How is the Kremlin eroding Russia’s major uniting symbol?
November 22, 2022
  • Ivan Kurilla
    Professor at European University in St Petersburg
Ivan Kurilla on why the overuse of references to World War II to justify Russia’s war in Ukraine risks destroying what has been the main glue of Russian society and the consensus on which the regime relies.
Annual "Immortal regiment" march on the May 9 Victory Day brings together millions of Russians across the country. Source: Wiki Commons
On October 22, Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration, addressed a national conference of teachers, declaring that the “special military operation” in Ukraine should become a “people’s war.” That was a direct reference to the most famous patriotic song of World War II, Sacred War, written days after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. 

This was in no way the first time that the Great Patriotic War was used by the Kremlin and its propagandists to frame Russia’s war against Ukraine. In fact, it all began in 2014, when state propaganda started calling Ukrainian forces fighting in Eastern Ukraine “Nazis” and “punishers” (karateli), while the local separatists who were reinforced by Russian troops were called “volunteers” (dobrovol’tsy) and ”people’s militia” (opolchentsy) – all words reminding of the Soviet fight against German aggression in 1941 and thus involving a strong moral judgment.  

In his war speech on the eve of the February 2022 invasion, Vladimir Putin himself suggested a set of references intended to present the war as somehow continuing the Great Patriotic War, with the final goal of “denazifying Ukraine.” Propagandistic Telegram channels call themselves voenkory (“war correspondents”), a word also coined in the 1940s. Finally, the mobilization announced on September 21 is also something unseen by Russians since 1941. 

It seems that the main historical experience binding Russian society together has been thrown into the furnace of the current war to raise the morale of a country forced to fight against its closest neighbors. The memory of the Great Patriotic War is shared by most Russians as a unique example of human sacrifice and a great victory over the evil of Nazism won by the grandparents of the current generation. No other event in Russian history has had such a unifying effect. In contrast, the war in Ukraine has produced the deepest divide within the Russian society, with thousands openly calling it a crime and millions trying to distance themselves from the “special military operation.”
"Equating the two events drives a contemporary wedge through that previously sacred memory. If a Russian soldier in Ukraine and a Red Army soldier in Germany are doing the same thing, then any news related to today’s war crimes projects back onto the Red Army soldier."
The game of equating can be played from different sides. Ukraine also has its own memory of World War II. Being the westernmost part of the USSR (with modern Ukraine’s western regions being part of Poland at that time), it experienced German bombing during the first morning of the war, which explains why Ukrainian society instantly saw parallels between the Russian attack of 2022 and German invasion of 1941. Russia’s anti-war opposition felt the same way. Novaya Gazeta’s cover on March 2 was “’Tigers’ Heading toward Kyiv,” – “Tigers” being a type of Nazi-era German tank and now a Russian military vehicle – reminding that it was the Germans who attacked Kyiv in 1941. A famous song that every Soviet kid memorized from the time he was in school described the start of the Great Patriotic War with the line: “Kyiv was bombed / we were told that the war had broken out.” It again happened on February 24, 2022, though it was “us” who bombed Kyiv, not the Germans.

The US government has also opted for the language of World War II and made it clear which side it considered the successors of its war-time ally, as the US Congress passed the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 and President Joe Biden signed it into law on May 9, 2022 (the day Victory Day is celebrated in Russia). The Lend-Lease Act was the main US contribution to the Allied war effort in Europe before the Allies’ Normandy landing of June 1944, while the USSR, along with the UK, was the major recipient of American supplies; now, as it defends itself against Russia, Ukraine is receiving support under a program with the same name.

The official rhetoric evoking the cause of defending the Motherland against the Nazi/fascist enemy seems to have been ineffective in justifying Putin’s decision to go to war. “Denazification” sounded too technical and academic to resonate with everyday citizens, and since then he has turned to other historical explanations. In June, Putin compared himself to Peter the Great who, he said, “was not taking away anything, he was returning... Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well.” In October, Putin suggested that “[t]roops had to enter and switch on the water for Crimea” after the Ukrainians had cut the water supply off. The new narratives are far from “denazification.”

However, the comparison is living its own life. As propaganda continued to label Ukrainians “Nazis,” the direct identification of the Ukraine campaign with the Great Patriotic War started producing doubts in the heroic narrative of the latter. Certainly, antiwar intellectuals were the first to feel this way. However, the doubts’ spreading was just a matter of time. The news about Russian troops’ violence in Ukraine is now projected onto the stories about raped German women in 1945, which have been dismissed in Russia as slander against the Red Army liberators. The news about looting in the occupied territories, too, resonated with the memories of “trophies” brought back from Germany by people’s grandfathers. The whole narrative of the hallowed victory of 1945 has started to crack and turn into a more complex tragedy.

Another part of this process is the skyrocketing interest in the German experience during and after the war. Booksellers report a sharp rise in sales of literature about World War II and Nazi Germany – for example, Nicholas Stargardt's book The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945, about how ordinary citizens of the Third Reich perceived the events of those years, saw sales jump 17 times in some places. Readers now want to learn what it was like for Germans to live under tyranny while a war of conquest was being waged.
"Russians suddenly started to identify themselves with the former enemy, and such an identification shakes up the entire usual, black-and-white narrative about World War II."
In October, Putin suggested that “troops had to enter and switch on the water for Crimea” after the Ukrainians had cut the water supply off. The new narrative is far from “denazification.” Source: Wiki Commons
During the Great Patriotic War, Ukraine was the first target of the enemy invasion and the place of major war events in 1941 and 1942: the heroic defense of Odessa, acts of genocide of Jews in Nazi-occupied Kyiv (the Babi Yar massacre being the most known), the strategic defeat of the Red Army near Kharkiv in May 1942. All these dramatic happenings occurred in the same places as today. Thus, for any Russian (or Ukrainian) who knows history “Izium has been taken!” brings them back to 1942, when the German attack at that city near Kharkiv cut a big Red Army salient off from the main force, or to 1943, when the Red Army liberated it, but now also to 2022, when the Battle of Izium became the major success of the Ukrainian September counteroffensive. 

Putin’s war is not only destroying Russia’s international standing, economy and science (the destruction of Ukraine goes without saying), it is also destroying the very ideological base that the regime has used to legitimate its rule. It represents a blow to the strongest social glue that has held Russian society together – the memory of the Great Patriotic War. 
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