As some of you may have noticed, I’m a bit cynical. I’m not very optimistic at all. Some people get the impression that I hate Russia and everything associated with it. Of course this is nonsense. What I hate here is a particular cultural trend, carefully cultivated by the power structure. But then you might ask, why focus on the bad? Why not just ignore the legions of vatniks and busy yourself with your own hobbies like you supposedly used to do years ago? Well unfortunately my job not only eliminates most of my free time, but it also forces me to have to listen to the statements of Putin, Lavrov, and everyone else who must surely have popped out of a tiny car in some circus, somewhere. There is a deeper factor though, and if you do not know this you cannot understand the kind of rage I feel sometimes living in this country. It would take me many pages to fully illustrate this experience, but luckily there is a very concrete example which can serve as a microcosm of what I feel living in 2015 Russia.
I have long struggled for a proper analogy, and I can’t say that I have found a suitable one yet, but I ask that you bear with me. Imagine there is a subject which you love intensely. It’s not merely a hobby, it is a passion. It is something you’ve sunk money into and time into. You gave up other things for the sake of this passion. Now imagine that some other people, who never had any interest in your passion, decided that it was somehow useful to them in furtherance of their own base goals. They begin to appropriate the subject you love, drag it through the mud, and by their insistence on associating themselves with it, the thing you once loved is marred by its connection with those vultures. Eventually you find yourself hating the thing you once loved. You don’t want to hear about it anymore. You don’t want to talk about it. It feels like a great part of your life was wasted, because every time you think about that thing you loved, you see the scum who corrupted it and you’re no longer able to sever the two in your own mind.
That, folks, is what happened to me. Since the age of 14 I had been intensely interested in the so-called “Eastern Front” of the Second World War. Like most English-speakers who take such an interest, I became acquainted with the subject via German sources, hence the use of the term “Eastern Front” in popular English parlance. In my case it was F.W. von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles, which included a specific chapter on the peculiarities of fighting with the Red Army. No such study on any other Allied army had been included. Around the same time I saw the World at War episodes on Operation Barbarossa and Stalingrad.
Stalingrad especially resonated with me. Of course what we refer to as the “battle of Stalingrad” was in fact a massive campaign stretching back to the Don near Voronezh and all the way down to the Caucasus mountains not far from Grozny, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say that for me, Stalingrad was just that- the battle for the city of Stalingrad. There’s just something about a war in a city that someone in brought up in an urban environment could appreciate. I first saw the steppes of southern Russia in 1999 when I was 16, and even then it was hard to imagine what combat would be like on those foggy plains outside the window of my train. But Stalingrad was something you could truly appreciate. Every window could conceal a sniper. Every building is a labyrinth where the enemy could be hiding just beyond that next wall. People’s homes become fortresses. The battlefield simply isn’t a field.
English-language sources on the Great Patriotic War weren’t exactly plentiful in those days, and I could rarely afford those that were. There was nothing like Wikipedia in those days. For these reasons when I could get my hands on something, I appreciated it. With what I know now I can’t help but laugh at how excited I was about the film Enemy at the Gates when it came out in 2001. I was sure it would be the Eastern Front version of Saving Private Ryan, only this film was based on the actual historical soldier Vasili Zaitsev, of course. I loved it, stereotypes and inaccuracies in all. People don’t realize that while the stereotypes in Enemy at the Gates are problematic, they are not seen as negative by Western admirers of the Great Patriotic War. We don’t look at the NKVD shooting down their own men as some kind of anti-Russian propaganda, but rather we admire the sacrifice and tenacity of the Russian soldier, who was supposedly caught between bullets from both sides.
Skipping ahead several years we get to my arrival in Russia, which was like passing through the gates of Disneyland. Well I mean Disneyland for a historian of the Second World War, not a bizarre negative version of Disneyland where everyone is pissed off all the time. Whereas in my country my favorite topic was a sort of niche market even among history buffs, here it was Second World War history. As my Russian skills developed, more and more sources became available to me. But who cares about books when you can visit the GPW museums of Kyiv, Moscow, and Volgograd? In early 2008 I finally visited Volgo- no,Stalingrad, and with the best maps available to me I traced the front line starting from the landing where the 13th Guards Rifle division landed.
Over the years I started to get burned out on the topic of the Great Patriotic War, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason. I just figured that it was my tendency to get intensely interested in something to the point where I required a break. Only last year did I come to understand the real reason. Incidentally, some time between the end of January and the beginning of February last year was the last time I seriously cracked any book on the Second World War at all. It was in 2014 that I realized I’d come to hate the thing I loved, and I know why.
As Russia continues to degenerate, as it continues to plod along with no accomplishments of its own in the past quarter of a century of its existence, it increasingly appropriates and bastardizes the accomplishments of the state it destroyed and negated. The more its unofficial ideology comes to resemble fascism, the more it waves the Soviet flag to distract from its rapid rehabilitation of tsarism and theocracy. Of course the contradiction between corrupt, capitalist Russia, was always noticeable. It was no secret that Russian veterans receive pensions far below those of some of the poorest European Union countries and much lower than veterans of the defeated Wehrmacht.
I always used to think about what would happen if the millions of dead could see how the nation “celebrates” their sacrifice lives. I wondered how Manshuk Mametova or Turgun Akhmedov would feel watching the annual “Russian March” in Moscow, as its participants don neo-Nazi symbols and throw up Roman salutes while insulting “churki,” the pejorative term for Central Asians. I wondered how they’d feel walking around the metro of Moscow and finding it plastered with stickers bearing the SS Totenkopf, runes, and various other Nazi unit insignia.
I wondered what Ludmila Pavlichenko, Mariya Borovichenko, Lydia Litvyak or Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya would think if they could see the way Russia treats women and girls as products. I wonder what Ivan Sidorenko or Ivan Kozhedub, three time Hero of the Soviet Union award, would think about the way Russians these days cackle with glee over humiliating and torturing Ukraine. It was in those first few years in Russia that I started having these thoughts, and I coined a phrase which has become a sort of personal proverb- This country should count itself lucky that the dead cannot rise. If they could, the judgement they would bring upon this land would be severe indeed.
In spite of these feelings, somehow I could suppress my anger and separate the Great Patriotic War from the Kremlin regime’s propaganda. I guess what eventually happened is that I reached some kind of breaking point. The state kept putting out more and more WWII-related propaganda, bastardizing it, corrupting it with Russian national chauvinism and the rehabilitation of tsarism. It became apparent that while the Soviet Union triumphed over fascism, fascism has triumphed over Russia. And that’s why eventually I stopped reading the books, some of them I hadn’t even got to yet. They sit on my shelves and I’ve given some away hoping that they’ll be educational for someone. Those that remain are a reminder of the years I spent building up expertise in something I no longer enjoy discussing.
I used to be angered by those who made fun of the Great Patriotic War on the internet. Several years later I understand. Young people in Russia have been inundated with a sort of Cult of the Great Patriotic War. The regime has no real accomplishments it can show the youth, so it keeps rebranding and regurgitating the Great Patriotic War not as it actually was, but as a legend that legitimizes Putin’s authoritarian regime. The “veterans,” real and imagined, are treated as living gods. On 9 May people crowd around them on the streets and bring their children to be photographed next to anyone with a chest full of medals. Of course this worship never extends to providing them with decent pensions and modern healthcare. Young people cannot fail to notice this. They also see the history of the war bastardized by state-funded filmmakers like Nikita Mikhalkov and Fedor Bondarchuk. Whereas directors like Spielberg made respectful, reflective films and mini-series which, though sometimes schmaltzy, were tributes to both history and the veterans they portrayed, those two Russian hacks distort history with what can only be called a sort of grotesque parody. Again, young people see these films; indeed I know one who was made to see Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun 2 in school, and to their eyes it looks lame. This kind of thing rubs off on Ukraine as well and it has a lot to do with the reason why even Russian-speaking Ukrainians are being enticed into Ukrainian nationalism. When a shit state constantly appropriates the accomplishments of another state, it’s only natural that the shit rubs off.
If the reader wants to see how ridiculous this cult has become these days, look no further than the state-run news agency TASS. At the top, next to stories about the latest events in Ukraine, we see running day-by-day coverage about the 70th anniversary of WWII, with information about what happened on each day of the year back in 1941-45. I realize that last year Britain made a pretty big deal about the 100th anniversary of the First World War, but it doesn’t compare to Russia today, where you can hardly go one day without hearing some politician babbling about WWII, which was of course won solely by ethnic Russians. You won’t hear too much about building modern medical clinics or solving the nightmare that is Russia’s orphanage system, but just yesterday I read that the Duma was having a round table discussion about the role of the Komsomol in the Great Patriotic War. Surely there are more pressing matters.
So yeah, I’m bitter. I let it out sometimes. Now you know one of the contributing factors. You might be as well if you were made to hate the thing you loved because it was continually appropriated and exploited by a group of amoral, corrupt, crypto-fascist thieves for the sole purpose of distracting the population from their incompetence and avarice. Since the dead cannot rise and avenge themselves, at least I can get that off my chest.