This. Stop doing this.

For many years, one of my most passionate subjects was the “Eastern front” of WWII. Reading the memoirs of F.W. von Mellenthin and watching documentaries like Battlefield and World at War were probably one of the most important contributing factors which rekindled an interest in Russia that had waned due to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Naturally, actually moving to Russia, with its abundance of sources and information often not published outside of the Former Soviet Union, was a sort of kid-in-a-candy-store experience. For about six of my nearly ten years here, I was obsessed with the idea of writing a novel or screenplay that I hoped would lead to the production of a film about Stalingrad. My vision was to create a Soviet version of something like Band of Brothers or The Pacific. It was to be dignified, remorselessly realistic and historically accurate. Whether it would have ended up as a mini-series or a feature length film, the idea was that this story would become the go-to answer whenever someone from outside the Former Soviet Union wanted to get an idea of what fighting on the Eastern front looked like. In the autumn of 2013 I put the idea on hold. By 2014 I didn’t want to hear anything about the Second World War at all. That feeling hasn’t changed either.

How did this come about? Well as I said before, living in Russia is great for an enthusiast of the Great Patriotic War. Once you attain a certain competency in the Russian language you now have access to sources you’d never find in the West. Still, in my early years in Russia, the years when the hedonism and consumerism of the elite was openly flaunted, I couldn’t help but feel discomfort at the contradiction inherent in Russia’s celebration of the Soviet victory. The Soviet struggle against fascism conflicted with the popularity of far right-wing ideology, xenophobia, and at times anti-Semitism in post-Soviet Russia. The achievements of women during the war run up against the notoriously poor treatment of women not only in Russia but other former Soviet republics. And of course Russia’s staggering wealth inequality made a mockery of the Soviet Union, nominally a socialist state.

Somehow I had for years managed to look beyond those contradictions, or rather I could separate them. Perhaps what made this no longer possible was around 2014, when the state kicked its appropriation of the Soviet victory into high gear for its own ends, complete with the demonization of anyone supportive of Ukrainian independence and sovereignty as a “Banderite.” It’s really hard to pinpoint the moment when I went over the peak, though today I saw a reminder of why this topic that I used to love has become such an anathema to me.

Ukraine Today somewhat sensationally reported on a Russian public service announcement featuring a video wherein modern Russian children meet the “ghost” of a Russian child who apparently died during the war. The ghost is wearing a Red Army uniform.

 

The key part of the video is when the kids ask the “ghost” whether he was afraid to die, and he says: “That’s not important. What’s important is that we won.”

This theme of involving children in the story of the war is more common than some might think. Back in 2013 I participated in a massive WWII reenactment called Pole Boya (Field of Battle). All participants received some gift swag, and among the various videos was a sort of documentary about the war, which can be viewed here:

 

As you no doubt noticed, the narrator is an annoying little kid. Nothing personal, I find all little kids to be annoying to some degree or another. You probably do too; that’s why everyone hated Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace so much.

The video had got me thinking and a bit later I started to see this as something very inappropriate. What is the reason for having a little kid trying to describe World War II? Western war documentaries are either narrated by vocally-gifted celebrities like Sir Lawrence Olivier or George C. Scott, or some guy who can do a passable impression of the Don LaFontaine action thriller trailer voice. Little kids and war don’t mix; whenever they do, war wins and little kids end up losing, badly too. And keep in mind this wasn’t intended to be a historical festival for children either. So what was the purpose?

It began to seem like there’s almost a deliberate attempt to associate the war with little children, to get children to take part in the celebration of what can arguably be called the worst disaster to ever befall the people of the Former Soviet Union. It’s as if those responsible want the whole country to understand this war like a child- without critical thought or a full understanding of why it happened and what it entailed.

Back to the video, where our ghost kid says “What’s important is that we won.” This is the message the Russian government wants everyone to grasp. All that’s important is that “they won.” Don’t ask at what cost or question the wisdom of turning a national tragedy into a festive, commercialized celebration. Don’t actually learn about what the fascists believed or why they attacked the Soviet Union and behaved the way they did- what’s important is that anyone who goes against Russia is a fascist. Otherwise you might note an inconvenient similarity between the beliefs of the Nazis and the ideals that are preached by the current Russian government and its paid ideologues. Whatever you do, never ask why it is the case that in a nation that supposedly “won” the war, the people experience living standards far below those of Germany and Japan, two countries that lost the war. Never question as to why the veterans of the losing Wehrmacht better off than those of the victorious Red Army. Do not inquire as to what happened to the riches from the sale of Russia’s vast resources in the past quarter century, or more importantly, in the past 16 years.

No. What’s important is that “they won.” Don’t think. Adopt the mindset of a child, someone who cannot possibly understand war in general, let alone the worst war in human history. Pin on the tsarist black and orange ribbons, watch the parades of military vehicles paid for at the expense of education, healthcare, and pensions, and drink yourself stupid on the street. Go ahead and put obscene window decals that liken the war to anal rape on your car. Pay no attention to the fact that “you” didn’t do jack shit to win the war and your grandpa might not appreciate such a vulgar metaphor.

None of that is important. What’s important is that “we” won.

decal

How would grandpa feel? Who cares? You WON! 

 

 

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11 thoughts on “This. Stop doing this.

  1. Sam Gladstone

    I would add to the list of things that “don’t matter” the fact that perhaps the scale of death and suffering in the USSR during the war might have had something to do with the Purges in which the Vozhd slaughtered such an enormous proportion of the people who knew how to fight a war. No, that doesn’t matter – pay no attention to why Germany made it so deep into Soviet territory in the first place; what matters is that the Glorious Leader fought the Jerries westward with his bare hands!

    Reply
    1. Callum C.

      Nitpicking a little, but the purges were mostly over by 1938, giving the Red Army a little over 3 years to recover before the German invasion. he purges were part of the issue but not all of it. The main cause of the low quality of leadership in the RKKA was the massive military expansion undertaken between 1938 and 1941, which caused the Soviet military to triple in size. The combination of those two factors meant that the vast majority of Soviet military officers had been in their positions for less than a year.

      The strain that this expansion caused on the Soviet training system was so great that RKKA recruits often could not be issued rifles or even given barracks to sleep in during their training.

      Barbarossa was actually a relatively good showing for the RKKA compared to the invasion of Finland in 1940, which was planned and executed by completely green officers and soldiers at all levels, and where the Soviets brought along anti-tank guns (the Fins had no tanks) but forgot to bring winter clothing.

      As cowardly as it was, Stalin’s collaboration with the Nazis in 1939-41 was understandable in that the USSR was completely unprepared for any kind of military action against any but the weakest opponents.

      Reply
      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        That’s not nitpicking- it’s quite true. People often ignore the massive expansion and re-organization of the RKKA that was going on at the time.

        Oh but be careful with that statement about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. It may be historically correct but it’s not politically correct I’m afraid. You’re supposed to say that it was an alliance because Hitler and Stalin were both “totalitarians” aiming to take over the world.

  2. AndyT

    Such events often fall prey to ideological warfare.

    A few days ago, we celebrated Italy’s Liberation Day: while many people thought about how terrible those years of war/civil war had been, how grateful we should be for living in a free and open society, and our committment to keep our Country democratic and safe, many other just took it as a new opportunity to yell at each other.

    On the extreme left corner, people refused to talk about combatants’ faults and overreaction (“How dare you tell us partisans had been too harsh on this or that occasion? You must be a fascist!), and also forgot about non-left wing contributors (Liberals, Monarchists, Catholics as well).

    On the extreme right end of the spectrum, partisans’ role was constantly downplayed – they were like “Combatants’ were just a handful thugs! The Allies did the job!”; they also claim Italy became a democracy just because the U.S. wanted so (they did not mention the many “partisans republics” established in Northern Italy witnessing pro-freedom sentiment among people).

    Not to mention many people simply not giving a s**t about it at all, obviously.

    Reply
  3. Estragon

    Just wondering, since I left Russia several years ago: is it actually common to see vulgar stuff like that anal-rape thing in public now? I can’t imagine anyone putting up an image like that in public when I was living there.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      There’s some different answers to this. Personally I think I remember hearing about it no earlier than 2014. However, one friend thinks he might have seen something like this in 2012. It’s hard to tell. I get 2014-2015 9 May mixed up because I participated in one of the ceremonies in 2014 but was in Slovyansk crucifying kids on 9 May 2015.

      Reply
      1. gbd_crwx

        It could be worse, Imagine depicting the sword fight that was german-russian relations 1939-1941 on an car window sticker…

  4. Gabriel

    I know this is off-topic, but what is your opinion on Oliver Stone’s Snowden biopic? I know you’ve got a rather dim opinion of Stone and a more favorable one of Snowden, so I’d like to hear your thoughts.

    Reply

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