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Analysis & Opinion
18.05.10 Grappling With Soviet Symbolism
By Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

For many Russians, commemorating our nation’s greatest national sacrifice is a question of measure, detail and interpretation. Although it is impossible in our memories and commemorations of World War II to fully escape Soviet symbolism, Russia dealt pretty well with this latest Victory Day anniversary. It has been an important, coming-of-age experience for our old nation, and our new one.

Five years ago, Russia Profile, the English-language, government-funded but editorially independent publication I run, came under attack from an overzealous government official for trying to analyze Victory Day — the sacred Russian holiday that marks the end of World War II in Europe — from several different standpoints.

One of our publication’s presumed sins was that, along with traditional fare such as interviews with veterans, we commissioned a Polish writer to do an article on the resentment in much of Central and Eastern Europe over the fact that liberation from Nazi occupation was followed by Soviet domination. We also analyzed how over-reliance on our World War II victory was being used as the basis for forging a modern Russian identity.

But the Kremlin’s effort to cement Russia’s status as a world power by clinging as much a possible to the post-1945 era was short-sighted. It is clear today that the 60th anniversary of the World War II victory in 2005 was the peak of ideological efforts to rehabilitate Soviet symbols and consolidate the population of the Russian Federation — that nation in the making — on the basis of the Soviet, essentially Stalinist, concept of the Great Patriotic War.

Back then, our government tried to impose this perception on the rest of the world. We got a negative reaction, mainly from Poland, but also from people in the Baltic States, as well as in Ukraine. We remember well all the talk about those who refused to come to the parade in Moscow, as well as other similar developments, like the scandal in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, over efforts to move the monument to the Soviet soldier away from the city center.
Several months ago, as the build-up for the 65th anniversary began, I worried that the neo-Stalinist trend would lead to more exercises in chest-banging that would once again alienate our neighbors and reinforce the Soviet-like image of modern Russia. I was afraid it would be even worse than it was five years ago.

But I was wrong. In fact, things turned out much better than they did five years ago. It would be a simplification to say that it is all due to President Dmitry Medvedev, as opposed to his predecessor, the current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The remarkable Russian-Polish reconciliation, which began with the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre in early April, reportedly originated from Putin’s office. It was magnified by the crash of the Polish presidential plane in Smolensk and the outpouring of popular sympathy, which did much to lift the centuries-long animosity between the two nations, something no inter-government commissions could have ever achieved.

Yet Medvedev as clearly left a personal, softer mark on the ceremonies on May 9. Having foreign military units from the United States, Britain, France, Poland and former Soviet nations march in the Red Square parade — that bulwark of selfish nationalism framed in a distinctly Soviet setting — was a definite breakthrough. There were quite a few unhappy communists, but they had to swallow their complaints.

There was not a single aggressive statement in the president’s speech at the parade — a must in the previous years, always along the lines that some unnamed power (presumably the United States) was nurturing plans to achieve global hegemony. Instead, Medvedev emphasized that the victory was achieved together with the other Allies — although, of course, the Soviet Union played a decisive role. And it was the small details — like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony played by the international military band, or Putin shown on television chatting with Chancellor Angela Merkel, presumably in German — that created a dignified framework for this traditional show of military might. It made me feel proud of my country and not ashamed of its Soviet flavor.

Of course, the Great Patriotic War is a complicated matter. In the face of an existential threat, the historical Russia somehow re-emerged in the Soviet Union during the war — and then was eclipsed again. At the same time, there were quite a few people who saw World War II as a continuation of the Russian Civil War, who saw the Nazis as a lesser evil and collaborated with them, not because the collaborators were traitors, but because that was how they saw their patriotic duty.

But there were others, including some far from the Soviet Union, who saw the war from the outset as a patriotic one. On the day Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, my great-grand uncle, Lt. Gen. Pyotr Makhroff, one of the highest-ranking officers of the anti-Bolshevik White Army, long an emigre in France, formally requested to be enrolled in the Red Army. For that, the Vichy Regime had him incarcerated in a prison camp in Algeria.

A radically non-Soviet concept of the war was de facto canonized this year by the Russian Orthodox Church in establishing a special service for the day. A prayer, which Patriarch Kirill adapted from a 19th century prayer for the victory over Napoleon says that the destruction of war was the punishment for the people’s disobeying of God’s commandments and the victory – an act of Divine mercy. It is the opposite of what the so-called “Soviet patriots” believe – that the victory was achieved due to communist ideology and Stalin’s industrialization.

Of course, Stalinists also raised their heads in the run-up to the anniversary. Moscow City Hall’s attempts to put around billboards with Stalin’s portraits or a “Stalin bus” in St. Petersburg have been widely covered in the media and argued about in blogs. But let’s face it – there has been a rather healthy and useful public discussion of this matter. What is most important in a country where the “signals from above” are carefully listened to, the attempts to rehabilitate Stalin were thoroughly condemned in Medvedev’s interview with the Izvestia daily published last week.

So overall, surprisingly, Russia dealt pretty well with the Victory Day anniversary. It is an important coming of age experience for our new old nation.

Andrei Zolotov Jr. is the chief editor of Russia Profile. A shorter version of this comment first appeared in The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times Global Edition.
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