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Analysis & Opinion
07.05.10 Reincarnation Of A Monster
By Xenia Luchenko

My son recently brought a book home from school, which he said he had been assigned to read over the next two weeks. It was called “The Book to Read on the History of Our Homeland,” and was published in 1991. It has stories about the 17th century Cossack rebel Stepan Razin, a section entitled “How Workers Lived and Fought in Pre-Revolutionary Russia,” and an entire chapter called “The First Decrees of the Soviet Government.” There are pictures of Red Army soldiers with rifles, and the chapter “Lenin’s Arrival in Petrograd” is illustrated with classic images of Lenin on an armored vehicle, surrounded by a crowd waving red flags.

After putting this rubbish to one side, I had to explain to the boy what he should tell his teacher when she asks why he did not read the book. They wanted double standards, so let them have them.

Why were the second-graders at a decent school in central Moscow asked to read these books? Because Victory Day is coming, with its traditional patriotic morning performances and lessons teaching love of the Motherland. And, of course, they have no other patriotism to teach children. In twenty years, they have failed to create anything else convincing. There are no appropriate children’s books on the history of the 20th century that could be assigned for after-school reading. And so teachers instinctively turn to a reliable and tested source of patriotic ideas, that is to say: communist propaganda.

“The Book to Read on the History of our Homeland” has, for example, the following passage (which appears during a fantastical description of the liberation of the occupied territories):

“‘Unbelievable!’ said one astonished soldier, ‘It seems as if Soviet power had never ended.’

‘They occupied the land, but could not crush Soviet power. They failed, because there is no power above this [Soviet] power!’ said another, putting his hand on his heart. ‘It’s here, in our hearts, our [Soviet] power.’”

Each year Victory Day celebrations revive everything Soviet – the style, the rhetoric, the symbols, and most importantly, the ideology. For a few spring days, the entire country turns into a Soviet Park, so to speak. It is becoming more and more difficult to separate victory in World War II in 1945 from traditional celebrations with Soviet red banners.

The year when the last living veteran of the war appears on television is fast approaching. The traditional Victory Day reunions of fellow soldiers (as seen, for example, in the popular movie “Belarusian Railway Station”) will very soon be a thing of the past. May 9 has always been celebrated “with tears in our eyes.” Of all Soviet holidays, this was the most beloved, the one that was celebrated sincerely, since it was based on human feeling, rather than communist ideas. People remembered the dead and celebrated the peace. That is why of all Soviet holidays, it was the only one that has survived with all of its symbols intact, including the red flags and Bolshevik slogans.

The symbolic meaning of victory has undergone a gradual transformation. From a triumph of peace over war, of humanity over inhumanity, it has gradually turned into an indulgence of the Soviet regime, and even into a redemptive sacrifice that justifies everything that happened in the country before, during and after the war, from October 1917 to August 1991.

The new version of Russian history that is being imposed on us presents the war from 1941 to 1945 as a consolidating event for our society, a focal point in history. To follow this logic to its absurd extreme, it is almost time to introduce a new chronology for counting years, one that divides history into time before World War II and after. As veterans leave the public space and pass away, the war is increasingly overshadowed by ideology and myth. And anyone who tries to resist this mythologization and put the tragic and humane aspects of the war ahead of the heroic ones is immediately called “a collaborator,” “cosmopolitan” and “a traitor.”

Victory in the war from 1941 to 1945 is the cornerstone of today's national unity. Especially when we are not doing well in sports, as is the case this year. The Soviet narrative of the war, both in history books and movies, is the only one recognized as valid, notwithstanding all the cliches and half-truths. And it is perhaps this war discourse that actualizes and legitimizes the Soviet value system today.

There has been some progress lately in the cultural space and attempts to rethink the war and present it from a different angle. Examples include the films “The Priest,” “One War”, and “The Demoted” by Vladimir Khotinenko, Vera Glagoleva, and Vladimir Tumayev respectively.

Veterans’ informal memoirs have also been published lately (albeit in miniscule circulation), such as “Memories of War” by Nikolai Nikulin.

But as soon as the conversation turns to the war, schoolteachers still cling to the safe books published in the old days. There is nothing that bothers them in these books, nor is there anything dissonant with their world view.
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