Tarik Cyril Amar is an Associate Professor of History at Columbia University specializing in the Soviet Union, Russia, and Ukraine. He’s the author of The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv. A Borderland City between Nazis, Stalinists, and Nationalists.
Danger Doom, “Space Ho’s,” The Mouse and the Mask, 2005.
Elizabeth Wood, professor of history at MIT. She is the author of Performing Justice: Agitation Trials in Early Soviet Russia and The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Her current work centers on the performance of power under Vladimir Putin in Russia today.
Cathy Frierson, professor of modern Russian history at the University of New Hampshire. Her books include Peasant Icons: Representations of Rural People in Late 19th Century Russia, All Russia is Burning: A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia, Children of the Gulag, and most recently Silence was Salvation: Child Survivors of Stalin’s Terror and WWII in the Soviet Union.
This week’s Russia Magazine! column, “Victory’s Essential, but Unwanted Guest,”
Victory Day is Russia’s most sacred holiday. The day marks Russia’s most traumatic moment in its turbulent twentieth century. The war supplants all previous traumas: WWI, the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Terror. In many respects it even absorbs the Soviet Union’s collapse, if only because victory over the Nazis makes the whole Soviet experiment worth it. Indeed, Victory Day has such resonance that it provides Russians one of the few means to reconcile their Soviet past with their post-Soviet present. And in an increasingly divided Russia, it is one of the few days of genuine national unity.
As Lev Gudkov put it in his 2005 essay, “The Fetters of Victory,”
All [Soviet] components of the positive collective unity of the idea of “us” are eroding. After their devaluation has brought to the fore a range of complexes of hurt self-esteem and inferiority, Victory now stands out as a stone pillar in the desert, the vestige of a weathered rock. All the most important interpretations of the present are concentrated around Victory; it provides them with their standards of evaluation and their rhetorical means of expression.
A stone pillar for sure, except for one essential capstone in that victory: Stalin.
Stalin has yet to find his place in contemporary Russian memory of Victory. He is a figure that is evoked at the same time he’s repudiated. In both instances—total embrace and total rejection—Stalin is fetishized as savior or destroyer, angel or demon, neither of which is any less violent. The difference is in who he smites with his sword, not how he wields it. The tension between these two figures makes Stalin eternally split. Thus, he was the leader of the nation during the war. Yet displaying his image is taboo. The system he created facilitated victory with all its attending scars and burns. But to give Stalin credit verges on blasphemy. Stalin embodied the unity of the Soviet people. Yet their victory is not his. On the day to commemorate Russia’s greatest tragedy and triumph, Stalin remains the guest you have to invite, but one you pray doesn’t show.
Victory Day. The most sacred holiday in Russia. The day when razzle and remembrance blend. The day when Russia becomes a smooth space. All the antagonisms and hierarchies in Russian society should collapse, if only for a brief moment, into the semblance of unity. World War II, or The Great Patriotic War as it’s referred to in Russia, is the most important event for post-Soviet Russian national identity. Its memory is supposed to bind even if the actual experience of the war divided, dislocated, and dismembered Soviet society.
Yet, while Victory Day allows for unity, the event that symbolically commemorates and represents that unity, the parade, is a mediated experience for most Russians. Granted, the Russian landscape is dotted with local Victory Days which localize the war’s memory, yet, in a way, all of these flow, like Russian state power itself, from Red Square. And that parade, as I experienced last year, turns that smooth space into a striated one not just with its security barriers, metro station closings, and street closures, but also the narratological barriers the politics of the present erects around its memory. One can point to many silences that disrupt the war’s smooth narrative: the deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Germans, Finns, Crimean Tatars, Karachais, Kalmyks, Balkars, Kabardins, Poles, Kurds, Turks, and others, Gulag labor, the dismemberment of Poland and the Katyn Massacre, the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, the draconian “Not a step back” Order No. 227, blocking units, and punishment brigades, the Red Army’s revenge pillaging, raping, and killing as it moved west, the forced imposition of imperial rule over Eastern Europe, and finally, the role of Stalin himself. Also where the Holocaust fits into Russians’ historical memory of the war remains unresolved. As does the question of the seemingly interchangeable categories of perpetrators and victims. All of these, and more, pound on the walls of the Russia’s national memory of the war at the same time they erect new barriers and fortifications in the creation of an overarching history, memory and commemoration of the war not just in Russia, but in Europe as a whole.
Nor does it look like this problem of the war’s history and memory and experience and narrative will be resolved anytime soon. In fact, consensus on these issues is becoming increasingly remote, and others would argue, the debate is moving into potentially historically and politically dangerous territory as some seek to create narratives of the 20th century in general and the war in particular where the victims of Nazism and Communism are rendered equivalent. This move toward equivalence is viewed by some as violating perhaps the taboo of taboos, the historical uniqueness of the Shoah.
The place of the Holocaust in the general memory of WWII has been undergoing gradual marginalization particularly in post-communist Europe, where some see “Holocaust envy,” as best articulated in the Prague Declaration in 2008, and resolutions by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, has taken hold. In 2005, the late Tony Judt noted this trend of equivalence as Eastern Europe reckons with a half century of communism:
The difficulty of incorporating the destruction of the Jews into contemporary memory in post-Communist Europe is tellingly illustrated by the experience of Hungary. In 2001 the government of Viktor Orbán established a Holocaust Memorial Day, to be commemorated annually on April 16 (the anniversary of the establishment in 1944 of a ghetto in wartime Budapest). Three years later Orbán’s successor as prime minister, Peter Medgyessy, opened a Holocaust Memorial Center in a Budapest house once used to intern Jews. But much of the time this Holocaust Center stands nearly empty, its exhibits and fact sheets seen by a thin trickle of visitors—many of them foreign. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Hungarians have flocked to the Terrorháza.
The Terrorháza (“House of Terror”), as its name suggests, is a museum of horrors. It tells the story of state violence, torture, repression, and dictatorship in Hungary from 1944 to 1989. The dates are significant. As presented to the thousands of schoolchildren and others who pass through its gloomy, Tussaud-like reproduction of the police cells, torture equipment, and interrogation chambers that were once housed there (the House of Terror is in the headquarters of the former security police), the Terrorháza’s version of Hungarian history draws no distinction between the thugs of Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross party, who held power there from October 1944 to April 1945, and the Communist regime that was installed after the war. However the Arrow Cross men—and the extermination of 600,000 Hungarian Jews to which they actively contributed—are represented by just three rooms. The rest of the very large building is devoted to a copiously illustrated and decidedly partisan catalog of the crimes of communism.
The not particularly subliminal message here is that communism and fascism are equivalent. Except that they are not: the presentation and content of the Budapest Terrorháza make it quite clear that in the eyes of the museum’s curators communism not only lasted longer but did far more harm than its neo-Nazi predecessor. For many Hungarians of an older generation this is all the more plausible for conforming to their own experience. And the message has been confirmed by post-Communist Hungarian legislation banning public display of all representations of the country’s undemocratic past: not just the swastika or the Arrow Cross symbol but also the hitherto ubiquitous red star and its accompanying hammer and sickle. Rather than evaluate the distinctions between the regimes represented by these symbols, Hungary—in the words of Prime Minister Orbán at the opening of the Budapest House of Terror on February 24, 2002—has simply “slammed the door on the sick twentieth century.”
But that door is not so easy to close. Hungary, like the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, is still caught in the backdraft.6 The same Baltic states which have urged upon Moscow the duty to acknowledge its mistreatment of them have been decidedly slow to interrogate their own responsibilities: since winning their independence neither Estonia nor Latvia nor Lithuania has prosecuted a single case against the surviving war criminals in their midst. In Romania—despite former President Iliescu’s acknowledgment of his country’s participation in the Holocaust—the “Memorial of the Victims of Communism and Anti-Communist Resistance” inaugurated at Sighet in 1997 (financed in part by the Council of Europe) commemorates assorted interwar and wartime Iron Guard activists and other Romanian fascists and anti-Semites now recycled as martyrs to Communist persecution.
In support of their insistence upon “equivalence” between the suffering under fascist and communist regimes, commentators in Eastern Europe can point to the cult of the “victim” in contemporary Western political culture. We are moving from winners’ history to victims’ history, they observe. Very well, then let us be consistent. Even if Nazism and communism were utterly different in intent—even if, in Raymond Aron’s formulation, “there is a difference between a philosophy whose logic is monstrous, and one which can be given a monstrous interpretation”—that was scant consolation to their victims. Human suffering should not be calibrated according to the goals of those responsible for it. In this way of reasoning, for those being punished or killed there a Communist camp is no better or worse than a Nazi camp.
Indeed, you can see some of this presently being played out on Victory Day in Ukraine, as this report from Russia Today shows:
Russia, with much justification, views this transformation of the memory of liberation into the memory of conquer as deeply insulting. Yet the whether one thinks about the legitimacy of these moves, they nevertheless raise some quite uncomfortable questions about the basis for history, memory and identity. How to reconcile all these memories of victimhood into a general narrative, where the field of victims in the war can be objectively be dispersed between the war’s winners and losers? Can it be done? Should it? Or is the European memory of the war, as Tony Judt suggests, ever to remain “deeply asymmetrical”?
Or to put it another way, can national identity for the 21st century, particularly in post-communist space, kick the historical hangover of the 20th? Only time will tell, but with each Victory Day it appears increasingly doubtful.
Image: Totally Cool Pix
This Russia Today report is a perfect supplement to other trends regarding the appeal of neo-Nazism and ultra-nationalism in Russia. Just in time for Victory Day too, when 26-28 million Soviet citizens perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.
To top off the week of national festivities, yesterday, Russian nationalists, who’ve had their organizations increasingly banned by Russian courts, have announced that they were uniting under a nationalist umbrella group. From Kommersant:
As Dmitrii Demushkin, the leader of Slavic Strength, told Kommersant, the unification of nationalist organizations became possible after the banning of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). “After that every nationalist force agreed with the descision to unite in a new movement called “Russians”. Its framework consists of the largest nationalist organizations–DPNI and the Slavic Union,” Mr. Demushkin explained. According to him, today’s new unification included more than 40 nationalist organizations. The minimal goal for “Russians” is to facilitate universal ethno-political Russian solidarity and the maximum is to bring to power a nationalist government which would proclaim a nationalist state.
. . .
The movement has adopted the following structure: national committee of action, national committee of control, and also a high court of honor [These bodies, I assume are to maintain discipline, ideological correctness, and purge those who don’t follow the directives and statutes of the organization.–Sean]. As Mr. Demushkin told Kommersant, “I guarantee that the new movement will not repeat the fate of other banned nationalist organizations. But we have purposely called ourselves an inconvenient name. You see the courts and the security organs will not be banning nationalists, but “Russians,” Mr. Demushkin explained.
This new group shows the limits of the state bans on nationalist groups. The state can legally chop off one head, but another quickly appears like Hydra in the Avengers comics, and more importantly, more concentrated and united. And be sure there is a growing pool of young people eager to hear “Russians” message. You don’t have to turn to Russia Today nor the hate-monitoring group SOVA for this. All you have to do is turn to the Russian government itself, in particular, the results of State Prosecutor Chaika’s annual report to the President which notes an alarming growth in “extremism.”
The state’s efforts to excoriate the nationalist scourge from Russian society are mixed. While Chaika pointed to corruption as a source for both the growth in extremist activity and the ineffectiveness and indifference on the part of Russia’s police organs to prioritize it, Russia’s judicial organs are sending more nationalists to jail. For this you can look at the recent conviction of five teens (granted though the group of assailants estimated 25-30 youths) in St. Petersburg for beating two students of Central Asia origin. What allowed the court to convict the five was the court’s ruling that “Beat the darkies!” and “Russians for Russia!,” both of which were shouted as Tagir Karimov and Suleiman Ramazanov were beaten, indicated that the incident was a hate crime. More importantly, the conviction constituted both slogans as extremism under the law.
The biggest recent win against ultranationalism, however, came this week when Nikita Tikhonov and Evgeniia Khasis were sentenced to life and 18 years respectfully for the murder of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova in January 2009. Failing to solve, try, and convict anyone for such murders has been a constant bat for domestic and international human rights groups to bludgeon the Russian state with. With Tikhonov and Khasis’ sentencings the government can boast a win-win in fighting nationalism–both perpetrators were members of the neo-Nazi group Russkii Obraz–and bringing those who murder human rights activists and journalists to justice.
Still, one can conclude from Chaika’s report that the fact more nationalists are being thrown in jail also means there are more of them out there just waiting for Demushkin to be pulled into the ranks of “Russians.”
Gazeta on Chaika’s report:
“A serious factor and formative prerequisite for the formation and spread of extremist ideology is corruption in state organs, local government, and police organs,” this is noted by the obvious links with the “Primorye Partisans” and the riot on Manezh square in Moscow.
The conflict in the center of the capital on 11 December last year, as the Prosecutor’s examination confirms, was actually provoked by “the inaction of police organs,” the report reads.
The bacchanalia of extremism threatens the security of society and the state, Chaika concluded.
The most active work to be conducted for containing the spread of extremism, the number of radical nationalist groups, and ideology is on the internet, the report says. But a common preventative measure against has not produced the necessary results–“the conditions for the increased growth of extremist attitudes,” as it was called in the report, have not changed. “In connection with the operational situation in the area of opposing extremism can’t be called stable or be predicted,” Chaika said.
Still, the report did present some success on the legal front:
For all of 2010, there were 656 cases categorized as extremism under the Criminal Code. That is 19.7% more than last year. Solving these crimes, however, can be concluded from the report, is far higher: 632 cases are considered solved, and what is more 609 criminal cases were brought to court.
Along with this extremism is increasingly becoming the act of loners. The number of crimes committed by participants in organized groups fell by 14.8% to 104, but to identify the participants in these groups was met with great success in 2010. 101 persons were arrested a quarter more than last year.
It’s a notable feat that two of Russia’s most powerful symbols, Vladimir Putin and the Great Patriotic War, could jump the shark on the same day.
Granted it’s possible to argue that Putin jumped the shark a long time ago. The man has so many talents, that the Fonz himself could only awe in amazement. Putin has proved to be a Judo master, jet pilot, tiger wrestler, woodsman, super model, and now, race car driver. All that is needed is for someone to make a Putin action figure with the kung fu grip. Oh wait, someone has already thought of that, though sans the important fighting grip action.
But really, folks. Enough already. What’s next Vladimir Vladimirovich? Is jumping an actual shark on waterskis in your future?
Unfortunately, Putin wasn’t the only Russian symbol that completed the passage from adoration to absurdity.
Yesterday was the 83rd anniversary of the Great October Revolution. Whatever one might think of the outcome of the Revolution, one cannot deny that Lenin and the boys single changed the course of the 20th century when the “stormed” the Winter Palace. Though, any serious student of the Revolution knows that the supposed dramatic storm is a myth.
Sadly, myth-making hasn’t lost its allure.
Indeed, the Revolution remains difficult to sublimate into Russia’s post-Soviet collective memory, and nothing says this more than yesterday’s military parade on Red Square. Since the Revolution remains such a controversial issue, the Russian government can’t commemorate it as such. To do so would give the Communist Party legitimacy as a past modernizing force. Official recognition would renew the “glorify the Soviet past” hailstorm in the press. So what does the Russian government do? Well, it rewrites the Revolution into the only acceptable Soviet historical event: The Great Patriotic War.
As you can see from the Russia Today report, the Revolution, which the original parade commemorated, is silenced. This act as memory revision is the only way I can make sense of this reenactment of the legendary parade held on November 7, 1941. Then, the commemoration of October was defying the Nazi onslaught. It was giving the middle finger to the fascists by saying that we Russians weren’t going to sacrifice the holiest of holy days even though you are some 70 to 100 kilometers outside of Moscow.
But now? While this was all well and good in 1941, in 2010 it just looks like a silly parody. Who exactly is the Russian government defying here? Certainly not the Nazis. The West? If so, I’m sure that gesture fell on deaf ears. Yet another “thank you” to the grandfathers for their sacrifice? Too many thank yous out of context render them hollow. A chance to show off some vintage uniforms and tanks? That’s always pretty cool in a manly sort of way. Or was it an attempt to renarrate an event that tore the nation to pieces by placing it within one that bound it together? That’s my choice. But in sublimating the Revolution into the Great Patriotic War in 2010, the parade made a mockery of the latter. The war’s memory is rendered merely an empty signifier ready to be refilled with an ever malleable, politically expedient kit of signified.
You heard it here. The memory of the Great Patriotic War has officially jumped the shark. So there, “Sit on it!”
I know it’s quite out of date at this point. I had planned to share some impressions and photos from Victory Day a few weeks ago but my self-imposed hiatus got in the way. I had pretty much abandoned the idea, but then a colleague of mine posted her thoughts and I said to myself, why the hell not. Otherwise, my impressions would have just remained in my head and the pictures exiled to the abyss that is my hard drive.
Basically, my impressions can be summed up as follows:
1. Security nightmare.
This picture from Chekhovskya station is indicative of the security hell that