The Great Patriotic War in Vladimir Putin’s Russia signifies the staple of perseverance and victory for the Russian people. Any careful reading of history testifies to why Putin would use The Great Patriotic War to his advantage.
I will do precisely that in this blog post.
Clearly, the Russian war effort against Nazi forces diverted their attention from Western forces. The Battle for Stalingrad, for example, held between 1942 and 1943 claimed more than 1 million Red Army lives. Other infamous Russian battles tell a similar story.
Indeed, Russia suffered heavier losses than every other Allied nation during World War II. According to the statistical evidence, Russia is responsible for a large part of the war effort against Germany. In fact, the British historian and journalist Max Hastings writes in “Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945” that the Red Army was “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction.”
The now infamous video footage of Putin standing in the rain to commemorate victims of World War II features a stoic Putin who cares less about his image than other world leaders. In reality, Putin’s image is his most cherished asset to power and helps in the subjugation of the Russian people. When asked about this moment, Putin said “It didn’t even cross my mind to use an umbrella at that moment. I’m not made of sugar, I won’t melt.”
Moments like these are either fortunate accidents captured on camera, or purposefully crafted by the media to highlight humanness, honor, and leadership.
The Red Army was “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction.”
Putin’s patriotism and drive to create a strong image for Russia is also one of the reasons why when Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, many Russian patriots cheered. In the end, Crimea formerly belonged to Russia, Russians thought; Putin was simply “strong” enough to take it back. Indeed, after Crimea’s annexation, Putin’s approval ratings went from 54 to 83 percent, remaining stable ever since.
The Troubling Past of The Great Patriotic War
When retelling The Great Patriotic War, Russia interestingly enough fails to mention some of the less positive moments. In fact, Russia continues to cover up Stalin’s crimes during and preceding World War II. The three history textbooks sanctioned by the Ministry of Education in 2016 all failed to mention Stalin’s war crimes and his brief alliance with Nazi Germany, for example.
In his article, “History, Memory and National Identity,” Igor Torbakov explains that there are two main objectives for pursuing a politicized and instrumentalized history. Firstly, it is to construct a “massively cohesive national identity.” We were able to see this in Putin’s responses to the alleged Chechen bombings of Moscow, uniting the Russian people’s sense of patriotism. We also saw it in Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in the way he discusses the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century.
All these statements and actions helpfully reinforce patriotism and nationalist tendencies in citizens. Secondly, Torbakev explains, politicizing history leads to “eschewing the problem of guilt.” The patriotism exemplified by the Red Army and obvious help in defeating Axis forces does not dismiss Russia’s fair share of human rights violations. However, by instrumentalizing history, Putin is able to manufacture pride where guilt should reside.
When retelling the Great Patriotic War or “great Victory,” Soviet rulers, Yeltsin, and Putin all used different methods to utilize the power memory has on citizens. For the Soviet rulers, the War served as a way to legitimize their political power over the Baltic states since they “liberated” them from Nazi rule.
Yeltsin, however, aimed to build legitimacy on democratizing and civilizing Russia. On the other hand, the uprising of Putin promised an “apolitical” future, where nationhood, or narod, was the highest priority. However, as Torbakov points out, by the mid-1990s, Russia had seen a “gradual return” to their previous concept of a “Great Russia.”
In this Russia, formerly Soviet states rightly belong to Russia because of their membership in the Soviet Union. Arguably, this is one of the reasons why invasions of large areas of Georgia, Crimea, and now Donbas are legitimized by pro-Putin advocates.
For the Russian people, the end of the Soviet Union was not simply a loss of territory but rather of history and identity. The identity of Russia is not one that many Russian people frown upon. In fact, in one 2009 survey conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian pollster, approximately 49 percent of Russians believed that Stalin played a positive role in Russia’s history and only 33 percent thought he played a negative role. The difference between Russia’s retelling of its history in the 20th century and that of Eastern and some Central European states seem to be light and day.
For the post-Communist Eastern and Central European states, Stalin’s Russia was almost as vicious and barbaric as when the Nazi occupants stormed through on their way to defeat Stalin. In fact, Stalinist purges led to the starvation of millions of Ukrainians preceding the war in one of the most appalling genocides of the 20th century, the Holodomor (1932–33). For reasons I will discuss below, the Holodomor was only recognized as a genocide by Ukrainian law in 2006. Many European countries were not allowed to grieve their losses and occupation until after they were accepted into Europe, or rather the “Western European story.”
The already mentioned Torbakov writes that there are three main narratives concerning war and dictatorship in Europe:
- (1) a Western European story,
- (2) a Soviet-Russian story,
- and (3) an Eastern European story.
Torbakov explains that Eastern Europeans remember the years of oppression as “dark years of Soviet occupation” and hoped for a “return to Europe.” Eastern Europe largely feels ignored when reading popular retellings of World War II.
Eastern Europe and The Great Patriotic War
Historians Norman Davies and Timothy Snyder, along with others, argue that Eastern Europe’s “devastating” experience during the War must be “recovered” and “reintegrated” into a factual retelling of history. Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, but even Slovakia and other oft-forgotten nations, once behind the Iron Curtain were left “marginalized” from a European understanding of the War.
In the words of the former president of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus, for many Eastern European nations, “May 8 of 1945 did not bring victory over violence but simply change of oppressor.” Other historians such as Snyder agree and conclude that 1945 is not an instance of victory for Eastern Europe, but rather a “transition” from Nazi to Soviet rule.
The Great Patriotic War, therefore, serves as a symbol of nationalism and perseverance in the effort of liberalizing Europe for the Russian people. For others in Europe, especially those in the East, Soviet rule was simply a reinstallment of subjugation by oppressors under a different flag. The retelling of history by Russia effectively helps in the effort to embed a national identity that unites Russia and is meant to bring back former Soviet states.
When the European project fails, Putin will likely reinstate his “liberalization” propaganda as when relaying Russia’s troublesome past under Stalin to Russians today. In one way, yes, Russia was the primary reason Nazi rule ended in Europe. However, that did not end oppression and we should remember that well after Putin admits otherwise.
“May 8 of 1945 did not bring victory over violence but simply change of oppressor.” — Valdas Adamkus
If you like this post, you can check out my previous post from this brief series (4 to 6 blog posts about Russian Politics) I’m doing right now. Here’s a link:
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