When one war hides another: the roots of the war in Ukraine world
How is the history of the Second World War being instrumentalized in the official Russian discourse to justify the war in Ukraine? The need for a “denazification” of this country has been claimed since the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and continues to be used today. What memorial and discursive references cater to the social imaginary in Russia?
Leo Tolstoy, Special Operation and Peace. These words, which stand out on an ochre cover, complete with a golden frieze and adorned with a portrait of the great writer, became viral social networks in Russia one week after Ukraine was invaded. This collage began to circulate widely even though Russian authorities had just decreed a ban on using the word “war” to describe what is now systematically presented as a “special operation”.
This reaction is a sign of part of the population’s disaffection with the official discourse, and is in the tradition of the famous Soviet period anecdotes. It reveals the paradoxes, and even as some see it, the inconsistencies, of Vladimir Putin’s main argument to justify the military intervention: “de-nazifying” Ukraine. On the one hand, it is not a war, he explains, but on the other hand he argues it is necessary to “liberate” this Slavic territory – always presented as an artificial creation – from an evil that refers directly to another war, and not just any war: the Second World War.
The obsessive use of the word “denazification” by Russian propaganda may have come as a surprise in Western Europe: how to explain such systematic and massive recourse to a category that is, admittedly, still significant in our societies, but which nonetheless sounds obsolete? Why is this past still so hot and its instrumentalization so operative in today’s Russia? What are the foundations of this media bombardment by Moscow?
To justify the need for this “denazification”, the current Russian official discourse has been continually referring, since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, to the Azov regiment and Stepan Bandera’s heirs. It thereby lends credence to the idea that the whole of Ukrainian society would be “contaminated” by the “fascist hydra” and overrides the many temporalities that have been working for several decades and are constantly re-actualizing the Soviet memory of the Second World War.
While the sudden emergence of this imaginary in the present continues to raise questions for Westerners, summoning it is obvious in all post-Soviet societies, which continue, even today, to share the founding experience of the “Great Patriotic War”.
The “Great Patriotic War”: the matrix of Soviet patriotism
This war is indeed the matrix of Soviet patriotism, born in the exceptional mobilization against the Nazi invader, the awareness of the sacrifice of an entire people, and the emergence of a superpower that, in 1945, returned more or less to the Tsarist empire’s borders. The simplified Second World War narrative, which gradually took shape after Germany’s capitulation and gained momentum from the Brezhnevian period onwards, was reduced to a glorious epic of victory, won at the cost of shedding the 26 million Soviet victims’ blood – a figure that is constantly being reminded, there.
The very expression “Great Patriotic War” and its recurrent use for more than 70 years have almost obscured the reality that this conflict was, actually, global. Raised to the rank of “sacred war”, it has strengthened in the Soviets the feeling of belonging to a common world, but a different one from the galaxy made up of the other victors.
The Soviet Union as the liberating hero in the crushing of Nazism narrative
This heroic narrative portrays the Soviet Union as the main – if not the only – agent in the crushing of Nazism and the ensuing liberation. It celebrates victory more than peace, exalts territorial extension as much as its recovered power and, above all, manages to erase all the complexities of the divergent, competing, and even conflicting memories that were imprinted in people’s minds in the wake of WWII.
In that particular vision of the war – narrowed down to the years between 1941 and 1945 – the troublesome period between 1939 and 1941 has been eliminated. This conveniently makes it possible to turn a blind eye to the German-Soviet pact, signed on August 23, 1939, complete with its secret clauses.
The invasion and annexation by the USSR of the Baltic States, Karelia, Bessarabia, Eastern Poland (which was then divided between the Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine) and Northern Bukovina have been removed from the glorious chapter of the Great Patriotic War.
Their occupation by the Germans after June 1941 legitimizes the official narrative that was implemented after the victory: thanks to the Red Army, these territories were liberated from Nazism, and their incorporation into the USSR was therefore depicted as an unquestionable salvation, especially since most of these territories were part of the Tsarist empire before 1917.
Erasing cumbersome episodes from official memory
The myth of the Great Patriotic War also has the advantage of ignoring the German invasion catastrophic first months and minimizing the material and financial support extended by the Allies to the USSR. However, we now know that this support was, along with the Soviet population’s exceptional mobilization and the Nazi occupation’s extreme violence, one of the main reasons for the victory.
This heroic narrative also helps to absorb the extermination of the 2.8 million Jews who lived in the Soviet Union at the time, to dilute the Shoah within a struggle presented as fundamentally patriotic, and ultimately to overlook the fate of Jewish communities.
Finally, it blots out cumbersome episodes from official memory: the collaboration of thousands of Soviets in Nazi-occupied territories; the deportation from 1943 onwards of the “punished peoples”, collectively accused of treason; the long and ultra-violent exit from the war experienced by a number of territories, including Ukraine. The confrontations provoked by Sovietization were so extreme that, in their reports, some members of the NKVD referred to the “Wild West” to designate the western part of Ukraine, later annexed to the USSR.
This epic and hagiographic vision was constructed by mobilizing all possible tools and reinforced from the mid-1960s onwards: literature, cinema, plastic arts, the press, monuments, museums, but also the production and teaching of history, and of course commemorations, ceremonies, as well as memorial devices. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Germany’s surrender, May 9 was declared a state holiday and became, along with November 7, the commemoration date of the “Great October Revolution”, one of the main events on the Soviet agenda.
The memorial revival since 1995: breaking out of self-denigration
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a devastating memorial disarray. What kind of history could people in Russia be proud of in the 1990s? The Soviet past was then mocked, denounced, devalued to the point of giving way to such a gloomy vision that, at the time, some people spoke out against such self-denigration.
The “tchernoukha”, this obsession with decay, decadence and humiliation, had swept across all expression modes, including the cinema, where it was sometimes perceived as a new aesthetic. While history is perceived as a field of ruins, how to find frameworks that can still make sense for a community whose landmarks have been brutally written off?
The “Great October Revolution” founding episode, celebrated with great pomp and circumstance for decades and one of the Soviet period’s key memorial compass, has become so cumbersome that its anniversary is no longer celebrated. Its centenary, in 2017, was ignored by Russian authorities and was probably more commemorated abroad, paradoxically.
In the bleak 1990s context, the 1945 Soviet victory stood out as the only possible reference to a past worth claiming without shame. Soon, however the “Great Patriotic War” was harnessed to a positive and glorious vision of Russian history and became the cornerstone of national identity.
The 1995, 2005 and, above all, the 2015 anniversaries, were occasions for a dramatic and very offensive reactivation of the myth and a deliberate instrumentalization of history: victory over Nazism, systematically associated with accession to superpower status, has since then crushed the entire 20th century and has fed an unbridled Russian nationalism.
The obsession with memory, its excesses and by-products
For more than twenty years, and from one year to the next, we have witnessed a surfeit of official and popular ceremonies accompanying the 9 May celebration, glorifying the war and contributing to the militarization of Russian society.
From the Museum of the Great Patriotic War inaugurated by Boris Yeltsin in 1995 to the officialization of the Immortal Regiment in 2015 by Vladimir Putin and the generalization of the St. George ribbon with its orange and black stripes in 2005 by the same Putin – the 1945 victory has appropriated both public and private spaces. Relayed by an ever more inventive and aggressive marketing, it is aimed at all social groups: nails varnished in orange and black, personal cars customized in Soviet tanks colors, khaki children’s clothing and babies’ layettes, inspired by the Red Army uniforms, and even pets’ accessories (coats, collars, leashes…) displaying the now famous two-color St. George’s ribbon – such memorial obsession is very effectively served by a whole spin-off products industry.
As for the Immortal Regiment, it is the result of a “reenactment” process: during the May 9th parades, the living brandish portraits of their ancestors who fought in the Great Patriotic War. Originating from a popular initiative taken in Tomsk in 2012, this practice was recuperated in 2015 by Vladimir Putin, who opened Moscow’s gigantic popular parade carrying his own father’s photograph.
Since that date, the Immortal Regiment’s demonstrations have gained considerable momentum throughout Russia: heirs to those who sacrificed themselves to defeat Nazism, the living are invested with a sacred legitimacy that summons them to continue a fight that is not over yet.
In this worldview, the Nazis, also, are alive and kicking, embodied by foreigners as a whole, still perceived as hostile and dangerous. This narrative’s efficiency is the result of a massive memorial device that has been erected over several decades and has now become a matter of course. When history has been abused, it becomes a fearsomely powerful war weapon.
Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: licence CC BY-NC-ND.
To discover her drawings, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/
Images in CC: Freepik, Canva, Good Ware, xnimrodx