Be that as it may, the personage of an aged relative
seems to grow in our memory
as we are told of a past time and society.
“Historical Memory and Collective Memory”
On May 9, 2015, Russia will hold celebrations in memory of the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Second World War (in Europe). Even the youngest veterans are approximately ninety years old now. It seemed reasonable to expect, optimistically, that the change of generations would bring appeasement to the traumas of war, and that the new generation will cherish the peace with renewed efforts. However, the celebration that takes place amid the Ukrainian crisis and the reluctance of many of the world leaders to take part in the traditional Red Square parade in Moscow turns out to be the most controversial one ever.
As long as the veterans are still alive, the Victory Day belongs to the present, is for them, for their victory, and in their honor. As they become scarcer, it is a good time to reflect upon why we, a new generation, keep celebrating the Victory Day. Even if we say that ‘we’ won the war, the ‘we’ now sounds differently: the truth is that our ancestors won the war, not us. We simply inherited the peace that they fought for and sacrificed their lives for. Hence, our absolute responsibility as the new generation is to preserve the peace.
Handling Post-War Trauma
The war trauma is first of all measured in terms of human casualties. The human cost that the Soviet people paid in the war was tremendous. The losses of the Soviet population in 1941-1945, in military personnel and civilians, are officially and conservatively estimated at 26.6 million. This means that at least 14% of the total USSR population (estimated at 192 million people in 1941), or 1 in every 7-8 people, perished in the war . In other words, every family had people who took part in the war and every family likely had people who did not survive the war, and usually more than one.
Besides those who sacrificed their lives, there were obviously various contributions of those who survived. In my own family, I can mention someone who was killed in action, and someone who went to a German concentration camp, and someone who perished in the Leningrad blockade, and someone who died of disease because of bad sanitary conditions in occupied areas. But I can also mention someone who marched up to Berlin and survived the whole war. As well as someone who, serving in a medical unit, saved lives by donating her own blood to the wounded soldiers. All these stories are very common in Russia, and these traumatic experiences of a great number of men, women, and their families constitute our collective memory about the war.
Destiny was never gentle to the war veterans and their families, alive or dead. War casualties translated into personal losses and a generation of children being raised in incomplete families. War returnees often had their health destroyed. In the 1980s the word ‘invalid’ was commonly used in Russian language with reference to the war veterans with missing body parts whom we could still frequently encounter back then.
The war generation. The dawn of their lives coincided with the tumultuous October revolution, their adolescence with the radical times of collectivization and industrialization, in their youth they took part in the war, in their adulthood they strived for post-war reconstruction. At the end of their lives, when the survivors of all these upheavals finally entered their retirement age, many saw their living standards deteriorate tremendously due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the economic situation of the 1990s. They were indeed the heroic and the tragic generation.
True Meaning of Memory
The relentless passage of the years has left fewer and fewer survivors of the war generation. As they leave us, we regret that we never asked them enough questions, that we missed forever so many details. Yet, like most of those who suffered a big deal in their lives, the veterans actually seemed reserved about sharing their experiences, to the extent, I remember, that asking them questions about the war felt almost embarrassing. The questions stuck in the throat: out of fear to raise hurtful memories? Because of our inability to understand? Because of their reluctance to share the inconceivable?
It turns out nowadays that, whenever the war theme is raised, it is hard to avoid the divisions and boundaries among countries and nations. The most obvious division is among the Allies and the Axis powers. The Second World War was not a conventional war, but a war between two ideologies. On the one hand, the ideology of internationalism and freedom of the peoples, regardless of their ethnicity and race; on the other, fascist ideology, which promoted the superiority of certain nations over others.
A less intuitive fact is that the war also left lots of controversies within the winning camp. Whoever thinks that today’s rivalries between Russia and the Western countries are too deep to overcome, should definitely reflect on the ideological contradictions among the Allies, mainly between the USSR and the Western Allies, between Stalin, on the one side, and Churchill and Roosevelt on the other. It is highly unlikely that those days’ huge rivalries were smaller than those that now separate Russia and the West over Ukraine.
In fact, the war generation’s reserve over these numerous sensitive points and their respect to the mutuality of contribution towards the Victory was their way to preserve post-war peace. When Winston Churchill delivered his “End of the War in Europe” speech on May 8, 1945, he chose the formula giving credit to all Allies: “After gallant France had been struck down we, from this Island and from our united Empire, maintained the struggle single-handed for a whole year until we were joined by the military might of Soviet Russia, and later by the overwhelming power and resources of the United States of America. <…We are> celebrating to-day and to-morrow <…> as Victory in Europe days. Today, perhaps, we shall think mostly of ourselves. To-morrow we shall pay a particular tribute to our Russian comrades, whose prowess in the field has been one of the grand contributions to the general victory” .
There is no hatred of the Germans among the Russian people, and nowadays Germany and Russia enjoy one of the best political and economic relations. But few people remember that it was Joseph Stalin himself, sometimes demonized afterwards, who actually stopped anti-German propaganda in the Soviet Union, writing as early as in 1942: “It is very likely that the war for the liberation of Soviet soil will lead to the expulsion or destruction of Hitler's clique. We would welcome such an outcome. But it would be ridiculous to identify Hitler's clique with the German people, with the German government. The experience of history shows that Hitlers come and go, but the German people and the German state remain” .
The people of the war generation were likely to be much more aware of the controversies of war than the new generations might assume, but they realized these issues would be divisive, and chose, deliberately, to remain respectful in order to maintain long-lasting peace, that uneasy peace that they struggled for during the war. The biggest achievement of the war generation is obvious: it is their success to avoid, in an extremely tense political situation, for seventy years already, another major world conflict.
When Memory Becomes a Myth
The war memory is important today when it serves to maintain the peace, but it becomes dangerous when it serves to revive historical divisions, create historical mythology and gets involved into modern politics. From this, two myths easily emerge.
The first myth is what we could call the ‘generation myth’. At some point, the boundaries between the war generation and the new generations become blurred, and we start to associate our historic role with theirs. We start to think that we won the war if our ancestors did it. The reality is, no matter where we come from, we didn’t actually win the war (neither lost it), as we were not even born when the war was fought. Our ancestors did. Those of our ancestors who won the war did so in order to secure peace for us, and left us with the responsibility to preserve that peace. Therefore, while we continue to celebrate the Victory Day and to reflect upon the war, it is ultimately disrespectful to their memory to tie the war history to our modern-day politics or to use the war metaphors against our contemporary political opponents.
The second myth is the ‘hero myth’. Brutal war scenes gradually evolve into a beautiful chapter of epic fantasy. It is also the unfortunate result of the war-related popular culture. We then start to believe that we are automatically heroes if our ancestors were heroes. The more we play games and watch movies about the war, and the remoter we actually are from the war veterans and witnesses, the easier it is for us to forget the war traumas and the likelier we are to fall into the trap of war romance. This is an especially dangerous myth, because many humans naturally want to become heroes. And if waging wars can pave the way for us to become heroes – why not start a war once again?
However, life is not a game, and we cannot replay history in a way we want today. We cannot change it that there was the Soviet Union back in time, not modern days Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, or other former USSR countries. Neither alternate the fact that the decisive contribution of the peoples of the Soviet Union to the victory is indivisible. We cannot test, either, whether some of the Allies would have been able to achieve the Victory without the assistance from others. We should therefore respect the historic choices made back then and remember that the end of the World War II is the multinational achievement of all the countries and peoples of the coalition who each in their way contributed to the grand victory and grand peace.
* * *
The 58th anniversary of the Victory, May 2003, Moscow. A few days before the parade, decorations of war time bivouacs and medical units were arranged around the Red Square and the Kremlin. The music is flowing, and couples of octogenarian veterans, many still in sufficiently good health to enjoy the atmosphere, are dancing the waltz. It is one of those long May evenings that only occur in the North, where spring sunsets are late, and only last for a short season.
That year, there was less talking and more respect. Vladimir Putin was generally believed to bring decency back to the veterans after the neglect of the 1990s. Selected veterans from all over the country were invited to attend the concert at the Grand Kremlin Palace, as the rumor said, on government expenses. And while the magnificent sounds of the renowned Alexandrov military orchestra were opening the show, Vladimir Putin quietly entered the hall and placed himself in the first row. He wouldn’t utter a word during the whole evening, letting his Minister of Defense greet the veterans in a brief speech. I looked around the hall and noticed, with sadness, that the veterans’ were no more than a half of those present. “In a few more years, they would become a minority”, I thought, my heart squeezing.
In 2005, the 60th anniversary Red Square parade was attended by many world leaders, including George Bush, Hu Jintao, Junichiro Koizumi, Gerhard Schröder, and Silvio Berlusconi. After all, there are probably good reasons for the tradition that tribute to the war is best paid by a minute of Silence.
1. The constant discussion about the amount of the USSR human losses in the Second World War continues. The number of approximately 27 million victims was first announced by Mikhail Gorbachev in: Gorbachev, M.S. Lessons of War and Victory. Report at the celebratory meeting in memory of the 45th anniversary of the Victory of the Soviet People in the Great Patriotic War. May 8, 1990. Published in “Pravda” on May 9, 1990.
2. Churchill, Winston. End of the War in Europe. Speech delivered on May 8, 1945. URL: http://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1941-1945-war-leader/end-of-the-war-in-europe
3. Order of the People’s Commissar of Defense No. 55 of February 23, 1942.
The article was published in Financial Times Chinese.