Saturday, May 09, 2015

Putin’s Russia Has To Deal With the Legacy of World War II

by Cathy Young, TIME
12:05 AM ET

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Having spent my first 16 years in the Soviet Union, I grew up hearing very little about World War II and a great deal about the “Great Patriotic War”—the German invasion in June 1941 and the four-year “sacred war” that followed. The war was a centerpiece of official propaganda; but it was also a living collective memory of hardship, loss, and survival. The Soviet Union’s Victory Day, May 9, was the one Soviet holiday that belonged to everyone, even to people like my parents and grandparents who quietly hated the Soviet regime. Now, on the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat, the war and the victory are a legacy that seem to divide far more than they unite—a subject of often bitter contention between Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbors, between Russia and the West, and between Kremlin-loyal “patriots” and pro-Western liberals within Russia.

Of course, the legacy of the war was never simple. In our history lessons in Soviet school, we heard about the very real heroism of Soviet men and women who fought in the Red army and in partisan guerilla units; but we did not learn that the Soviet leadership knowingly threw tens of thousands of barely trained, sometimes barely armed or fed draftees into the maw of the German war machine. We did not learn that the NKVD, Joseph Stalin’s secret police, and the dreaded military intelligence force SMERSH (an abbreviation for “death to spies”), had men marching behind regular forces ready to gun down anyone who tried to run or retreat. We were told about the perfidious German attack on the USSR—but the Soviet-German pact was glossed over, and there was no mention of the fact that Soviet troops and government officials in the path of the invasion initially fled in panicked disarray.

I learned about the other side of the Great Patriotic War from personal stories, from my parents, from clandestine foreign radio broadcasts and forbidden literature that found its way into our home. I learned that a family friend’s father was arrested and imprisoned in 1941 for “sabotaging morale” because, while listening to Stalin’s first post-invasion radio address among neighbors, he imprudently remarked that the Soviet leader’s voice sounded very sad. I learned that for millions, U.S. food aid had been essential to wartime survival. (My mother, who was five when the war started, still has fond memories of Spam.) I learned that many across the Soviet Union initially welcomed the Germans as liberators from Communism, and that most Soviet POWs bitterly fought repatriation after the war’s end—not surprisingly, since their homecoming usually ended in the gulag as punishment for the “treason” of letting themselves be captured alive.

(More here.)

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