It’s been more than a week now since Russia celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. I caught a little bit of the parade and the fireworks on Россия 24, and it was basically what you’d expect: a bunch of happy people standing around outside, watching things proudly march by and colorfully explode overhead. It wasn’t the heads-of-state powwow Putin organized five years ago, but, as far as spectacles go, everything looked pretty nice.
Not at all unexpectedly, Victory Day’s 65th anniversary inspired an angry legion of articles about the state of Russia’s collective consciousness as it relates to the historical scar of Stalinism. What follows is some (incomplete) commentary on writers whom I found especially thought-provoking (or enraging) in their V-Day observations: (in no particular order) Anatoly Karlin, Yulia Latynina, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Julia Ioffe, and Andrey Zolotov.
Anatoly Karlin at Sublime Oblivion sat his readers down to an impromptu statistics lesson, pouring over casualties figures in that endless debate about how many died when and where. This well-intentioned escapade crescendoed with the statement, “[C]ontrary to the popular anti-Soviet mythology most Gulag inmates survived.” My personal advice to Russia bloggers out there is this: when you’ve entered into that dark pit of numbers-quarelling, and you’ve suddenly authored a phrase like “most Gulag inmates survived” — however remote your implication is that this demonstrates a mitigation of the suffering endured under Stalinism — this is the time to run for the daylight and exercise that backspace key.
It’s not that Karlin is wrong or even misguided (he’s not), but this kind of scrutiny is so hopelessly unresolvable that it’s irrelevant. One either calmly arrives at a number lower or higher than his ideological opponent, or he ignites a food fight of name-calling and math-tweaking. Either way, people will count the dead differently, and the numbers on all sides will be high enough to parody anything conceivable for most of us.
Yulia Latynina and Vladimir Kara-Murza saw Victory Day as another opportunity to make polemical wisecracks and grandstand on behalf of “pro-democracy” forces. Latynina interpreted the absence of European leaders to signal “a complete embarrassment” for the Kremlin, conveniently forgetting about Europe’s current economic crisis, Barack Obama’s domestic policy priorities, and Ukraine’s own celebrations at home. In advance of the holiday, she pursued basically the opposite path of Anatoly Karlin, dedicating her radio show, Код доступа, to a recitation of the various horrors and shortcomings of the prewar Soviet Union. In most respects, this focus on all the murder and failure that plagued the USSR in the 1930s was pretty straightforward and for that reason rather boring to read about. Yulia Leonidovna does make the less often raised and therefore somewhat more interesting point that the cult of the Great Patriotic War is actually a product of the mid-1960s and the Brezhnev Era — not the Stalin period. This is something I’ll return to below in this post.
Kara-Murza is far less entertaining in his V-Day blog post. He argues that Moscow city’s consideration of Stalin imagery for the holiday festivities was a “personal insult” to Russia’s WWII veterans. He cites a public letter from a group of elderly Red Army soldiers, chastising the authorities for sullying their honor with talk of Stalin. Never mind, of course, that this ‘Stalin booths’ initiative, like last year’s overwhelmingly stupid scandal over the “Anti-Soviet” cafe, was actually initiated by a veterans’ association. Kara-Murza describes the Russian Orthodox Church’s public statement about Stalin and the war as a “challenge to the authorities,” despite the fact that its declaration (that defeating the Nazis doesn’t justify Soviet totalitarianism) is basically an echo of what Medvedev told Izvestiia that same week.
The same kind of purposeful deception is at work in his description of the Stalin bus in Petersburg, “a conflict” Kara-Murza says the authorities realized “they could not win.” He wants his readers to believe that a wave of popular “anger” overcame a state effort to shove Stalin down the public’s throat. In fact, the establishment was always uneasy about the Stalin booths project — a bizarre plan hatched by Yuri Luzhkov for God knows what reason. Equally, the vandalizing of the Stalin bus was carried out by a pair of hooligans eager to score ‘awesome points’ with a neato video fit for YouTube. In the end, nobody but a few career protesters took to the streets, and May Day’s largest demonstrations belonged to none other than the Communists, many of whom waved little portraits of a certain murderous Georgian.
Julia Ioffe wrote an interesting article in Foreign Policy that accuses the Kremlin of having grabbed onto the legacy of the Great Patriotic War in order to promulgate that triumph as a founding mythology for the Russian Federation. This gets back to Yulia Latynina’s point that Stalin himself was not a proponent of Victory Day pageantry. May 9th was only made a work holiday in 1965, Ioffe explains. It’s a poignant observation that the USSR only gradually embraced the legend of WWII in the late Khrushchev, early Brezhnev period. The 1960s were an engine of national myth creation in the Soviet Union, and harnessing the popular enthusiasm of having literally saved the world from Adolf Hitler was a major project during the golden age of Soviet communism.
My one problem with Ms. Ioffe’s article is that she seems to treat the mythology of the Great Patriotic War as though it were the invention of Vladimir Putin. Yes, the Yeltsin administration discontinued the military parades and parted with much of the Soviet symbols and symbolism, but the legacy of liberating Europe didn’t expire with the messiness of Yeltsin’s time of troubles. Ioffe says that WWII mythology didn’t “take root until the wobbly Brezhnev era” and that it was “a true political load-bearer” only after the fall of the USSR. Yes, the war took on its role as a foundational myth only a couple of decades after the fighting ended. But why is the myth only now, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, a “true political load-bearer”? Did the Great Patriotic War not carry significant political “loads” during the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Admittedly, the Soviet Union’s greatest triumph, what served for years as the popular justification for communism’s very existence, is a story that only sustained patriotic faith for a few decades. By the 1980s, the war was still a “load-bearer,” but it performed so dysfunctionally that it began to achieve the opposite of what the state intended.
In The Living and the Dead, Nina Tumarkin catalogs her own youth in the early 1980s, explaining how the invented combat role for Leonid Brezhnev became a joke to the last Soviet generation. What was designed as sovetskoe vospitanie (a Soviet upbringing) became a language of subversion. Consider the following excerpt:
Although Brezhnev never took part in any fighting, his book [Malaia zemlia] contains a passage about how in battle he replaced a dead machine gunner and fended off a fascist attack. “My world shrank down to the dimensions of an observation slit,” recalled Brezhnev. On a comprehensive examination in 1984, a classmate of the journalist Dmitrii Radyshevsky wrote and read aloud the following: “For Leonid Ilich, the world shrank to the dimensions of an observation slit. Leonid Ilich fended off an attack.” The class laughed; any juggling of the formulaic idiom showed off its absurdity.
An incident like this is important because it demonstrates the “wobbliness” Ioffe describes in her article, but it also indicates the myth’s penetration into Soviet society — even the leaders felt it necessary to write themselves into its narrative. A big problem, of course, was that efforts to develop and build on Soviet WWII legends produced either unpalatable references to Stalin or farcically unrealistic historical inventions (like the one above with Brezhnev).
All that aside, I think Ms. Ioffe is fundamentally correct in her analysis. What’s most significant today about WWII for Russia is that it’s become “a major neurosis.” The subject is at the core of Russians’ national consciousness, but encased in certain irresolvable ambiguities. I would stress that isn’t because Putin dusted off some discredited myth. The Soviet authorities’ application of WWII was inept and a failure, but the popular memory of victory over fascism remains alive and well today. I don’t think Ioffe would dispute this. So perhaps this isn’t a criticism so much as a difference in emphasis. I’m not sure.
Andrey Zolotov‘s “Grappling With Soviet Symbolism” was published a few days after Victory Day, but it’s very much a part of the V-Day commentary. Zolotov argues that the 2010 celebration proved to be a “softer” festival than the 2005 parade, when Russia was at “the peak of ideological efforts to rehabilitate Soviet symbols and consolidate the population of the Russian Federation [...] on the basis of the Soviet, essentially Stalinist, concept of the Great Patriotic War.” He goes on to explain how Moscow, five years ago, “tried to impose this perception on the rest of the world.” The idea now is basically that, with the tenure of Dmitri Medvedev, Russia has essentially become less aggressive.
Let me say first of all that, as the chief editor of Russia Profile, Mr. Zolotov knows far more about the publishing environment in Russia than I ever will. That said, I think his insinuation that Medvedev has ushered in an era of moderation — a quiet swipe at Russia’s geopolitical posture under Putin — is an unfortunate and common misperception in the ‘Russia watching’ community. The belief behind this observation is that Russia’s domestic goings-on dictate to what extent it will or will not be mean and assertive on the international front. Somewhere in the heart of every neocon, nestled between a copy of Wine Aficionado and a firearm, is the conviction that Russia’s rotten, undemocratic interior shapes and decides Moscow’s unhelpfulness and unfriendliness abroad. Hence, volumes are published on the Medvedevian Era of Good Feelings, simply because the man says an ill word about Josef Stalin, or because he skips another rhetorical assault on American unipolarity.
Let’s remember for a moment that Vladimir Putin, the largely absent bogeyman of Zolotov’s article, made his reputation as a bully and a spoiler following his getting fed up with the Bush administration. Putin’s February 2007 Munich speech is often cited as a watershed moment in Russia’s “embitterment,” but one has to be only marginally familiar with U.S.-Russian relations to know that this “break” came after years of bad manners, bad faith, and bad ideas from the United States of America. Did domestic affairs impact Russia’s foreign policy? Of course it did. But, as we’ve seen with the long succession of American presidents, most “overarching posture decisions” aren’t really decisions at all — the U.S., like Russia, is essentially locked into a geopolitical negotiating position, and variations in international relations are very much a give-and-take between nations.
My own feelings on Russia’s WWII past are far from settled, so let me take a moment to express my gratitude to the aforementioned writers, who made an effort to speak coherently about a subject that is, in the end, rather absurd. And what else indeed can be said about the slaughter of almost thirty million people? The debate rages on about the purpose of that sacrifice (for country? for family? for leader?), but nothing imaginable will ever satisfy our impulse to moral calculus. As for Russia’s “grappling” with its past and the founding tenets of the Russian Federation, here I also can’t help but throw my hands up. The very idea of a centralized, managed myth-production center is silly enough, but then again I can’t deny the human need for certain inspiring adornments to the social contract. Americans plant cherry trees of liberty and coordinate counterattacks on alien invaders via Morse Code, the French have a long tradition of topless, knife-toting freedom fighters, and the Chinese have discovered prosperity and learned to stamp it out of plastic for three cents a unit. It’s common to say that Russia ought to follow Germany’s example and seek contrition, but Germany is a castrated nation state, colonized and reshuffled for a generation by the external whims of the USA and USSR. For the average Russian, who resents his nation’s collapse into postcolonial poverty and weakness, I’m hardly confused by the lack of interest in mimicking Fritz.