The Memory of the Second World War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia
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The Memory of the Second World War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia

David L. Hoffmann, David L. Hoffmann

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The Memory of the Second World War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia

David L. Hoffmann, David L. Hoffmann

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About This Book

This volume showcases important new research on World War II memory, both in the Soviet Union and in Russia today.

Through an examination of war remembrance in its various forms—official histories, school textbooks, museums, monuments, literature, films, and Victory Day parades—chapters illustrate how the heroic narrative of the war was established in Soviet times and how it continues to shape war memorialization under Putin. This war narrative resonates with the Russian population due to decades of Soviet commemoration, which continued virtually uninterrupted into the post-Soviet period. Major themes of the volume include the use of World War II memory for political legitimation and patriotic mobilization; the striking continuities between Soviet and post-Soviet commemorative practices; the place of Holocaust memorialization in contemporary Russia; Putin's invocation of the war to bolster national pride and international prestige; and the relationship between individual memory and collective remembrance.

Authored by an international group of distinguished specialists, this collection is ideal for scholars of Russia across a range of disciplines, including history, political science, sociology, and cultural studies.

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Part I

Soviet remembrance of the war

1 Wartime mobilizational strategies and the origins of Soviet war memory

Jonathan Brunstedt
Krymov was feeling confused. He felt uncomfortable when political instructors praised Russian generals of past centuries. The way these generals were constantly mentioned in articles in Red Star grated on his revolutionary spirit. He couldn’t see the point of introducing the Suvorov medal, the Kutuzov medal and the Bogdan Khmelnitsky medal. The Revolution was the Revolution; the only banner its army needed was the Red Flag.
—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate1
In 1965, shortly after the Soviet Union celebrated the landmark 20th anniversary of victory in the Second World War, a group of anonymous Ukrainian writers and filmmakers sent a letter to the leadership of the Communist Party which pointed to two contrasting legacies of the war. First, the authors contended that the conflict had reinforced a sense of ethnic hierarchy among the multiethnic population—the inevitable result of the state’s wartime persecution of suspect ethnic minorities and near-continuous praise of the Russian people and their martial pedigree. This dynamic, the letter asserted, led to ethnic antagonism and widespread displays of Russian chauvinism after the war. It was not uncommon to “overhear such conversations”:
“Only Russians can be trusted. The Russians endured all the hardships of the war both at the front and in the rear. It is not without reason that even Stalin was compelled to propose a toast to the Russian people.” Behind all this was the notion: “How good it is when you are a true Great Russian and not a national minority”…. And if before the war, we were unconcerned about our national origins, then after the war the question of nationality came to the fore, became natural, acquiring elements of suspicion and anxiety.
At the same time, the letter underscored a second, more positive holdover from the war years. This was the unprecedented level of “international” cooperation among Soviet nations. Not only had the war improved unionwide proficiency in the Russian language as a method of “international communication,” but the phenomenon of Soviet peoples fighting alongside one another against a common enemy had also fostered a horizontal, supraethnic sense of identity that was previously lacking. This wartime tendency, the letter maintained, gave rise to a feeling that “the normal geographical and ethnographic borders [of the country] had been erased.” With the war’s public veneration now a core priority of the Communist Party, the letter’s authors considered it essential to draw the leadership’s attention to these dual legacies, which vied to define the nature and meaning of the war 20 years after its conclusion.2
The competing tendencies of Soviet war memory identified in the letter—an almost primordial sense of Russian exceptionalism on the one hand and “internationalist,” pan-Soviet solidarity on the other hand—derived in large part from unresolved ideological tensions embedded in wartime mobilization. Although mobilization involved a wide range of patriotic appeals, including those to Russian and “non-Russian” national histories and identities, pan-Slavism, the Orthodox Church, “home and hearth,” among others, Soviet media outlets gradually narrowed the range of acceptable propaganda themes.3 As the war entered its final year, two ideological lines dominated popular mobilization.4 The first, a Russian “historical-patriotic” line, emphasized the Soviet-German war’s connections to earlier, decidedly Russian patriotic conflicts. It was an ideological amalgam in that it blended “images of the Russian past … with those of the Soviet past and present.”5 That is, while it did not ignore the “Soviet” aspects of the war effort, it framed the prospect of victory over the Nazis as the latest in a centuries-long string of predominantly Russian military accomplishments. The proclamation made during the announcement of the German invasion that the ensuing struggle would be a “Great Patriotic War” reflected the historical-patriotic orientation of much wartime propaganda. The epithet recalled the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée, helping buttress later Soviet and post-Soviet notions that 1941–1945 constituted a uniquely Russian national triumph.
At the same time, the party leadership fostered a parallel “Soviet” mobilizational line that was in many respects antithetical to the historical-patriotic theme.6 Where the latter merged Russian historical and Soviet socialist images within an overarching Russo-centric framework,7 the Soviet tendency cast the war as an achievement wholly without precedent, as the shared triumph of the Soviet people writ large rather than any “hierarchy of heroism.”8 The Soviet tendency stressed those aspects that distinguished the 1941–1945 war from Russian historical models and oriented the impending victory around postrevolutionary sources—for example, Soviet industrial might, Communist Party organization, Stalin’s cult, and socialist-inspired “friendship” between peoples. This notion, too, lived on in the decades after the war, offering authorities a postrevolutionary and “internationalist” counterpoise to the concurrent, Russian-dominated account of victory.
This chapter examines incongruities between these two mobilizational lines, surveys efforts to reconcile them late in the war, and suggests how they went on to shape official conceptions of victory after 1945. The chapter first scrutinizes Russian historical-patriotic themes in wartime propaganda, arguing that this was an inconsistent aspect of a generally cacophonous and at times contradictory mobilizational agenda. Mobilization produced a set of competing ideological strands that did not always cohere into a stable fusion of Marxism-Leninism and Russian national patriotism. As the chapter proposes, “Soviet” calls to arms increasingly worked to temper rather than meld with Russian historical-patriotic imagery. The chapter then turns to late-wartime attempts to reconcile these disparate mobilizational lines, which culminated in the “historians’ conference” of the summer of 1944. Finally, the chapter considers the aftermath of these efforts and contends that a fledgling myth of the war victory, which cast 1945 as an achievement without parallel, rendered possible only under conditions of socialism, coexisted uneasily with the late-Stalinist leadership’s wider veneration of the Russian people and their unique history. Ultimately, as the anonymous authors of the 1965 letter indicated earlier, these competing understandings of victory fueled tensions in the war’s official memory that Soviet authorities never fully resolved.
* * *
At no time in the Soviet Union’s history was the Russian past more present than during the Second World War. As the Wehrmacht bore down on Moscow in November 1941, to cite one of the more famous examples, Stalin summoned the “great ancestors” of the Russian people before columns of Red Army troops readying to march to the front. From an open-air platform atop Lenin’s Mausoleum, the country’s leader urged the soldiers to “[l]et the heroic image of our great ancestors inspire you in this war—Aleksandr Nevskii, Dmitrii Donskoi, Kuz’ma Minin, Dmitrii Pozharskii, Aleksandr Suvorov, Mikhail Kutuzov.”9 Throughout the war, state propaganda continued to hold up Russian warriors and tsarist commanders as heroic models and predecessors. “You are not alone in this firestorm, Russian man,” wrote the playwright Leonid Leonov in July 1943:
From the heights of history, you are being watched by the … wise Minin, the lion Aleksandr Suvorov, the illustrious Pushkin, the master Peter [the Great], Peresvet and Osliabia, who were the first to fall during the Battle of Kulikovo. In difficult moments, these stern Russian people, who brought together our country in bits and pieces, will guide you, even if you are alone among a host of enemies.10
Along with Leonov, writers such as Konstantin Simonov, Ilya Ehrenburg, Aleksei Tolstoi, and the poet Dem’ian Bednyi popularized the war’s association with past Russian military glory.11 This campaign not only revived selected aspects of the Russian past but also promoted and integrated non-Russian national histories within a broader, Russian-dominated historical framework.12
Of course, the leadership intended this historical emphasis to buttress postrevolutionary political authority and loyalties. The historical-patriotic line, therefore, tended to pair imagery of the Russian past with Soviet themes. Such ideological hybridity was already pronounced during the first months of the war. Placards depicting Russian and proto-Russian military commanders rallying Red Army soldiers to battle became a pillar of wartime iconography. And it was certainly not coincidental that Stalin chose the 24th anniversary of the Octo...

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