Tag Archives: WWII

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! 

 

 

Dragged through the Mud

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.

Where are all the old people?

A friend of mine brought up a really interesting point the other day. I had mentioned the fact that veterans of Germany’s Wehrmacht and apparently the Waffen SS receive government pensions from the German government, and that these pensions are far higher than those of Russia’s Great Patriotic War veterans. Add to that their top-of-the-line healthcare and we’ve got a goddamn whale of an injustice on our hands. But my friend’s point hit on something I never noticed before. Where are Russia’s old people?

That might sound like a stupid question because you can see old people, mostly women almost everywhere. What my friend hit upon, however, is where you don’t see them. In America you can often witness old people congregating in restaurants such as Denny’s or Country Buffet. Their attendance is so crucial to business that restaurants long ago devised “early bird specials” just to attract their business.  These old people can be seen sometimes in large groups, without the presence of under-50 people, seeking the protection of numbers from potential threats such as “those teenagers.” Because of their experience in the Great Depression they tend to seek bargains, but if you’re eating out several times a week and basically doing nothing but shopping at swap meets, playing golf, fishing, etc. it’s clear you have a decent amount of disposable income.  And if they think they have too much there’s always Laughlin, Nevada, where they can feed it all into a one-armed bandit.

That’s not what you see old people doing in Russia. Here the ones that aren’t begging on the street are in parks, a free activity, or selling things on the street such as vegetables from their garden. And when I say selling things from their garden I don’t mean they have this farmer’s market-style fruit and vegetable stand either. I mean they may be sitting next to a milk crate with a couple buckets of cucumbers sitting on it.  Now one could surmise that these people actually are taken care of by their families and they are doing this for a little extra money but that doesn’t really sound too good. I can understand an old woman in the US knitting socks and selling them on eBay or something, but it appears to me that some of these old women are dragging their meager crops into Moscow on a daily basis because it is potentially a matter of survival.

This is one of the things that drives me up the wall about Russia’s phony “patriotism,” so much of which revolves around WWII. The same people who literally destroyed the Soviet Union demand credit for its accomplishment. Meanwhile the veterans themselves are denied dignified pensions and high quality medical care, for what, exactly? Oh right, because some bureaucrats want to drive their German Mercedes and send spoiled little ‘Dimon’ to some American university. Thanks for the victory, Grandpa!

I’ve known about this shit for years, even before I returned here, but in the past I always thought that Russians were actually as upset about this as me if not more so. I’ve certainly seen the question raised by Russians before. But wouldn’t you know, someone just has to wave a flag and make references to a utopian Russian empire which never existed, and overnight everyone just closes their eyes to the injustices they see every single day. Giving back to the generation which made this one possible doesn’t interest them. We just get a holiday every 9th of May, where young people pretend to give a shit. We get films made by “patriotic” Russian filmmakers, at taxpayer expense, which malign, slander, and distort the war and insult the veterans. Worse still, the horrendously idiotic portrayal seen in post-Soviet Russian films totally puts off the youth, some of whom come away with the idea that the whole Great Patriotic War was a stupid mess, a big joke, and in some unfortunate cases they come away believing that the Germans were better and that the whole mess was really just a misunderstanding between two empires.

This is why, incidentally, I don’t discuss or read much about the Great Patriotic War these days. In fact other than a lecture I gave on the topic earlier this year, I haven’t dealt with the war at all since some time back in 2013. It had been a topic of great interest to me since I was 15. When I arrived in Russia I dove into this world of new sources which were unpublished in the West and untranslated. My bookshelf is still filled with the works of David M. Glantz, John Erickson, Overy, and Bellamy, not to mention the memoirs of Chuikov, Zaitsev, Abdulin, and even Josef Stalin. I have not cracked one of those books for almost a year now.

Do you know what it’s like to have the subject you love so profaned and distorted that you can’t even discuss it without becoming enraged or horribly depressed? Could you imagine a talented painter who one day destroys all his canvas and can’t pick up a brush? Could you imagine a master pianist who cringes at the sound of keys? That’s me, and I feel totally alone in this because the flag-waving patriot, as is the case with self-proclaimed patriots the world over, is more offended hearing about injustices like the one I describe here than they are at the injustice itself. It is always easier to shout people down rather than solve problems and right wrongs, and if there is one thing patriots love, it’s easy. Everything’s got to be easy for them.

I wonder if the veterans who live to see this ever feel that way. I think that even if they do, they are probably good at suppressing those feelings, unlike me. For who could claim to have that endurance which these people had? What few can say they knew anything close to the suffering they experienced? But Russia’s younger generations don’t care. They have Starbucks and iPads,  and now they think they have Crimea.  Who cares if you don’t see groups of elderly retirees gathering in restaurants and laughing it up? Who cares if they are reduced to selling homemade pickles by the metro? The elderly aren’t glamorous. They don’t appreciate the wonders of Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, or Apple.  See you on 9th May. Till then, stay out of our way, sell your vegetables, and don’t disturb the fashionable young people on their way to club B2.  And like, yeah, thanks for the victory or something.

Positive Reinforcement

RT often gets a lot of flak from all over the world, and yes, even on this blog. But unlike the “Western” media, I’m honest and give credit where it is due. History buffs know that today is the anniversary of Operation Overlord, better known as “D-Day.”  What you see below is a story on D-Day by RT. The soldiers you see in the computer generated battleground are historical reenactors.

After I saw this I got to thinking.  When’s the last time you’ve seen a mainstream Western TV network do a story like this on the anniversary of the battle of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, or the summer offensives of 1944? When do you even see these anniversaries even mentioned in a mainstream source?  I wouldn’t be surprised if BBC covers Moscow 1941 or Stalingrad but beyond that, what is there? I can’t even recall ever seeing such a story on an American news network. And here’s RT, actually getting historical reenactors in a green-screen studio to make the story more visually appealing to viewers.

I saw one story today where it talked about how Russians have a “different view” of D-Day, and surprise, surprise it’s all patriotic and anti-American. Yes, these dismissive attitudes towards the “Second Front” are quite common today, but they are a projection, largely fueled by the Russian media, and totally opposite to Soviet attitudes at the time.  The author of the “let’s look at what those wacky Russians believe” piece also incorrectly stated that in the West D-Day is seen as the turning point in the war whereas the crazy Russians think the turning point came much earlier.  Journalism.

Let me paraphrase the words of Lt. Col(retired) David M. Glantz, probably the foremost American expert on the German-Soviet War.  He said that when Germany failed at Moscow, Nazi Germany’s defeat became inevitable. After Stalingrad, the Nazis could not expect favorable terms in any surrender agreement.  After Kursk, the Nazis would have no terms whatsoever.  The idea that Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk were real turning points in WWII is not just the belief of babushkas selling home-made pickles by a metro station exist. This has been a pretty commonplace assessment in the West for some time, even throughout the Cold War.

I think what this comparison shows us is that while yes, Russia does have to bear responsibility for a lot of its own propaganda, it actually does occasionally put out positive messages and ideas which are completely ignored.  It is the non-stop bashing or ignoring of the Russian perspective which serves as grist for the mills of reactionary elements and also prevents any real communication between the two sides.

I’ve often seen people complain about modern Russian historians denying every atrocity story associated with the USSR. Indeed, these historians exist and many of those types actually go beyond the USSR and pretty much insist that the Russian empire and any Russian polity prior to that never did anything morally questionable whatsoever.  The reality is, however, that not every Russian historian who opposes Western conventional claims about Soviet history falls into that category. Many of those extreme types are the natural result of forty years of Cold War propaganda which said that the USSR, the country these historians grew up in, could do no right.  This propaganda was victorious in 1991, and since then to many people it seems like every accomplishment must be torn down, every failure highlighted, every horror story accepted as holy gospel and every positive personal narrative dismissed as some sort of long-term brainwashing.  Obviously some people will react to this negatively and overcompensate. And believe me, we have authors in the US who do the exact same thing.  There’s a reason why our politicians are compelled to stand up and declare their faith in “American exceptionalism,” which is akin to saying “I believe in magic.”

Does a complete utter moron in your life have a birthday coming up? Never mind. They'll just look at the pictures.  Speaking of which, yes, that appears to be Confederate general Longstreet on the cover.

Does a complete utter moron in your life have a birthday coming up? Never mind. They’ll just look at the pictures. Speaking of which, yes, that appears to be Confederate general Longstreet on the cover.

Coming back to the topic of this video, I wonder, what does RT get out of taking the time to construct this? Sure they get views, but will anybody maybe take more time to analyze the network and see that it isn’t just non-stop anti-American rants?  Maybe if more Westerners acknowledged this RT would see there’s value in producing this kind of content, and thus produce more.   Just a thought.