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Analysis & Opinion
11.05.10 A Restless War
By Svetlana Kononova

On May 9 Russia celebrated Victory Day with the most impressive military parade on Red Square since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 65th anniversary celebrations involved over 10,000 personnel, 150 tracked and wheeled military vehicles, as well as 127 aircraft. Estimated to have cost $40 million, the parade demonstrated the military power of the country and aroused a sense of nostalgia among its citizens. Certainly, Russians do want to be proud of their homeland. But why is the victory, which ended World War II in Europe 65 years ago, the most suitable feather in the nation’s cap for celebration?

This year over 200 veterans from 24 foreign countries arrived in Moscow to take part in the parade. As expected, the largest delegations of veterans were sent from Belarus and Ukraine. Delegations from other post-Soviet republics also participated. But the real novelty of this year’ parade was the presence of troops from the United States, France, Great Britain and Poland. It was the first time in history that troops from NATO member states have marched on Red Square.

Many international leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, acting Polish President Bronis?aw Komorowski and Chinese President Hu Jintao, flew to Moscow for the celebrations. However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi cancelled their visits at the last moment, citing the crisis in the Eurozone economies.

Most Russians supported the idea of allied – and now NATO – troops participating in the parade, recent surveys show. Fifty-five percent of respondents said their attitude toward the idea was “completely positive” or “mostly positive,” a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center found. “People probably like this idea for two reasons,” said Polina Cherepova, a sociologist at Levada. “Firstly, the fact that other members of the anti-Hitler alliance accepted the invitation to Moscow means that they recognize Russia as the successor to the main winner of the Second World War – the Soviet Union.” “Secondly, the demonstration of military power in front of NATO troops gives Russians a sense of pride,” she said.

Nonetheless, few Russians believe the allies played a significant role in the war. In a recent poll conducted by the All Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) 91 percent of respondents said the Soviet Union made the biggest contribution to victory over Nazi Germany, while only three percent cited the United States, and only one percent of respondents believed it was Great Britain and France. Sixty-three percent of respondents believed the Soviet Union could have defeated Nazi Germany alone.

A survey of young people by the Profi Online Research agency shows the same trend. About two thirds of 20 to 35-year olds think the Red Army was strong enough to win the war by itself. Although less than half of respondents have living relatives who were in the war, everybody has a personal opinion on this historical event. Nonetheless, VTsIOM’s survey found that only 22 percent of Russians know that the Second World War started in 1939. Fifty-eight percent of respondents believe that started in 1941, while eight percent have no idea at all. “The Allies are a very important part of the Russian myth about a great victory,” said Lev Gudkov, the director of Levada Center. “To concede their importance means to admit that the Great Patriotic War was just a part of the Second World War. The displacement of the war’s beginning from 1939 to 1941 forces the fact of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 out of popular memory,” he added.

The Second World War is still one of the most controversial and debated events in Russian history. Last May, President Dmitry Medvedev set up a commission to “Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests.” The commission’s task, the president said, was to “defend Russia against falsifiers of history and those who would deny the Soviet contribution to the victory in World War II.”

In October of 2009 another commission was established to finally put a number on the total Soviet losses suffered between 1941 and 1945. The interdepartmental commission created by order of the Russian defense minister includes representatives of the Defense Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Interior Ministry, the Federal State Statistics Service, and the Russian State Archives. A few days before Victory Day, the last official data was released. Russia's total losses during the Second World War were finally put at 26.6 million people, including about 8.7 million soldiers.

Another interesting novelty this year was the creation of “Victory Day Pages” on the children’s version of the presidential Web site. Starting with the words “imagine that…” it explains to children why Russians celebrate the Great Victory with simple words and images. Visitors to the site can listen to a special speech from the president for “young citizens,” read letters and diaries by people who were children from 1941 to 1945, and download the most popular wartime songs.

This project is timely, especially since adult citizens remember very little about the war. For example, VTsIOM’s surveys found that most Russians do not know when the battle of Stalingrad was fought, or when the siege of Leningrad was lifted. But despite this ignorance, most Russians believe the victory in 1945 was the greatest in the country’s history, and that its role will become more and more important in future. “The Second World War is one of the biggest myths in Russians’ mass consciousness and it is still a taboo topic,” said Karolina Soloyed, an associate professor at the Institute of Practical Psychology and Psychoanalysis in Moscow who researches psychological trauma in families that suffered from Stalin’s repressions. “Several generations of Russians became the victims of government propaganda full of heroic myths about the past. People were not allowed to express their feelings of sadness, grief and sorrow regarding the war; they could only demonstrate excitement and pride at the victory,” she explained.

However, when citizens of the former Soviet Union started to travel abroad after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they began to encounter other points of view on the Second World War. “Many Russian people today are interested in the history of their families and the country in general. Some of them search for the graves of soldiers who died during the war. It is very important because this is a way to recovery,” Soloyed said.

“I believe the main reason for the suppression of history is a fear that is still passed on from generation to generation,” she continued. “The most destructive hangover of the war and the totalitarian past which affects modern generations is a high level of tolerance toward violence in the Russian society. People still consider violence the normal way to solve conflicts, both personal and public. Even if the war ended 65 years ago.”
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