The tanks are already rolling through Moscow. For weeks before the official date roads are repeatedly closed off, window panes rattle, tracks and wheels grind down central streets. They're rehearsing for the 9th of May, 'Russia's greatest holiday' as the news presenters say carelessly, Victory Day. 9th May 1945, the armistice is signed with what remains of Nazi Germany. Night has already fallen when German officers put pen to paper. VE day is on the 8th of May in Western Europe but in Moscow midnight has already struck, so it's the 9th.
As a student of history I champion the cause of remembering that fateful moment more than most. Remember we should. But though the news presenters and politicians in Russia blithely trot out the same platitudes year after year they don't really remember it. They don't discuss anything new about it, though themes vitally important to Russia's future are crying out to be frankly and publicly aired. 'Victory Day' in Russia is not remembered, not properly, it is gaudily celebrated. And that is wrong.
In his book ‘Absolute War’, the historian Chris Bellamy writes that ,“If Russia wishes to move on, and confront future challenges safely, it must first confront and unravel its Stalinist past.” This is a vital point. Without a mature discussion of all that went on leading up to, in, and as a result of the Second World War Russians will continue to make decisions in the modern world based on the wrong motivations. But there has been no grown up public discussion of the subject to this day. The Russian government is primarily to blame. The Kremlin has too many easy points to score by ignoring the uncomfortable truths surrounding the Soviet Union and World War Two and keeping the subject one of mindless flag waving, fireworks, flowers and parades. That joviality was earned in 1945, not anymore.
We can already see some of the evil that such glossing over can lead to. The Kremlin has announced once again the need for a ‘standardised’ Russian school history textbook. When, as part of this documentary, the BBC looked at Russia’s last attempt at this they found the lies that Russian schoolchildren are being taught. The officially approved text states that as of 1941 the western allies were continuing their policy of appeasement towards Germany. Not only is this an outright lie. Allied service personnel died in fighting at this time and lies like that are an insult to their memory.
Insults to memory. There will be others here perpetrated by the Russian government and, sometimes consciously sometimes not, by other Russians. There will also be trends that started with the war that are today twisting public debate and policy in Russia and leading to innocent people being hurt and killed. Yes, history here really matters.
In so many conversations with so many otherwise intelligent, open minded Russians the childish, nationalistic nonsense spouted when it comes to world war two is inexcusable. So in the interests of honest history and politics here are some much needed home truths about Russia, the Soviet Union and the Second World War.
1. Yes, it’s the Second World War, not the Great Patriotic War as many Russians call it. Russia and the Soviet Union fought in the Second World War. The term Great Patriotic War is a convenient little communist creation to try and instill some pride in soldiers and people. Yes the Great Patriotic War did start with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941 and end on the 9th May 1945 in Germany. But ‘The Great Patriotic War’ was a misnomer from the moment it was coined. It is a dangerous misnomer that tries to hide the Soviet Union’s active role in the Second War War from the start, it’s involvement on the same side as Nazi Germany.
2. Oh yes, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies. The ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop’ pact it is known, also the Nazi-Soviet Pact. When it was announced to a shocked world in August 1939 the details made public were only of ‘non aggression’ between the two states. Young Germans are taught this. Most young Russians aren’t. But there was also a secret protocol where the two dictators worked together to launch aggressive war without provocation all over Eastern Europe. Hitler would invade western Poland. The Soviet Union would invade eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia and parts of Lithuania, Romania and Finland. Yes all of those swathes of other countries had Soviet troops invade them long before 1941. Watch the look of genuine amazement or embarrassment on a Russian’s face when they learn that Hitler’s Nazis and Stalin’s Communists had divided up Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and Finland between them. Two weeks after the Germans poured into Poland from the west Soviet troops flooded in from the east. Stalin continued his invasions into all of the above countries, throwing hundreds of thousands of troops at Finland in the winter of 1939.
3. That Nazi-Soviet pact is the perfect answer to the oft trotted out Russian gripe that, ‘Americans think they won the war. We lost 27 million dead fighting the Germans.’ That 27 million is most probably accurate as far as statistics can cope with such population and casualty figures, as it is true that Soviet troops did the lion’s share of the fighting against Nazi Germany. These necessary truths do not denigrate the bravery, sacrifice and heroism of soviet soldiers. The world truly owes them a debt of gratitude. But in today’s rabidly anti-western politics in Russia, this tragic statistic is twisted to try and say that Russia is good and America bad. Part of the reason the Soviet Union had to fight so hard is that they actively collaborated in helping Hitler’s conquest of Europe. Soviet oil from the Caucasus drove German tanks. Soviet grain from Ukraine fed German soldiers. If Stalin had not chosen Nazi Germany’s side at the war’s start and left Britain to fight alone from May 1940 to June 1941 the Soviet Union would not have lost that 27 million.
4. Then we come to the Soviet Union’s conduct in the Second World War. The Soviet army was a huge ethnic hotch potch. Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Caucasians (from the Caucasus region), Central Asians, Siberians and more fought like heroes to push back the hotch potch of German lead invading forces. But as in any army, some soviet soldiers were not just heroes but could also be bloodthirsty criminals. Soviet war crimes abound. Crimes by officers who could not or would not control their men. Crimes by a Soviet regime that lowered itself to the brutal standards of Nazi Germany in its treatment of prisoners of war, its own soldiers and ethnic minorities. That the Soviet Union was the one of the two that was invaded was of course a terrible crime and vengeance was right to live in the heart of every Soviet soldier. Of course Nazi treatment of Soviet prisoners and civilians was a terrible crime too.
But when over 20,000 Polish officers were taken from invaded Poland it was long before June 1941. It was the Soviet Union that had invaded Poland and all those officers were massacred by Stalin’s regime. Those who perpetrated it are probably dead. If any are left alive they should be put on trial. The attempt by Vladimir Putin to sort of apologise for the Katyn massacre all those decades later had such naked realpolitk showing through the display as to make it hollow. More than that, current Russian leaders have no right to say sorry on the culprits’ behalf. Katyn, like all the Soviet Union’s other crimes, is now a historical fact to be recognised and laid out in the open so that Russians can strive not to come close to such acts ever again.
By the 1960s in Germany there was public discussion and debate about the horrific crimes of the Nazi regime. Even today such a discussion has yet to take place in Russia. Forget the feelings of veterans. They can be rightfully lauded as heroes and at the same time condemned as murderers, thieves and rapists if they are found to be so. It was war, but that does not excuse Stalin’s regime starving German prisoners to death or sending their own soldiers into Gulags if they had been captured. Penal battalions (soldiers sent to walk minefields for any number of misdemeanours) were a horror and an asinine waste of manpower. That behaviour makes the Soviet Union no better than Nazi Germany. The state of war does not excuse the mass rape of as many as 2 million German women by Soviet soldiers advancing into Germany. It does not excuse the burning and looting of settlements and the murder of their populations, the most extreme example being the sack of Konigsberg in East Prussia. To this day Russia still holds that territory, calling it Kaliningrad.
5. At the war’s end Stalin’s Soviet Union behaved just like Nazi Germany had, occupying and imposing Soviet Regimes on most of Eastern Europe. Only after decades of control from Moscow, with Soviet tanks putting down dissent in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were the peoples of Eastern Europe able to throw off the Soviet jackboot. Many of those peoples knew before the war that the Soviet Union was as dangerous an enemy as Germany. Little wonder many joined the Nazi cause out of self interest to protect themselves. Little wonder those states are no friends to Russia now.
6. Now we come to Stalin himself. He was without doubt as bad a monster as Hitler, minus the master plan of ethnic extermination and enslavement. He was useful for the Soviet Union in the war as a figurehead only. It could have been anyone on those Soviet Propaganda posters and people would have rallied round. When war came Stalin’s motivational power paled into insignificance compared to the sheer anger at the heinous invasion and murder being perpetrated on Soviet soldiers and civilians by Nazi Germany.
The most important bubble that needs to be burst about Stalin comes back to that heartbreaking death toll. It would not have been 27 million dead if someone more competent had been in charge. Stalin was quite simply a terrible general, war leader and military organiser. His mind was rotten with power and paranoia. His purges in the 1930s denied the Soviet Armed forces of 90% of their top officers including such talented minds as Marshal Mikhail Tuchachevsky who arguably came up with a version of Blitzkrieg mobile warfare before the Germans did.
Stalin alone failed to see the German attack of June 1941 coming, ignoring constant warnings. Despite decades of historical debate his willful blindness still stands out in it’s stupidity. Solzhenitsyn’s observation that ‘Stalin only trusted one man, it’s just a shame that man was Adolf Hitler,’ speaks both to two characters alike and to that lack of foresight.
Once the war started Stalin proved time again how adept he was a ruining good plans and chances for successful operations. His order for a million troops to stand and defend Kiev even as it was being encircled could have been spotted as a catastrophe in the making by even an army cadet. The Soviet Union lost, unsurprisingly, over 700,000 soldiers in the battle of Kiev. It was only by pleading and cajoling that Georgy Zhukov and other officers were able to convince Stalin to back off just in time to stop Moscow itself falling. Before, during and after nearly all of the eastern front’s major battles Stalin pushed plans that were operationally infantile. Usually he favoured all out attacks and fights to the death as if war was some heroic game. He never wanted to bide his time and wait for the right moment, always having to be talked out of rash decisions by subordinates.
The one moment when the Soviet people could most have used his inspiration was at the very beginning of the German invasion when confusion, fear and rumour reigned. Instead he fled to his Dacha, burying himself in self pitying depression. Vyacheslav Molotov, the foreign minister (of Ribbentrop pact fame) gave the Soviet Union’s first wartime speech instead. After two weeks, with the Soviet Union getting on with the war without him his politburo comrades came to fetch Stalin. When they arrived he thought they had come to kill him. If they had, right then and there, the Soviet Union very likely would have done no worse, very possible better.
Once again the true heroes are the Soviet officers and soldiers who bled, starved, died, and eventually learned and fought to victory. They won the war despite Stalin and the Soviet leadership, not because of him. And what did they get for their efforts? Soldiers who had been captured or surrounded were sent to Gulags. Whole peoples Stalin thought disloyal were deported to work or starve elsewhere. Georgy Zhukov himself, a cruel but successful Marshal was lucky to keep his life after he rode the white horse at the 1945 victory parade. Stalin was supposed to but was too scared. In a fit of childish jealousy he demoted Zhukov and sent him to a small command out in Siberia.
7. And what of the veterans since? Indeed veterans that served throughout the decades of the cold war. Many today live in poverty. Their pensions are tiny, their flats falling apart. They are dressed up and presented on victory day for the spectacle. Russians do right by them on that day. They say thankyou to them, present them with flowers, take photos with them. But sometimes it seems like they are a kind of tourist attraction. Rarely are their stories listened to or their present day concerns heard.
They are the only real link with what happened all those decades ago. Most people only see how much their number has dwindled once a year at victory day amidst modern parading tanks that weren’t there to help them then, or nuclear missiles that would look more at home trundling through North Korea than through a supposed Russian federal democracy. This long after the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union serious questions have to be asked of a country that still deems it necessary to hold parades on this day, not as a solemn memorial but as a sordid and paper thin display of ignorant bombast.
Most years millions of orange and black ribbons are given out on Russia’s streets for people to wear. On the surface it seems an equivalent of the poppies worn in Britain for the 11th of November ceremony remembering the dead of war. But victory day is not like the 11th of November and the ribbons are not like Britain’s poppies. The ribbons aren’t taken seriously. Here is a constructive suggestion I have for how Russia can more usefully and caringly remember the occasion. If everyone paid just 10 roubles( 20 UK pence, 30 US cents) for a ribbon millions could be raised to improve conditions for the heroes that everyone lauds so much. The donation doesn’t have to be obligatory. I think Russians would be happy to pay if given the chance. I certainly don’t think Russians are deliberately negligent or cruel to their veterans. But despite their kindness Russia’s victory day is by its ignorance of their plight, an insult to the very contribution veterans are hailed for. Each victory day is like this. But war is absolutely not the glorious crusade portrayed in modern Russian low budget war films or in the carefully manicured archive footage plastering TVs every year. For German and Russian alike, and all the ethnicities that fought under their banners, war brought life shattering horrors. The really sad thing is that despite their good will Russians have forgotten how sad and dire a warning Victory Day is. There are two minutes of silence every Victory Day, often lost on the crowds busy singing and drinking. But for those that care enough, there you will see the tears.
I have been to eternal flames of memory in Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Kursk, Moscow and elsewhere and shed a tear for the supreme sacrifice of those brave men and women. But there are those in modern Russia who have taken things shamefully the wrong way. The do not shed tears but wield banners and, of all things, hobnail boots. The country has a growing problem with ultra right wing nationalists who not only display, but act on Nazi ideas. That swastika wearing Neo-Nazi skinheads can be parading, calling for ethnic purity (their slogan- Russia for the Russians), beating up and killing other ethnic minorities in modern Russia is a supreme and tragic historical irony. They have some of the most twisted outlooks of all to justify their violence and hatred. While Hitler never got to Moscow, with each convert to this way of thinking, his invasion is belatedly succeeding.
Tears are what I must end on. I invited a British friend a while ago to come and visit me. He was interested in history and knew the Soviet people had suffered terribly in the Second World War. But I made sure I took him to Moscow’s Victory Park and it’s Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow. From the ceiling of the dimly lit, quiet, cool marble hall dangle over two million tear shaped crystals, each representing tears shed for the millions of Soviets who died. We were both moved close to tears ourselves. And that is, sadly but importantly, what Victory Day should make one feel. Germany has faced up to its terrible wartime past and has recovered socially and economically since. So has Japan. In Britain, the US, France, Italy and a host of other countries difficult truths have been remembered and painfully accepted. Russia and the Russians have not yet faced up to their terrible wartime past nor have they recovered from it. The talk in Russia is still tasteless hyperbole about a great soviet victory combined with a needlessly militaristic display of force. There are plenty of other occasions when Russians can and do show their pride in their country and their military. But on this day it needs to stop. Russia is not the Soviet Union. That should make it easier to look this subject in the face. Apologies are not useful. But it is time for everything to be said and everything heard, slowly and deliberately. Bright commemoration of that great Victory and thanks to veterans are right and proper. But Victory Day should be a day of solemn reflection and tears, for the pity of that war, for the pity of all wars and for all that has been lost in them.