This week all over the world people and nations are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. For those who suffered the most, it’s an especially bittersweet time to reflect on loss as well as triumph and victory. The sadness and grief is tempered by much pomp and circumstance, parades of veterans and survivors, grateful to be alive to reunite and celebrate one more year. Yet every year, of course, the numbers of those veterans and survivors grows smaller. And with their passing come the loss of witnesses to history, their memories and the inevitable loss of history itself.
This year, what should have been a momentous occasion for old allies to unite in honoring the glory of the Soviet peoples’ Victory Day, has been marred, to say the least, by renewed mistrust, animosity, aggression, and even war. Most of the world’s leaders have decided to bow out of Moscow’s May 9th celebration, in quiet and not so quiet protest over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, events that have shattered the path we thought we were all on, to an enlightened future where war was a thing of the past.
It’s not only outside of Russia that people are dismayed about Russia’s recent belligerence. Many Russians themselves, mostly those in the political opposition to Putin’s regime, have voiced concern, outrage and shame over Russia’s brutal foray into war in Ukraine. These Russians don’t get their news solely from state media. They listen to Echo Moscow, watch TVrain and read Novaya Gazeta. They have witnessed their country backslide into Soviet era repression and corruption. They have been victims of harassment, intimidating investigations, fabricated criminal cases, and beatings. They’ve witnessed their own marginalization and vilification as enemies of the people. They’ve even witnessed the shocking assassination of Boris Nemtsov, who was on the verge of publishing details of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. These Russians understand that the authorities’ denials about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine are false.
Lev Shlosberg is one such Russian. A journalist, publisher and elected deputy from the Yabloko Party in Pskov Regional Assembly, Shlosberg helped to uncover information that directly contradicted the government’s claim that Russian troops were not fighting in Ukraine alongside the so-called “separatists.” He spearheaded an investigation into the deaths of his constituents, paratroopers from the elite 76th Airborne Division based in Pskov. He found they had been buried silently in unmarked graves amid rumors that they had been killed fighting in Ukraine. Shlosberg went on to publish these findings. Shortly thereafter, he became the victim of a brutal beating, knocking him unconscious and landing him in the hospital with amnesia, a broken nose and serious head injuries. There is little doubt in his mind his attack was an attempt to silence him and curtail his investigative activities so that Russia’s soldiers could continue fighting and dying in Ukraine without the world’s knowledge.
Even before his traumatic encounter with violence, whether directly or indirectly at the hands of Russian authorities, Shlosberg was a powerful critic of the Kremlin and its policies. Today his blogpost at Echo Moscow’s website addressed the deeply troubling psychological aspects of propaganda, memory and identity surrounding Russia’s upcoming May 9th Victory Day. He is not the first to discuss the manipulation of memory, but he eloquently and insightfully captures the uniqueness of the present context, where memories faded and on the verge of disappearing have become ripe ground for repurposing by today’s Russia. It’s a poignant reminder of what’s at stake for Russians in both honoring and remembering their own history. Below is a full translation of Shlosberg’s blog in English. Buckle up, you will be moved.
The Russian government is cynically transforming the memory of the Great Victory in World War II into a weapon of allegiance to today’s leaders.
May 9, 1945 was a Great National Holiday. The war is over. The living have already mourned the fallen. No one will ever be able to describe the horror of that war. The measure of this horror is understood by the millions who died, having to endure their last years, months, days, hours, minutes of their tortured lives. Only they could describe their suffering. But they will not describe it. The only good fortune of 1945 was surviving the hell. And that it truly was hell, every survivor understood.
May 9 had been a national holiday only 4 times before 1948. Afterwards, it again became a regular work day. The authorities, particularly Stalin, feared people’s memory of the war. They were afraid because they knew that the people who had survived the war knew the truth. Including the truth about who and how the war was won. Who and how victory was paid for. The truth from the trenches was a higher truth than that from the state. That truth was known by tens of millions of people. They have been dying off every year, by the many thousands. They, the witnesses, took with them their genuine testimony of the truth.
May 9 returned as a holiday only in 1965, on the 20th anniversary of the Victory. In 1967, the eternal flame was lit at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin wall. The narration of the televised “minute of silence” has been changed several times. The first was written as a prayer. But although the Soviet state changed the ritual, it did not transform the meaning of Victory Day as a Day of Remembrance of the Fallen, a Day of Glory and Sorrow. The war’s millions of participants and witnesses would not have let such a thing happen.
The Soviet Union didn’t wage a single war after 1945 under the banner of the Great Patriotic War. When it became clear the its glory and honor were insufficient, the Russian state, however, decided to cover over the Great Patriotic War, and to take advantage of the glory and honor of the previous generation to suit its own purposes. In place of the Great Patriotic War, in place of the fighting and suffering of all the peoples of the USSR, the Russian government has put forth itself. And it is not doing so in the abstract, but with quite specific top officials of the current regime. For the sole purpose of justifying their recent ignominious policies, including the policy of hostility and war.
The Russian government has decided to steal the meaning of Victory Day, and replace it with another meaning – a false and dishonest one. The Russian government has now decided to become a participant in the Great Patriotic War – decades later, when there isn’t a single war veteran left in the ranks of the country’s leadership.
The Russian government has decided to place the Great Victory onto the battlefields of today’s hot and cold wars, together with its symbols, signs and glory. The front lines of the new wars do not exactly coincide with the front lines of the Great Patriotic War, the Second World War. Russia’s front line today in the war against “fascism” is waged on the vast fields of foreign affairs, including the bloody ones. The Russian government is blatantly equating the Great Patriotic War with the criminal wars of the XXI century, ones it has started. The Russian government is trying to cover up and justify its own crimes by invoking the people’s Great Victory in 1945.
The Russian state has surrounded itself with thugs who lead and serve in wars completely different from WWII, yet with extraordinary ease they throw around that they’re fighting “fascism.” No matter what the political issue, opponents of the Russian Federation are regularly called “fascists.” Anyone who does not agree with the policy of the Russian Federation in the international affairs is now deemed a “fascist.” The very allies of the USSR who struggled against fascism together with our country and our people, who suffered through to great victory and brought to the altar their victims, are now called “fascists.” Anyone who stands for peace against war, if that war is waged by the Russian Federation, is now called a “fascist.” Just because a person does not agree with the approach of the Russian Federation to the issues of war and peace, with its political and military adventures.
White and black, the colors and signs have reversed. The Victory that belongs to the people, attained with their blood and tears, is now called upon to serve the political needs of the day. Mobilized, dressed in a different uniform, and sent to a new front.
Symbols of history have changed their original meaning. The St. George ribbon* – the fire and smoke of war – a ribbon of sorrow and glory, a ribbon for military orders and medals, has now been transformed from a military honor of valor into a political flag, a marker of modern political warfare. It is used by people who not only have not spent a single day on the front but have never been in the army. They have never risked their lives nor shed any blood. It’s come to this. To scarves and bows with symbols of St. George ribbons. Soon there probably will be ties, and God knows what else.
Before our eyes, the celebration of Victory Day is becoming the glory of those who have never fought [for this victory]. Even worse – the celebration of Victory Day has become an opportunity for international provocations. The ribbon of an honest soldier’s glory has been made into the political symbol of illegal armed groups waging an illegal war. Decent governments who didn’t want to have groups of thugs and provocateurs on motorcycles on their territory were then accused by the Russian Foreign Ministry of “mocking the memory of the fallen in the Great Patriotic War.” Were these veterans of the Great Patriotic War, or a cynical political stunt by thugs nurtured by the current regime? What does one have to do with the other? These aren’t even soldiers of a single army.
In the final years of the war’s living participants, the Russian government in its hatred of the surrounding world, has decided to use the ashes and glory of the fallen as a shield in its battle against anyone who disagrees or dissents. The Russian state has stepped outside of history, ripped out the most glorious chunk, drenched in the blood of the people, and now waves around their blood-soaked glory, demanding recognition of any and all of its actions, in the name of the Great Victory. Now that’s what I would call traitorous and a mockery.
This government has no saints, only sinners. So it decided to steal saints from another generation. From those who can feel no shame. From those who cannot protect themselves, their name or their glory. This is the political occupation of memory.
But such a cynical exploitation of history is also very dangerous for the people. Victory Day – is a part of the people’s DNA code, part of their identity. Recoding Victory Day is a severe blow to the consciousness of the people. Their intention is not only to replace the symbols, but they want to replace the very consciousness, worldview, and system of values of modern humanity.
Russia needs soldiers for its new wars; its needs an army, one that doesn’t know the truths of history. This is the kind of army the Russian state wants to create using the Russian people now living, to send them off to new wars.
In order to justify these wars there must be a very strong foundation. A foundation which lies beyond rationality or reason, a foundation affecting the very roots of our national consciousness, to create its own new prototype. The Russian government found this foundation in the folk memory of the Great Patriotic War, the Great Victory. The Russian state has decided to use the people’s memory of the Great Patriotic War and of the Great Victory for their current political goals. They decided to steal people’s memory and replace it with false political slogans, oaths of allegiance to the Motherland, and to Putin.
In essence, this is an attempt to replace the people themselves. This is a moral crime that has no statute of limitations. To save ourselves, to remain a people, so that we do not betray the dead and the living, we the people must resist this political plague. Victory Day, the Memory of the Fallen, the Sorrow and the Glory of the Great Patriotic War are inviolable. Attempts to use them to justify current policies reflect the deep abyss into which the lost morality and honor of the state has fallen.
It’s possible to build a new state in the place of the collapsed one. But we cannot rebuild memory; we can only save it. It is important to keep the well of the Great Victory clean. In it is the life force of a people, the life force that’s needed in order to live and survive.
* Below are some photos of the ubiquitous orange and black striped St George ribbon, potent symbol of Russia’s new patriotism and militarism. It’s worn by young and old, appears on tanks and billboards, even on toys.