Russian pollster VTsIOM published a survey in time for June 22, which included the outrageous question, “If there were a war tomorrow with a neighboring state, would you support the decision of your loved ones to go and take part in this war?” Sixty-five percent of respondents said they would. How could this question have been posed in the first place—and moreover with the provocative detail of a “neighboring state”?
More than half a century ago, on December 5, 1966, the Soviet poet and editor Alexander Tvardovsky—one of the leading lights of Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw—wrote in his diary: “No other army in the world had ever, in any war, suffered such losses in its commanding ranks as our army did on the eve of the war and in part after the war. What does one do with this memory? […] There is no doubt that those who perished on the eve of the war and during the war—but not at the frontlines, rather in the mad regime’s prisons, camps, and torture chambers—also deserve to be remembered in the same way.” Sad to say, the same question can be posed today.
This is the true tragedy of a nation forgetting its history, of the amnesia the ruling regime makes into an absolute moral value and spiritual bond. Russia’s rulers have even nationalized what historians and sociologists term “mourning rituals,” cynically using them as the foundation for their own legitimacy. Criticism of the regime is equated with criticizing the holy “memory” of the war.
The generation that actually lived through the war remembered it differently. I recall how my parents got together with their friends to sing the Russian versions of British and American wartime songs, as they had in 1945, when even the famous Red Army Chorus sang those songs.
That generation is now also almost completely gone, and there is no one left to remind us that we won together with our real allies, not thanks to Stalin but in spite of him. Stalin himself, when he made his famous toast in May 1945 “to the Russian people,” admitted that in a way his current admirers do not.
This article originally appeared in Russian in The New Times.
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