Blog / Understanding Putin's Russia



False and True Victories

Yuri Yarim-Agaev

 

Russia, like the rest of the world, has been struck by the severe coronavirus pandemic. More than 200 thousand people have been infected, and several thousands have already died. Many have been left without work or income.

However, it seems that many Russian people and their political leaders are no less worried about a different problem. Due to the epidemic, parades and celebrations dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the “Russian victory in the Great Patriotic War” were postponed.

Why is this so important to them? Why, throughout many years, has Russia so persistently celebrated this victory, which is considered by many to be a pyrrhic victory? After all, it is already widely known, that in the Second World War the Soviet Union lost no less than 27 million people, by some estimates even more than 40 million. Germany, which had fought the war on multiple fronts, lost around 7 million people, while Japan lost around 3 million. America and Britain lost less than half a million people each.

Had there even been a victory at all?

Maybe these sacrifices had been necessary and justified by the victory? As Russian songs have said, “After all, we need a victory, no matter the cost”. Perhaps, such a pompous celebration of this victory is necessary precisely because it had been won at such a terrible cost.

Here is a very serious problem. This wasn’t even a pyrrhic victory; it simply wasn’t a victory at all. No victories were won by Russia in the Great Patriotic War.

In fact, the Great Patriotic War as we understand it today didn’t exist either. This was only one stage of the Second World War that was artificially highlighted by Soviet historians and politicians. The purpose of this interpretation was to present the Soviet Union as an innocent victim of the “treacherous” attacks in the summer of 1941, and not the aggressor, who, together with Nazi Germany, unleashed the war two years prior. As a result, if we truly want to understand who won and who suffered defeat, we must reject Soviet historiography and consider the Second World War in its entirety: from the moment the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact concerning the division of Europe was concluded to the end of the war in 1945.

So we inevitably come to the conclusion that Russia did not participate in the war as a country, that the main victor of the war was communism, while the Russian people made up the losing side.

In order to understand this, it is important to point out that, in contrast to the First World War, World War II was not fought between nationalities of even nations, but between ideologies. By the beginning of the Second World War, two main ideologies were identified in the world. On the one hand, there was the idea of a free democratic society, on the other hand, the idea of totalitarianism. The first was implemented in Western democratic countries. National totalitarianism, Nazism, became the governing ideology in Hitler’s Germany, while international totalitarianism, communism, was the governing ideology of the Soviet Union.

World War II was the result of a collision between democracy and totalitarianism. In the late 1930s, Nazism and communism united amongst themselves in a crusade against freedom and democracy. The initiative of World War II belongs entirely to this totalitarian alliance.

In Europe, the war began with the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on the division of Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as their immediate conquest of significant parts of it. Before long, the bombing of Pearl Harbor signified the entry of Japan into the war, and the spread of the war to America and the entire Western hemisphere.

Further into the war in 1941, the relationship between Germany and Russia fell apart, and the totalitarian alliance broke, leading straight into a military conflict between two former allies, known as operation ‘Barbarossa’, or the Great Patriotic War. It was a part of the same World War II in which the same three ideologies continued to fight, with the only difference being that now democracy and communism were temporarily united in an alliance against Nazism.

Communism won while Russia lost

How did the war end for these three ideologies? Which of them turned out to be victorious, and which were defeated? Without a doubt, Nazism lost and was utterly defeated. This ideology will remain destroyed for a long time, maybe even forever. On the entire planet, it can only be found within certain marginalized groups, without any sort of political influence, not to mention power.

Democracy remained virtually unaffected. It lost Eastern Europe and a part of Asia, but established itself in post-war Germany and Japan, and together with America and Britain preserved Western Europe.

The unquestionable winner of the Second World War was communism. It significantly expanded its territory, capturing countries in Eastern Europe and even a piece of Germany, even establishing itself in Asia, in the whole of China and parts of Korea and Vietnam. As a result of both territories and population under its iron hand, communism could already compete with the democratic world.

However, ideologies cannot fight on their own. For an ideology to be able to conduct real, and not verbal, wars, it must obtain bodies. That is, to take root in some countries, subdue their people and force them to fight for it.

What are the main countries and people behind each of the three ideologies? Democracy was primarily defended by America and Britain. The expansion of national totalitarianism was carried out by Germany and Japan. Expansion of communism – by the Soviet Union, which included Russians and many other peoples.

Which of the totalitarian countries gained, and which suffered losses as a result of World War II? And here we come, it would seem, to a paradoxical outcome: the countries of victorious ideologies were the biggest losers, while the defeated countries were the biggest winners.

Of course, the exceptions were the high priests of these ideologies. Hitler and his subordinates either committed suicide or found themselves on the dock and gallows of the Nuremberg tribunal. Stalin and his subordinates reveled in the power of the Kremlin, its glory and rewards.

As for the people themselves? The biggest winners of the Second World War were the Germans and Japanese, the citizens of the states that agreed to surrender. But for the people of these countries, this was an absolute victory, they were released from totalitarianism and finally gained freedom. It took a long time for them to taste the fruits of this freedom. But after a period of time both Germany and Japan became some of the most prosperous countries and the subject of envy of the citizens of the victorious state, the Soviet Union.

The biggest losers were the Russians, Ukrainians and other people who inhabited the victorious country. The result of the war, for them, was the death of millions of people, ravaged cities and villages, poverty and hunger. They lost everything, getting nothing in return. Smashing an external enemy, they remained oppressed by maybe an even more terrifying internal enemy – communism. Like a vampire, sucking their blood it became even stronger. Post-war 1940s and early 1950s in the Soviet Union were possibly even more dismal than the 1930s. In this context, there were no special reasons to triumph.

Eastern European countries and a large part of Asia suffered no less of a loss, as a result of the war becoming victims of the same communist regime that had been established there for many years.

Who should celebrate Victory Day?

So the communist regime won and Russia lost. Accordingly, the solemn celebration by the Soviet communist authorities of Victory Day, the victory of communism, was entirely natural and logical for the high priests of the ideology, from Stalin to Brezhnev. This took place from the moment the war ended to the end of Soviet communism.

For communism, victory was complete and by no means pyrrhic. The loss of millions of its slaves in wars was, for this inhuman ideology, entirely unimportant. Communism itself destroyed them in countless numbers. For communism, only the strengthening and expansion of its power was of importance, and it achieved this at the end of the war with great success.

But in 1991 the entire communist regime collapsed, and Russia was left alone with itself and its people. And to celebrate on the 9th of May some sort of victory now makes no sense at all. After all, there was no victory for Russia 75 years ago. As a result of the Second World War, Russia lost tens of millions of people and was not freed from the communist yoke, under which the country continued to live for almost half a century. What is there to celebrate? One can only mourn and grieve.

There was another victory, a real one

So why are there parades and celebrations still held on this day? One of the explanations is that the country cannot live only with sorrow. It needs something to be proud of, something to rejoice in. And what to do, if the last great event that occurred in the history of Russia, was the victory of the Great Patriotic War, whether or not it was real or imaginary?

However, this is not so. In the history of Russia, there was a great and much later event. It was a true victory. This was the victory of democracy over communism in the Cold War, the liberation of Russia from this terrorizing regime. And that is something to celebrate.

In 1945, the global ideological war didn’t end. Nazism was defeated, but communism became only stronger and more aggressive. A confrontation, dubbed the Cold War, between democracy and communism began.

Soon after the end of World War II, communism captures Eastern Europe and a large part of Asia. Western democracy tries to restrain it, but with little success. The expansion of communism continues in Africa and Asia, even penetrating the Western hemisphere. In 1968, after the invasion of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia, the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ is proclaimed, declaring the expansion of communism as irreversible. It seemed that democracy was losing the Cold War.

However, the Soviet communist regime began to crack from within. Unsolvable economic problems of the communist system, dissident movement within the country, and the strong position of the West began to change the course of the Cold War. And in 1991, Soviet communism collapsed. This was a complete victory for democracy. The West was freed from external threats, and the people of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were liberated from the yoke of this tyrannical regime. The result of the Cold War was diametrically opposite to the result of World War II. Soviet communism suffered a crushing defeat, while Russia, other countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were the biggest winners. For Russia, this was an unquestionable victory, a victory that is really worth celebrating.

Why does Russia celebrate a fake victory in place of a real one?

Why, in the place of celebrating a true victory over communism, which brought about Russia’s liberation from this tyrannical regime, the country instead celebrates a pyrrhic victory, in fact one that was not a victory at all, that brought only misery?

This question is both for Russian people and their government. Many Soviet people embraced the end of communism with joy. However, until the very last moment, nobody within the country, other than small dissident groups, fought against it. Despite that fact that it brought people so much unhappiness, the majority was not in opposition to the communist regime, they didn’t separate themselves from it, in fact many actively collaborated with communism, it was difficult for them to perceive its demise as their own victory.

This was similar to the reaction of the Germans to the end of World War II. Regardless of the fact that Germany was liberated from Nazism and became a free country, there was no celebration in the spring of 1945. Rather the opposite, the Germans felt broken and demoralized. The reason for this was that the majority of Germans, despite the fact that Nazism ultimately doomed them to sacrifice and such a sad end, associated themselves with the regime.

In order for the German people to realize that they had won, two conditions were necessary: they had to realize through personal experience, the advantages of the democratic system, and understand for themselves that a return to Nazism was not possible.

Germans needed years of hard work and self-discipline in order to experience the benefits of life in a free democratic country. But this was not just a few years of life. This was the Nuremberg trials, an intensive program of denazification, everything that made a return to Nazism utterly impossible.

In Russia, unfortunately, neither the first nor second took place. Many were scared by the transition to democracy, as it would be difficult and painful. There was no real trial of communism nor a process of decommunization, which should have opened the eyes of people to the horrors of this system, push them away from it once and for all and exclude the possibility of returning power to the former officials of this regime.

The transition period was faced with difficulties. Unable to adjust to life in a free society and forgetting the problems and atrocities of communism, many wished for a more familiar life. So they elected Putin, a former KGB officer as their president. In Germany, this could not have happened. After the Nuremberg trials, the Germans could no longer elect a Gestapo officer.

Coming to power, Putin began the rehabilitation of the communist regime, carefully, but consistently. In order to achieve this, Victory Day was indispensable.

The idea to use Victory Day to recover the communist reputation does not belong to Putin. Brezhnev had already done this in 1965, when the ruling ideology began to lose its attractiveness. Dissidents emerged in the Soviet Union; they began to expose the atrocities of the communist ideology, and in the West more and more intellectuals began to come out from under its spell. So the Soviet powers played their trump card – the victory over Nazism. How can communism be bad if it destroyed Nazism, which by that time was already recognized as the absolute evil? At the time there were too few people that understood that communism is no less evil.

Unfortunately, many don’t understand this even today. This is what allowed Putin to repeat Brezhnev’s trick, taking advantage of the same trump card.

Of course, the restoration of communism is incompatible with the celebration of its end. As a result, the interpretation of this event also underwent changes. The Cold War was again presented from a traditional, but inaccurate angle: not as a battle between democracy and communism, but a confrontation between Russia and America. This is a very important distinction. If one were to speak of the victory of democracy over communism, then it is understood that both countries had won, and Russia even more so. But if one were to follow the traditional misinterpretation that in the Cold War America fought against Russia, then America’s victory inevitably means the defeat of Russia. The end of the Cold War then does not mean for Russia a national upsurge, but almost a national tragedy. While America, once Russia’s savior from communism, now becomes its oppressor.

The restoration of communism went hand in hand with two processes: the revision and silencing of the victory over communism in 1991, and rather the more solemn celebration of the victory of communism in 1945. The events of the past were used to outshine events of the present, those that were still fresh in people’s minds, those that Putin considered a national disaster.

Putin understood that a complete return to communism was impossible, but felt a need for an ideological basis for his power. Together with newly made philosophers, he begins to devise a sort of new ideology, a mix of communism with Russian nationalism and orthodox religion. This inedible salad of a Russian-Soviet world became the beloved dish of new Russian patriots. And, of course, there was not a holiday that suited their philosophy and taste more than Victory Day. And this came to their liking precisely because communism makes up a considerable share of their new Russian patriotism. Otherwise, they wouldn’t celebrate the Russian tragedy of 1945.

The victory of communism or a victory over it?

Should the end of the Second World War or of the Cold War be celebrated? Should the victory of communism or the victory over it be celebrated? That is the question for Russia.

One could say, of course, that in the end holidays and celebrations are not so important. That they are simply symbolic. That there are more serious material things, such as economics, politics, sciences and technology. However, celebrations are indicators of what a country is thinking of the past, what is its present and what path it will take in the near future.

Of the seven holidays, non-working days in Russia, four are communist, one is nationalist, and one is religious. The seventh, Russia Day, does not have a precise interpretation. It is an independence day, but it’s not understood from whom. Before, probably from communism, and now, probably from America. This set of holidays are well-suited towards the Russian-Soviet world, where an obvious bias in favor of communism can be seen. This coincides with the internal politics of the country, as well as its relationship with the rest of the world. It is not by chance that the main friends of Russia at the moment are China, North Korea and Venezuela, while its main enemy is America.

Many believe that communism has no relation to real-life in modern Russia, and that if it is present, it is purely symbolic, simply a hammer and sickle, Soviet hymns and portraits of Stalin. But, unfortunately, this is not the case. Russia is undoubtedly no longer a communist or totalitarian country. Its regime is authoritarian. But in this authoritarian regime, communism still plays an important role. It is present in the minds of people, in structures, and in the laws of the country. Communism is an important part of the regime, which, to a large extent, makes it authoritarian, and does not allow Russia to move to the side of a freer and more prosperous country.

A complete restoration of communism is not possible, but it is possible to prolong its agony, as the Russian government is doing so successfully. One can only hope that one day this will all pass, and Russia will finally bury communism and stop celebrating its victory.

Commemoration Day

But what to do with the millions of people lost in World War II? Is it impossible to forget about them? There were many courageous and dissent people amongst them, that made an important contribution to the destruction of Nazism, a terrifying enemy which now can’t be found on earth. In America, there is a Memorial Day for this, also in May, on the last Sunday of the month. In Russia, a similar memorial day exists on the 8th of May, but here, yet again, is a significant political bias. On this day, only the memories of those who fought in the ranks of the Soviet army against Nazism should be honored. And what to do about the fighters of the Russian Liberation or White Army? Amongst them were also many wonderful people who died in the fight against communism, no less a global evil than Nazism. Are they really not worthy of remembrance?

On Memorial Day, Americans honor the memories of all the soldiers that fought in every war, regardless of which side.

A few years ago I made a car trip from New York to Florida and back, stopping by different towns on the way. One of them was the town of St. Augustine in the North-East of Florida. It was the center of American loyalists. As it happened, we got there on the day of their annual convention, where a British flag fluttered over an old fort, and people wearing red British uniforms from the 18th century were walking down the streets. They, of course, were distant descendants of loyal admirers of that time. Yet their ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War on the British side against Washington’s revolutionary army. Those people were similar to Russian soldiers of the Russian Liberation Army who fought against the Soviet Army in World War II.

Having returned home, we stayed the night in the small Virginian town of Petersburg. This was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. In the place of this battle is a cemetery for the dead confederates, or southerners; disproportionately large compared to the size of the town itself. Confederates were the American White Guards who also lost the civil war. We went to the cemetery and visited the local church. There was a service in memory of the fallen confederates, they read their letters from the front, standing with the colors of their regiments.

All of these people, northerners, southerners, revolutionaries and loyalists, fought on different sides under different banners. But their descendants, each for their own, honor their memories. And nobody argues or decides whose memory should be honored.

One must be irreconcilable towards the tyrannical totalitarianism of the Nazi and communist ideologies, to their high priests, their leaders and executioners. But at the same time, one can and must honor the memories of ordinary warriors, and not denounce them according to which side they fought and regardless of the winner.