The New Patriotic War: Revisionist History Redux
Bruce T. Holl, Trinity University
Two weeks ago I commenced a series on the Great Patriotic War and the role it plays in modern Russian culture. I continue that series today.
The online Russian-language news source Regnum on March 24 published an essay by one Dmitrii Ermolaev entitled “Президентский совет по правам человека продвигает идеологию предателей Родины” [The President’s Council on Human Rights Promotes the Ideology of Traitors to the Motherland]. There is indeed such a Council, and one of its initiatives, begun this year, is of particular interest to Mr. Ermolaev: “Предложения об учреждении общенациональной государственно-общественной программы «Об увековечении памяти жертв тоталитарного режима и о национальном примирении»” [Proposals for the creation of a national government program “for the commemoration of the victims of the totalitarian regime and for national reconciliation”].
The “totalitarian regime” referred to by the Council is the one that ruled Russia from 1917 to 1991. This is what really angers Mr. Ermolaev, an unapologetic admirer of the Soviet Union. He does not, however, attack in toto the work of the Council. This would force him to defend truly indefinsible Soviet policies like the collectivization of agriculture and the internal exile of whole ethnic groups, which resulted in millions of deaths. Rather, he takes a few swipes at the general anti-Sovietism of the Council, but saves most of his ammunition for the battle that he is most likely to win: a defense of The Great Patriotic War, which in both Russia and (to some extent) the west is viewed as a justification of Soviet power. The proximate purpose of the article, then, is to criticize the Council for questioning the traditional Soviet view of the war. The ultimate purpose is to promote the position that a return to Soviet values — values that, in Ermolaev’s words, “saved the world from absolute evil” — would be a good thing for Russia.
He makes a number of points about the war:
- “Almost all political scientists” agree with the view that the Russian Civil War ended on June 22, 1941 when the Reds and the Whites with all their supporters and followers united together to defend Russia from their common enemy.
- There were a few “followers of Vlasov and other traitors to Russia” who fought “under the banner of the Third Reich.” They were the ones who called the Great Patriotic War a continuation of the Civil War.
- This view was also promoted by a “negligible group” of Russians who ended up outside of the USSR after the war, now “under the banner of another protector — the USA.” (The phrase “under the banner” is repeated verbatim to underscore the similarity of Nazi Germany and the United States.)
- If fact, as the writer Aleksandr Zinoviev admitted, these traitors, in shooting at the Bolsheviks, actually hit Russia.
He relates these points to modern Russia:
- The traitors have emerged again today; they maintain that the Civl War is not over, and they claim that they are fighting not against Russia, but against the Bolsheviks.
- It is precisely the Vlasov followers (i. e., the traitors) who maintain (like the Council) that “the 20th century, beginning in 1917, was for Russia a history of catastrophe and evil acts, and everything was better in Russia before 1917.”
- The Council has the temerity to equate the USSR, which won the Second World War, with evil incarnate, Nazi Germany; to equate the two has long been the dream of Russia’s enemies. (The perceptive reader will note that Mr. Ermolaev here switches from “Great Patriotic War” to “Second World War” to emphasize that the USSR saved not only itself, but also those ungrateful “enemies of Russia” in the west who now want to equate the Bolsheviks and the Nazis.)
He ends with a rhetorical flourish on the events that (in his view) tore Russia asunder and then brought her back together:
“The twentieth century for Russia was the century of the great tragedy of the February, 1917 revolution and the great redemption of the years 1941-1945. And we shall never forget that it was our people, having stopped the Nazis in the fields around Moscow and on the banks of the Volga, who saved the world from absolute evil — Nazi ideology.”
Mr. Ermolaev’s argument might seem valid to those with minimal knowledge of the European war (like the Americans in Virginia who included a statue of Stalin in their D-Day Memorial, but it ignores many important facts. To consider them all would exceed the scope of one blog post, but here are a few that seem especially relevant to Mr. Ermolaev’s article
- The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which Mr. Ermolaev finds so dissimilar, were allies for two years, during which time the Soviets massacred more than 20,000 Polish officers in and around the Katyn forest.
- The reason that the Soviet Union was compelled to fight the Nazis in the fields around Moscow and on the banks of the Volga was because Stalin had purged some three quarters of the officer corps and was in general unprepared to fight Finland, much less Nazi Germany.
- The United States, whom Mr. Ermolaev accuses of supporting Soviet traitors, in fact made the Soviet victory possible by providing massive financial aid to the USSR throughout the war. Some of this aid, as Varlaam Shalamov shows in the memorable story “Lend-Lease,” even went to maintain the camps of the GULag.
- The Russian Emigres of the Second (post-1945) Wave, whom Mr. Ermolaev dismisses as a small group of traitorous crackpots, included some of the greatest Russian writers, artists and scholars of the twentieth century, who (like their predecessors in the post-revolutionary period) helped to preserve Russian culture during the Soviet era.
- Soviet citizens who did go back to the USSR after the war, either voluntarily or through forced repatriation, were not (as Mr. Ermolaev seems to believe) welcomed by the regime for having put the enmity of the Civil War behind them in order to fight the fascists. On the contrary, they were arrested, like most of the zeks whom Solzhenitsyn describes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
- Although this is a complex topic that will require at least one separate post later on, it is possible to say here that there is certainly no unanimity of opinion on the leader of the Russian Liberation Army, General Andrei Vlasov, and his followers. The Vlasovtsy did accept help from the Germans, but their philosophy was “neither Stalin nor Hitler,” and they represented millions of Soviet citizens, victims of collectivization, dekulakization, two famines, and the Great Terror, who did not find much to choose between the two regimes.
In short, Mr. Ermolaev’s technique of using the Great Patriotic War as a surrogate for the Soviet regime, and thereby defending that regime as model for Russia today, is a common tactic among neo-Soviet writers and politicians, but it does not withstand scrutiny by anyone who knows what really happened during the war.