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.