The New Patriotic War

The New Patriotic War:
Re-fighting the War in Modern Russian Culture

Bruce T. Holl, Trinity University

Readers who don’t know much about Russian society and Soviet history might be surprised by the variety and in some cases the sheer obscurity of the causes that provoke public protests in Russia today: the re-opening of a paper mill on the shores of Lake Baikal; the construction of a highway through a forest near Moscow; the failure of home builders to complete new houses as promised; tariffs on imported cars; the use of flashing blue lights by VIPs to race through traffic; court cases involving prominent defendants like Mikhail Khodorkovsky or victims like Anna Politkovskaya; and (inevitably) premier league football. There are periodic marches in support of gay rights, the rights of opposition parties, and the right to hold marches. There are actions demanding the restoration of Soviet-era subsidies for housing, utilities and medical care.

What one never sees in Russia today are protests of the type that have become commonplace in recent weeks around the world in such hot spots as Cairo,Tripoli, and Madison, Wisconsin: protests aimed directly at the government for the purpose of replacing, or substantially altering the activities of, that government.

The reason for this is quite simple: the Russian government would not allow it. In Madison, Wisconsin, the police are members of unions. They have allowed and even encouraged protesters at the State Capital to impede the efforts of legally elected politicians who seek to curb the excesses of unions. In Russia, on the other hand, the police force in its various guises (army, FSB, local militias) works with leading government officials to ensure its own wealth and privilege. A demonstration aimed at forcing Prime Minister Putin or President Medvedev to resign would be suppressed immediately and its organizers arrested if not killed. Western governments would confer and protest, but take no action. (See Libya.)

Because people in Russia are not permitted to demonstrate against the real culprits, they have instead taken to the streets to protest highway construction and blue lights on cars. These causes are surrogates. It is a technique that originated in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, and in fact, some of the causes are the same. The Baikal Cellulose-Paper Kombinat was constructed by the Soviet government in the 1960s and soon thereafter became a target for environmentalists. Undoubtedly these protesters believed in their cause, but that cause also provided them with a pretext for criticizing the Soviet government without actually criticizing it. The same is true today. When the Kombinat recently re-opened on the orders of Prime Minister Putin, protests ensued — again, nominally against the paper mill itself, but also against the arbitrary rule of Putin and his government.

In the coming weeks this blog will concern itself with one of the more interesting surrogate issues to arise in recent years in Russia: World War II, and in particular the Great Patriotic War — that portion of World War II that took place on Soviet soil beginning on June 22, 1941, when Operation Barbarossa commenced and the Germans invaded the USSR.

To Americans this might seem an uncontroversial topic. Indeed, American authors and film makers in recent years, in order to provide a contrast with the complex operations initiated by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, have rushed to portray World War II as a just cause and an ideologically simple war. In so doing they have doggedly ignored all the gray areas and ambiguities of the war — like the fact that our ally, Stalin, was a dictator who killed more people than Hitler, and often, like Hitler, killed them because of their ethnicity.

In the Russian Federation and other countries of the former Soviet Union, these ambiguities and gray areas have become the substance of a wide-ranging and sometimes quite angry debate. The opinions that politicians, historians, journalists and ordinary citizens express on the war give a clear indication of their political views. To oppose the official narrative of the Great Patriotic War as espoused by Putin and his confederates is to criticize Putin himself. Conversely, when Putin condemns the report of a historian, or even the policy of a foreign government, on some matter related to the war, it reveals attitudes that go beyond the war itself. To defend Stalin’s management of the war (as Putin has done on many occasions) is not merely a comment on history, but also a comment on how the Russian Federation should be managed today.

The specific controversies subsumed under the heading of the Great Patriotic War can be found in the Russian press on any given day. For example:

In Ukraine, the Ministry of Education will again permit the use of the term “Great Patriotic War” in textbooks. This shows support for the current Russian government, which glorifies the Soviet war effort, and criticism of the previous Ukrainian government, which viewed the war effort as unpatriotic from a Ukrainian perspective and instead honored the anti-Soviet Ukrainian partisans of Stepan Bandera.

A veteran of the Great Patriotic War has received a free apartment in Krasnoyarsk. The current Russian government, in order to glorify the Soviet war effort and implicitly promote the concept of Soviet-era entitlements, often repeats the wildly impractical promise to provide every veteran with free housing. To make the promise seem less absurd it occasionally provides a veteran with an apartment.

In Bataisk (Rostov Oblast’) an exhibit on the Great Patriotic War, called “In the Name of the Fatherland,” has opened at the House of Young People’s Creativity. In Soviet times the only unambiguously safe subject of cultural production was the heroic war effort, and this is once again becoming the case, as exhibits, films and novels on the subject abound.

With the support of President Medvedev, commissions are being created in the Moscow region to fight against “falsifications of the history of the Great Patriotic War,” i. e., versions of the war that do not, like the Bataisk exhibit, confine themselves to a commemoration of the heroic activities of the Red Army.

These are a few of the many subjects that Russian Notes will take up in the coming weeks in order to explore the debate over the war in current Russian culture, with all that it implies for the political future of the country.

Saturday Russian News Items

Russian news items posted to Russian Notes by Dr. Bruce Holl

Interfax: “No tsunami alert called on Kurils following aftershocks in Japan.”

ITAR-TASS: “In Makhachkala, a member of the Kaspiisk city council, 31-year Zapir Isayev, has been wounded in a shooting attack.”

RIA Novosti: “Twelve oil railway tanks bound for the Pacific port of Vladivostok derailed in the region on Saturday, causing no victims or oil spill but damaging 200 meters of rails, a local rescuer said.”

Би-би-си: “После мощного землетрясения в Японии система оповещения о цунами сработала почти по всему тихоокеанскому бассейну. Среди стран этого региона последствия землетрясения более всего ощутили на Дальнем Востоке России“.

Газета.ru: “В Махачкале неизвестный совершил покушение на депутата городского собрания Каспийска 31-летнего Запира Исаева. Как сообщили в МВД Дагестана, «депутат с тремя огнестрельными ранениями плеча, лица и руки доставлен в республиканский ортопедо-травматологический центр». “Обманутые дольщики перекрыли движение в подмосковном городе Юбилейный около недостроенного объекта, сообщил в субботу ‘Интерфаксу’ координатор движения “Однодольщики” Игорь Гулиев.”

Friday Russian News Items

Russian news items posted to Russian Notes by Dr. Bruce Holl

Bloomberg: “About 100 tankers are backed up at the Russian port of St. Petersburg because of ice, a port official said.”

Interfax: “The second round of Tbilisi-Moscow talks on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) will take place in April, the Georgian prime minister’s spokesman Niko Mchedlishvili told journalists on Friday.”

International Herald Tribune: “Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who two years ago introduced the idea of a thaw between the United States and Russia, used a speech at Moscow State University to criticize Russia’s legal and political systems, a move likely to irritate the country’s leaders.”

RFE/Radio Liberty: “U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Moldova today for a brief visit aimed at encouraging reform in the impoverished nation and pushing for a peaceful settlement of its separatist conflict.”

RIA Novosti: “More than 11,000 people have been evacuated from coastal areas of Russia’s Kuril Islands after a series of powerful quakes hit Japan, a Russian Emergencies Ministry official said.”

Russia Today: “While US vice-president Joe Biden has been visiting Moscow to reaffirm the US-Russia reset, the US Director of National Intelligence says Russia’s and China’s nuclear capabilities pose the greatest threat to the US.”

Лента.ru: “Из прибрежных районов Курильских островов в связи с приближением цунами эвакуировано 11 тысяч человек. Об этом сообщает сайт МЧС России”. “У следствия по делу о недавнем взрыве возле здания Академии ФСБ РФ в Москве крепнет уверенность в причастности националистов к этому преступлению. Речь может идти о студентах-химиках из столичных вузов, придерживающихся радикальных взглядов, сообщает в пятницу ‘Интерфакс’ со ссылкой на источник в правоохранительных органах”.

Полит.ru: “Гарри Каспаров в одноименном издании рассказывает о встрече с вице-президентом США Джозефом Байденом“.

Thursday Russian News Items

Russian news items posted to Russian Notes by Dr. Bruce Holl

Bloomberg: “Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Russia’s mainly Muslim Chechnya region, is forcing women to respect an Islamic dress code and condoning punitive attacks on those who defy the rules, Human Rights Watch said.”

Deutsche Welle: “Traditional staples such as buckwheat, potatoes and cabbage have become increasingly difficult for Russian shoppers to afford. Moscow is keen to halt rapid price rises, and could extend its ban on exporting grain.” The International Herald Tribune, meanwhile, reports that “A peer-reviewed paper bolsters the argument that the extraordinary Russian heat wave last summer […] was almost assuredly the result of unusual, but normal, variations in the atmosphere, with any contribution from accumulating greenhouse gases essentially hidden in the statistical weeds.”

Interfax: “Head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s External Church Relations Department Metropolitan Hilarion has told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden about the Russian Orthodox Church, its external ties, including with Orthodox jurisdictions on the American continent, and about the life of Orthodox dioceses of the Moscow Patriarchate in the United States.” RFE/Radio Liberty reports that “U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a visit to Moscow aimed at building on the ‘reset’ in ties between the two nations. Although the visit focuses largely on trade, Biden took time to talk with Russian human rights campaigners.” RIA Novosti notes that “U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called a proposal by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday to introduce visa free travel between Russia and the United States ‘a good idea.’

International Herald Tribune: “Russian Charity Event Drew Putin, but Perhaps No Money.”

ITAR-TASS: “No substantial changes will take place in a new Ingushetia government, said republican head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, speaking at a news conference in the republican capital Magas on Thursday.”

RIA Novosti: “Russia’s Supreme Court has instructed judges to Russia’s Supreme Court has instructed judges to crack down on biased media coverage ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.”

Russia Today: “Rosatom, the Russian state corporation in charge of civilian nuclear programs, has launched a new supercomputer at a research centre in Sarov. The computer has peak speed of 1 petaflops, Rosatom said on Thursday. This speed makes the system the world’s 12th-fastest supercomputer.”

Би-би-си: “По факту взрыва на остановке общественного транспорта на юго-западе Москвы возбуждено уголовное дело по статьям ‘хулиганство’ и ‘незаконный оборот взрывчатки'”.

Газета.ru: “Некоторые представители российской оппозиции на встрече с вице-президентом США Джозефом Байденом подняли вопрос о необходимости введения санкций против российских чиновников, нарушающих права человека, об этом «Интерфаксу» сообщил присутствовавший на встрече Владимир Рыжков”.

Газета.ru: “Human Rights Watch: в Чечне насильственно внедряется исламский дресс-код для женщин“.

Лента.ru: “Премьер-министр России Владимир Путин на встрече с вице-президентом США Джо Байденом предложил ввести безвизовый режим между странами, сообщает РИА Новости”.

Новая газета: “Никто из 15 опрошенных в суде сотрудников полка милиции специального назначения ГУВД Минска не подтвердил, что видел россиян Артема Бреуса и Ивана Гапонова среди участников массовых беспорядков в столице Белоруссии”.

Полит.ru: “На предстоящих выборах в Госдуму партия власти сможет получить 60% голосов, заявил сегодня в своем интервью «РБК-daily» лидер ЛДПР Владимир Жириновский”.

Wednesday Russian News Items

Russian news items posted to Russian Notes by Dr. Bruce Holl

Bloomberg: “Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asked the energy minister to examine building a plant to liquefy natural gas on the country’s Black Sea coast as part of the South Stream pipeline project to deliver the fuel to Europe.”

ITAR-TASS: “Police in the Dagestan town of Buinaksk rendered harmless a powerful bomb, the republic’s law-enforcement bodies told Itar-Tass.”

RFE/Radio Liberty: “U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has arrived in Russia on the second leg of a weeklong, three-nation trip focused primarily on expanding U.S.-Russian ties but bookended by visits to Helsinki and European Union-hopeful Moldova.”

RIA Novosti: “The Russkiy Mir foundation will next week name a park avenue in the U.S. city of Houston after the first man in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.”

Russia Today: “An All-Star match took place in Russia’s Republic of Chechnya on Tuesday evening as some Brazil’s top players, past and present, beat a star-studded Team Grozny. 6-4 for the visitors was the final score at the Terek Stadium, as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov persuaded Brazil’s 2002 World Cup winning squad to play.”

Газета.ru: “Россия заняла 59 место в рейтинге конкурентоспособности стран в области туризма, опубликованном на сайте Всемирного экономического форума”.

Лента.ru: “В Москве разыскивают подозреваемого в причастности к взрыву в Ставропольском крае, который предположительно может стать террористом-смертником”.

Эхо Москвы: “Перед зданием Федеральной службы охраны в Москве проходит пикет против строительства траcсы Москва – Санкт-Петербург через национальный парк ‘Завидово'”.