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8 May 2016

The Shelf Life of the Myth

When will Russians start discussing World War II?

It is not an easy task to discuss history, especially when events of the distant past have become the cornerstone of current policy. Yet this is precisely what has happened in Russia, where the topic of the Great Patriotic War borders on a civil religion.

Like any religion, it has a single canonical interpretation and one language of description, a pantheon of martyrs and a bestiary of demons. Any deviation from the canon is regarded as heresy. Even the term “World War II” as opposed to “the Great Patriotic War” is deemed an unacceptable alternative in the eyes of many adherents to this religion.

The cult of the War was born in the Soviet days in the era of Brezhnev. Victory Day, the 9th of May, was not even a public holiday from 1947 to 1965. Only the twentieth anniversary of the capitulation of Germany was celebrated on a national scale. Starting that year, commemorative medals, awarded not for heroism in battle, but simply for old age, became customary.

It was precisely then that victory in the Great Patriotic War started to be used as the main legitimizer for the communist system in the USSR. The holiday was always accompanied by references to the leading role of the communist party in the triumph over Nazism. What was implicated was that only a country such as the Soviet Union could defeat National Socialism and hence, the fact of the defeat alone suffices to prove the appropriateness of the choice made in the early part of the century on one-sixth of the world’s land mass. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, the flag of the Great Patriotic War was adopted by the Russian Federation, cognizant of the fact that it was the heir to the Soviet empire.

Russia has been using the concept of the Great patriotic War for the last twenty years in order to bind together the entire post-Soviet space. On the one hand, the notion of being a contributor to the major military triumph of the 20th century constituted a thread that bound neighboring countries and, on the other, bestowed the status of main franchise holder upon Moscow. At the same time, the memory of the victory over Nazi Germany was necessary as a tool of “soft power” – as evidence of the need to integrate post-Soviet states. Only Yuri Gagarin, the  Soviet cosmonaut who was the first human to journey to outer space, could aspire to a similar role in terms of importance in the context of the Soviet Union’s historical achievements. However, the scientific and technological breakthrough in outer space paled in significance to victory in the war which claimed the lives of millions.

The only problem is that the every myth’s shelf life comes to an end sooner or later.

This is natural for history, simply because the legacy of any war continues as long as the soldiers who fought in it remain mortal and, along with growing martyrologies, memory ceases to be personal and becomes official and emasculated. The youngest survivor of the Great Patriotic War, who went to the front at the age of seventeen in early 1945, turned 88 today. This means that those carrying around living war memories will cease to exist in the coming years.

Today’s generation of twenty-year-olds will be the last to hear of the history of the war from their grandparents. Only the pages of history books and pallid statistics in encyclopedias will be available to the younger generations. There will be no personal accounts to accompany the lists of dates and geographical locations, and attitudes towards it will slowly become as abstract as the attitudes towards World War I.

Russia has already gone through something similar, in fact. The events of the Civil War were also once the personification of the battle between good and evil for the older generation. It did not matter on which side their sympathies had lain – they also perceived the events of those days as a black-and-white picture bereft of shades of grey. It was considered unacceptable to reflect upon the events of the Civil War and the official Soviet discourse was anchored on the Great October Revolution as an unshakable foundation.

As time went on, perception of the history of the Civil War in Russia evaporated until it came to resemble the very epitome of “the ruthless brother abattoir.” And today, there are no barriers to discussing any historical aspects of those days – there are no official bans and public opinion is rather too indifferent to create unofficial barriers.

Sooner or later, something akin to that will also start happening with the polished image of the Great Patriotic War which is cultivated by the contemporary Russian state. The state cult can be universal only while it coincides with grassroots individual attitudes; while parades are based on the memory of the stories told by grandparents; and while movies resonate with old black-and-white pictures from family albums.

A discrepancy between official discourse and personal experience will start to emerge. The more time that passes, the wider the gap will become. In the end, the historical debate, as an attack on that which is sacred, will cease to feature in public opinion, and it will become possible to discuss many issues related to World War II.

And then, at some point, Russian society will be faced with the fact that the events which occurred between 1939 and 1941 are no longer to be hidden from the public and silenced. Events such as the partition of Poland and the occupation of the Baltic States will become subjects of research, initially in articles, then in TV series and later on, perhaps in films. And although it is difficult to imagine a public debate on the reasons for the Red Army’s non-interference in the process of suppressing the Warsaw Uprising by Wehrmacht troops in today’s Russia, the situation is set to change sooner or later.

The example of Ukraine is quite telling: From 1991 to 2014, officials in Kyiv exemplified an approach similar to that of Russia in terms of attitudes to World War II. Soviet attitudes were dominant, even at the official level. Any mention of the guerilla detachments that fought against both the Soviet and German troops was perceived as unacceptable revisionism. The unofficial barriers were removed only after the invasion of the Russian army.

Ukraine today rejects the Soviet approach: “World War II” is preferred to “Great Patriotic War” in terms of terminology. Accordingly, the timeframe of those events is expanding: the starting point is no longer 1941, which marked aggression against the USSR, but rather 1939, which saw the invasion of Poland. The black-and-white picture is supplemented with halftones.

However, the main difference between Ukraine and Russia lies in the fact that Kyiv does not adopt the theme of the War as a foundation for everyday life; it presents boldly against the backdrop of public rhetoric. While Russian officials use the “Great Patriotic War” terminology ever so often (“fascists” or “castigators”), the Ukrainian president resorts to evoking Tolkien imagery by referring to the enemy as “Mordor.”

Sooner or later, modern Russia will also be forced to learn lessons from Ukraine. This will most likely be prompted by the collapse of today’s political reality as new authorities will simply be forced to abandon the resurgence of patriotic hysteria connected with events which occurred 70 years ago. It will happen when May 9th no longer constitutes an excuse to pardon the Soviet Union and all of its crimes against its own population. This process could start today should the Kremlin cease deliberately wagering its stakes on converting the history of World War II into a civil religion and the process of rethinking history will start as soon as public funding for this stops.

And everything comes down to the fact that each and every personal relationship with the past has its own shelf life. When this shelf life expires, the historical myth starts to crack. And it is quite possible that a fresh discussion about who inherits from Germany, the loser of the war, will supplant the discussion about who inherits from the victor, the Soviet Union. 

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