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Covering up tragedy and the myth of the Great Patriotic War

As the successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia’s great power status is arguably dependent on the legacy of the Great Victory and a sense of moral superiority. Any challenges to Russia’s status as victor and liberator in the Second World War, including an overemphasis on the Soviet Union’s failures or the high number of deaths, could potentially damage Russia’s sense of identity and geopolitical ambitions.

September 30, 2021 - Jade McGlynn - Analysis

Photo: Press office of the President of Russia (CC) Source: http://www.kremlin.ru/photo/11027?page=1

Since Soviet times, Russians have described Victory Day as “the holiday with tears in our eyes”. But in the Putin era, the official narrative of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) provides little explanation of what might have caused these tears. While heroism and self-sacrifice both features prominently in the government’s retellings of the war, they are cited as further evidence of Russian exceptionalism rather than as a cause for reflection. 

Since 2012, the Russian government has used the Great Patriotic War as a unifying force and sacred myth. This has led to what Elena Rozhdestvenskaya describes as “the hyper-exploitation of the past Victory” of 1945, which involves “the constant making-present of the war experience’. The memory of this Victory and how it was achieved were codified in Russia’s 2020 constitutional amendments and officials decry attempts to question or disagree with the state-sponsored narrative as efforts at historical falsification, an action often punishable by law. 

Over-exploited victory  

The May 9th military parade held to mark the Great Victory is arguably the focal point of the war myth, as well as an excellent opportunity for the Kremlin to remind its people, its neighbours, and those further afield, of Russian military prowess past and present. Since 2017, there has also been a second annual parade, which recreates the October Revolution Parade November 7th, 1941. Joseph Stalin ordered the original event to take place during the Battle for Moscow, it was a daring show of defiance and strength as the Nazis pressed down on the gates of Moscow. The recent reconstructions have sought to resurrect this sense of defiance, broadcasting footage of the 1941 parade on large screens as the backdrop to the marching modern-day soldiers. 

Yet, how the Germans reached the gates of Moscow is barely remembered at all. As well as embracing the Great Patriotic War cult – and a broader nostalgia for the Soviet Union – the Russian authorities have often regrafted Soviet historical narratives onto these events. In particular, the Putin-era narrative of 1941-45 is indebted to the neo-Stalinist history of the Brezhnev era, with its war infatuation, constant memorialisation, and focus on self-sacrifice and glory. 

In this narrative, there is and was little mention of the horrors of the Nazi advances, occupations, and victories. There is little discussion of how, after invading on June 22nd 1941, the Nazis raced through the western Soviet Union, making astonishing advances on Kyiv, Leningrad and Moscow. As they advanced, they inflicted staggering numbers of civilian and army casualties, causing up to 1.75 million military deaths by the end of the year. This figure includes neither the millions taken prisoner (many of whom would die in captivity) nor the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. In the winter of 1941, the monthly number of Leningraders dying from starvation eclipsed the total number of British civilians killed in the Blitz. 

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Stalinist authorities silenced this incredible trauma, not letting the heroism of the Soviet people overshadow Stalin’s leadership role – or, worse still, remind everyone of the state’s abject failure to properly prepare for war and protect its people in 1941. Although this approach softened under Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw, the Red Army retreats and German advances of 1941 were excluded from Leonid Brezhnev’s rigid war narrative, and it was only during glasnost that ordinary people could freely read about those awful months of retreat and encirclement.  

History changed so quickly in the late 1980s that schoolteachers would throw away their textbooks and use newspapers or so-called thick journals to teach history instead.  Inevitably, the ability to freely discuss history led to some disturbing revelations about the war, revealing not only the cost of the Soviet victory but some of the crimes committed alongside the heroism, from the forced annexation of the Baltic States to the shooting of Polish soldiers in Katyń.  

The maelstrom of new histories was overwhelming and soon overtaken by the collapse of the Soviet Union, of living standards, and of life expectancy during the wild 1990s. By the time Putin became president, many Russian citizens felt a nostalgia for the USSR, one informed by the awful realities of shock therapy. In this atmosphere, many were pleased to see the return of the Soviet national anthem, the May 9th military parades and, over time, return of previous historical narratives. In recent years, history has remained one of the very few unifying elements in Russian society, with 90% taking pride in the Great Patriotic War.  

Pride and prejudice 

Many Russians were tired of feeling ashamed of their past but, as ever, historical pride comes at the cost of a certain amount of honesty and knowledge. After Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the government’s instrumentalisation of the Great Patriotic War became ever more pronounced. There was still a place for tragedies within the official narrative, but they have tended to be localised to key events, like the 1943 massacre in the Belarusian village of Khatyn committed by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. These tragedies often served as an interpretive framework for current affairs, with the Khatyn example used to evoke analogies between Ukrainian nationalists then and Ukrainian nationalists during and after 2014. 

Ultimately, the Russian government can “use” tragedy if it supports, or at least does not contradict, the three main elements underpinning the Kremlin’s worldview: that Russia needs a strong state; that Russia must develop along its own special path; that Russia is a great power with a global mission to lead. There are many reasons that the Great Patriotic War has become the core usable history in Russia – not least the fact that the war was a time of almost unfathomable heroism, bravery and self-sacrifice by the Russian (and other Soviet) people. But it is also notable that it is closely intertwined with, even imperative for the existence of, the three elements mentioned above.  

As the successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia’s great power status is arguably dependent on the legacy of the Great Victory, from which it gained its seat at the UN Security Council, Soviet superpower status, and a sense of moral superiority. Consequently, any challenges to Russia’s status as victor and liberator in the Second World War, including an overemphasis on the USSR’s failures or high number of deaths, could potentially damage Russia’s sense of identity and geopolitical ambitions. In 2013, the government attacked the opposition TV channel Dozhd for debating whether the USSR should have surrendered Leningrad to the Nazis to avoid unnecessary civilian suffering. This set the forbidding tone for discussion of similar topics, including the summer of 1941.  

Partners in war 

The 1941 retreat(s) fit awkwardly into the Kremlin’s preferred narrative of the war because the chaos of those months problematises the narrative that the Soviet Victory was in part thanks to the strength of the Stalinist state, an interpretation that also attempts to make sense of and justify the Great Terror. This does not only cause problems for visions of the past, it also undermines the “strong state” ethos promoted by Vladimir Putin. It also inevitably raises awkward questions pertaining to the start of the Second World War, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. 

Despite this, the defeats and tragedies of 1941 are not completely absent from political discourse. To understand more about how the government and state-affiliated and supportive media address 1941, I conducted a narrative analysis of all references to this period since 2012 across the websites of the Russian presidential administration, ministry of foreign affairs, ministry of defence, ministry of culture, Rossiyskaya Gazeta (the government daily newspaper), Komsomolskaya Pravda (a pro-government tabloid), and TV Zvezda (a state-owned network funded by the military of defence). In total, I collected for narrative analysis from 140 separate articles that dealt in a detailed way with the topic of the Soviet Union’s early defeats in the Great Patriotic War.   

Of immediate, if not surprising, note is the relative lack of articles discussing the 1941 retreats and tragedies, especially in the context of the Great Patriotic War’s oversaturation of Russian news and political discourse. Moreover, 90 per cent of the references came from three media outlets as opposed to the government websites. 

Across all the sources, there were three predominant narratives that constituted 89 per cent of all references. The highest number of articles (62) focused on the suffering of Soviet troops and civilians. A further 34 described heroic actions during defeat or withdrawal, and then another 28 centred on enemy aggression, treachery, or cruelty. While cognisant of the tragedy and suffering inflicted by the Nazis, these references all focus exclusively on the victim/perpetrator binary, without exploring any complicating “grey” areas.  

For example, the government sources appeared to share the blame for war between the Nazis and the West’s slow response, picking up the narrative promoted in Putin’s controversial 2020 article for National Interest on the origins of the Second World War. On the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion, the Russian foreign ministry published an article bemoaning how “the British leadership in no way hurried to provide concrete military help to the Soviet Union during that same terrible and tragically memorable summer of 1941 when it really did need the help so very much”. There is little historical basis for these assertions, nor of course any mention of the material support provided by the USSR to the Nazis during the blitz, but that is not important. What is important is that it fuels the argument that the Soviets beat the Nazis alone, despite the Allies, rather than with help from them.  

Prisoners included 

The tone towards those countries who had suffered occupation by the Soviet army because of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact was one of derision and denial. Nor was there any mention of mass desertions or collaborations. Instead, Putin used 2014 speech commemorating 75 years of victory to declare that in the Soviet Union “there was none of this cynical national treachery and calculated shameful cowardice as, by the way, was the case in several European countries which surrendered to the fascists without a fight”. The underlying message is clear: Russia/the USSR had to fight so hard because other countries did not, it was special in its decision to do so and in the uniquely brave and committed way it did so. 

While the Kremlin and foreign ministry rarely reference 1941 (there were only three and six mentions, respectively), the ministry of culture had a slightly different approach across its twelve mentions. Rather than point fingers, the culture ministry’s content acknowledges tragedy (if not weakness), even organising and promoting exhibitions in 1941 that feature the “the life of a simple Soviet soldier”, encompassing the bitter retreat and even concentration camps.

This difference in tone is in part due to the role and legacy of Vladimir Medinsky, culture minister from 2012-2018, and now presidential aide on questions of memory and history. Medinsky has been much maligned for his propagandistic treatment of history but some of his efforts have been more positive, including attempts to include the experiences of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) within the official narrative.  

The speed of the German advance saw millions of Soviet troops taken prisoner, and many froze or starved to death in the extraordinarily harsh conditions of their detention. Even after Soviet liberation, when former POWs returned to the USSR, the authorities shunned and shamed them, even sending some to the Gulag for the “crime” of having been captured alive.  

Medinsky and his father Rostislav Medinsky have made efforts to incorporate some POWs stories into the war narrative, using their leadership roles in the Russian military historical society, a powerful and well-funded government-organised NGO, to raise and restore monuments to Soviet POWs. These welcome efforts broaden the narrative although they cannot be said to do so in any way that raises awkward questions.  

It is not especially surprising that (any) state mouthpieces should advance narratives that promote admiration or sympathy for its own citizens under adverse circumstances, or narratives that portray the adversary in a negative light. But it is still remarkable that over the course of nine years, there were only 21 references to the 1941 tragedies that portrayed the Soviet Union’s war effort in a negative light. 

Dispersed relatively evenly between 2012-2021, these 21 mentions included six criticisms of senior officers or Soviet leadership, four mentions of the shortages that beset the military in those days, three references to Soviet cruelty against its own people, and two discussions of officer’s failings during the retreat. Other unique narratives included Soviet unreadiness, poor military performance, cowardice, chaos in retreat, guilt and treachery by a high-ranking officer.  

The government ministries never advance any of these critical narratives, which are instead all located in either Rossiyskaya Gazeta or Komsomolskaya Pravda. For these sources, their inclusion of (still relatively few) stories about 1941 is most likely a consequence of both outlets’ enduring and detailed coverage of historical topics especially from 1941-1945. This coverage reflects a public appetite for stories about the war as well.  

Collaborative myth 

In his excellent book on political uses of the Great Patriotic War myth, Guardian journalist Shaun Walker recalls an interview in which Aleksandr Dugin where he explains: “you can’t say that Putin forced the war cult on people, but you also can’t say that the people independently demanded it”. This may well be true but ordinary Russian citizens did not necessarily demand the war myth be presented in the way the authorities have chosen, as illustrated by the case of the Immortal Regiment. 

Established by three independent journalists from Tomsk, the Immortal Regiment is a Victory Day mass movement procession in which participants walk alongside portraits of relatives who witnessed the Second World War. According to Sergei Lapenkov, one of the three founders and their chosen spokesman, the march was envisaged as a means of remembering family members who contributed to the Great Patriotic War effort, even and especially where they did not fit official narratives: for example, family members who had been taken prisoner by the Germans. The idea was very popular, growing from one city in Russia in 2012 to 1,200 cities across twenty countries by 2015. 

The march’s ability to unify people around their shared memory also drew the attention of the authorities, especially as the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over fascism approached in 2015. The Moscow authorities staged a hostile takeover of the movement, setting up another organisation with an identical name and forcing volunteers from the original Immortal Regiment into joining their official version. In this new version, artificiality began to replace authenticity and schoolchildren were sent out to parade with portraits of random people, not their relatives. The apolitical nature was lost, as Putin came to head the May 9th Moscow processions, often flanked by friendly foreign leaders. In this way, the government subverted the evident desire for a personal, apolitical connection to the reality of the war, for an opportunity to honour the dead rather than politicise them. 

In the end, this perhaps was one of the most painful and forgotten consequences of the Putin-era (ab)uses of the Great Patriotic War myth. The Russian government’s efforts to use the memory of the war to negate the suffering of East Europeans are well-documented. But it is much rarer to find coverage of how the Kremlin’s intensive efforts to appropriate the 1945 victory as its own also steal that experience from the Russian people(s). The suffering and heroism of the Soviet and Russian nations belongs to them, not to a government that distorts that experience for political ends and limits its citizens’ freedom to learn about their own traumatic history, to study their own suffering, and to remember their dead without politicisation.  

Jade McGlynn is an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank specialising in foreign affairs.

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