Russia’s Politics of Memory
This is a season for memorializing past conflicts. We just celebrated V-E day and Memorial Day in the U.S. We commemorate D-Day on June 6 and the anniversary of the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic States on June 14-16. Russia will hold its belated V-E day march on June 24.
Devoting a day to remembering heroes and victims of past wars also reveals the celebrants’ aspirations, character, and moral ambitions. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s powerful acknowledgment of Germany’s enduring burden of guilt and responsibility for the Third Reich’s crimes reveals acceptance of that guilt and its burden, and a national resolve, through what he called a broken-hearted love of country, to ensure Germany’s abiding contribution to European peace and security. Ongoing confrontation of its past crimes has also long since eradicated European governments’ fears of a revanchist Germany.
Contrast this acknowledgment of an eternal responsibility for the crimes committed by and in the name of the state with Russia’s attitude towards the same issue. A mosaic at the new defense ministry cathedral features an iconic Stalin. The deputy defense minister, Andrei Kartopolov, asks “why should we be ashamed of Stalin?” In a screed denouncing foreign governments who demand a reckoning with Stalin’s crimes and invoking Russia as a great power he extolled the wartime communist leader as Russia’s savior and as one who reinstituted religion. Public opinion polls show similar sentiments are widely held. Stalin not only was a great Russian empire-builder and patriot but Soviet forces under his leadership liberated Eastern Europe from the Nazis.
Given this implicit equation of Russia’s greatness with the enormity of its crimes it is hardly surprising that the Kremlin is again trying to impose a Stalinist view of history: elements include blaming Poland for starting the war, justifying the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and denying massacres such as those of captured Polish officers in Katyń.
Russia’s commemoration of its heroes takes place over the mute graves of these and other victims, showing that the country has never recovered morally from Lenin and Stalin’s bloodlettings. Apart from revolution, civil war, and mass famines in 1921-22, 1932-33 in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and again in 1946-47 in Ukraine, they also include the Gulag, collectivization, the purges, failure to prepare Soviet defenses adequately for the coming war, and the extermination and deportation of entire nationalities and ethnic groups. Stalin’s preparations for an antisemitic purge were averted by his death. A brutal, oppressive imperial rule was imposed on Eastern Europe, ostensibly in the name of liberation.
Central and Eastern Europeans grasped, even in the 1990s, that Russia could not adequately confront its legacy or shrunken imperial status, and insisted on joining NATO and the EU. These organizations’ enlargement actually preserves peace in Europe from a revanchist Russia that cannot acknowledge its past crimes, while perpetrating new ones in occupied Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.
Russia’s commemoration of crimes and lies means it remains an object of fear — for now. But borrowed glory and twisted history take you only so far. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, recounts a monument to a long-dead tyrant. Like Stalin and Putin, he possesses a “sneer of cold command.” But his message is “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” for nothing is left of his criminal deeds.