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.