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#8 - JRL 2007-105 - JRL Home
May 9, 2007

War on war memories: how to stop it?

MOSCOW. (Gennady Bordyugov for RIA Novosti) - "We often say: why should we remember the past at all? Why not let bygones be bygones? ... Why should we irritate the public by remembering? ... But then, I would gladly look back on being dangerously ill after I got well again. But I would try to forget it if I got worse and anxiously engaged in wishful thinking... Are bygones truly bygones? I believe the past just changes shape but always stays with us... Look at it - and you will see the truth about the present."

Leo Tolstoy's idea remains as true today as the day he put it down, however often it might occur to us that monuments and other symbols of the haunting past destroyed in spontaneous or instigated outbreaks of protest can obliterate that past.

Plans for a new war to regain our memories were drafted two years ago, shortly before the 60th VE Day anniversary, when the West came out to argue Russia's decisive contribution to the Allied cause. Many urged Russia to bring penitence to its neighbors and Warsaw Pact allies. A presumption of Russia's guilt was symbolized by the image of the Soviet soldier not as liberator but aggressor, who does not deserve to have monuments in the European Union.

That was when I first heard the painful words: "It's historians who are to blame!"

Really, the publication of thitherto classified documents about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyn massacre, and deported Caucasian and Crimean peoples at first aroused gratitude of nations eager for self-determination. The collapse of the Soviet Union and socialist regimes turned their gratitude into bitter hatred of Russians as alleged culprits of national tragedies. Naturally, some people wondered if it was worthwhile to expose the crimes of overturned regimes, when those crimes were ascribed to Russians alone.

Parallels were drawn between Stalinism and Nazism. True, the two totalitarian regimes had something in common, and their comparison could help us understand the mechanisms of mass psychology and ideological indoctrination. What came instead was likening the two regimes to each other, with an appeal to the Russian nation to repent as Germany repented its Nazi past - no matter that the Nazi and Bolshevik ideologies had mutually clashing bases. At any rate, no Soviet ideological program claimed Slavic superiority or scorned other nations and cultures.

Unbiased analyses of the positive and negative aspects of WWII strategies degraded into accusing the Soviet Union of beating Germany through incomparable casualties - burying the Wehrmacht under mountains of soldier bodies. No one cared about foreign demographic studies proving frontline casualties approximately equal on either side.

The plight of war monuments reminded me of Mike Davis, a U.S. historian who urged everyone to "save Private Ivan" on the eve of the 60th Operation Overlord anniversary. As Davis saw it, the liberation of Europe started in summer 1944 not on the shore of Normandy but in Byelorussia, when Soviet partisans left their hideaways in the marshy woods to deliver a sudden blow at the Wehrmacht rear.

Soviet Operation Bagration started a few days later. With a comparison of the two huge Allied advances, Davis points out how deplorably little the American public knows about Operation Bagration. The ordinary American mind associates June 1944 not with the forced crossing of the Dvina River by Soviet troops, which started the Bagration, but with the Normandy landing - and never mind that the Soviet advance of summer 1944 committed several times greater forces than the Overlord and dealt the enemy a more devastating blow.

We do not mean that the Soviet Army did more than any other for the Allied cause but that none of the Allies paid dearer than the Soviet Union for the victory. Forty Private Ivans fell in battle to every Private Ryan. However, current VE Day celebrations ignore Soviet troops - a farmer from Samara, an actor from Orel, a miner from Donetsk or a schoolgirl from Leningrad. As it appears, some Americans are wary their country's feat of glory may be outshone if they recognize the leading Soviet contribution to the epoch-making 20th century cause, Davis warns.

He is not alone in that. Dr. Richard Drayton of Cambridge University regards the victory over Nazism as a moral font in which the Western Allies washed off the sins of many centuries' expansion.

Such opinions are scarce. The West skeptically regards any landmark of Russian history as a mere parallel to Russian leaders' present-day policies. It focuses attention on propaganda rebuff to any manifestation of Russian imperialist ambitions, with a biased use of history - if not shrugging history off altogether. At any rate, it treats memory as every country's personal matter. All that makes things look as if World War II is going on to this day. Throughout the 62 years since it finished, the war has been regarded through the prism of the postwar confrontation. This makes us Russians wonder if such historical pragmatism is truly a worthy tribute to the memory of those who fell to rid the world of fascism.

It takes honest attitudes of the West and Russia alike to the past to stop this ignoble war on WWII memories. There are good reasons to accuse Russians of forgetfulness - suffice it to mention State Duma debates on the Victory Banner, or a demolished war pilot monument in Khimki near Moscow, or again, postcards circulated in Kaliningrad for the VE Day anniversary to advertise a funeral parlor specializing in WWII veterans.

Fact juggling also works to the Russian moral detriment. Offices set up to preserve national memory use every pretext to conceal wartime documents. Ukrainian and post-Soviet Baltic historians still have no access to archive documents of 1939-40. Their research is insultingly impeded, and they nurture understandable prejudice against Russia. Then, a controversy around a Russian soldier monument in Tallinn led to a violent attack on the Estonian ambassador and embassy premises in Moscow.

Bitter truths about the horrible war will be revealed as before, whatever dishonest politicians and scholars might be doing to prevent it in Russia and other countries. We need the whole memory and the whole truth - or we will stay dangerously ill and only dream of convalescence.

Gennady Bordyugov is a research project manager with AIRO-XXI (Russian Social Research Association) and a member of the RIA Novosti expert council.