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The celebrations marking the end of the "Great Patriotic War" are underway in Moscow. But behind the ceremony, Russia is marked by deep hankerings for the past.


Stalin for president

By Sonja Margolina

Russia, alongside the USA, the glorious victor of the Second World War, stands sixty years on as the great loser. After the collapse of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, the phantasm of the Russian superpower has not only evaporated into thin air, but hopes for a better future in a civil society are still in vain. The only thing to cling onto is the old dream and its triumphant figure – Stalin.

In 1945, the Soviet Union achieved victory over Nazi Germany at the horrendous cost of 27 million lives. The country annexed half of Europe and rose to superpower status. Forty years later, no longer able to compete with the capitalistic enemy in the arms race, the post-Stalinist dysfunctional party dictatorship collapsed. The break up of the Soviet Empire and the end of socialism, followed by economic chaos, social collapse and ethnic conflict was perceived in Russia as a defeat to the West: they had won the war but lost the peace.

The war veterans in particular felt betrayed when they were forced to recognise that even their former defeated opponents enjoyed more respect from society and a incomparatively higher standard of living than those who had sacrificed their lives to liberate the world from the "fascist plague". At the end of the eighties it suddenly became frowned upon to wear war medals in public, and the media reported on public abuse of war veterans in incidents such as the following: A highly decorated old man tried to jump the queue at a bar where beer was in short supply. Some drunken teenagers pushed him to the ground and while they urinated on him one of them explained why they hated him and all his war medals. "If you hadn't won the war you idiot, we'd all be drinking Bavarian beer now."

Such extreme desecration of the Soviet shrine was perhaps a rare event, but defamation of the historic victory and the war heroes was an everyday occurrence during Perestroika. One only had to look at the vast amounts of war medals sold for a pittance by impoverished and embittered veterans at flea markets. But initially the shock of defeat was at least partly compensated by the newly awakened great expectations for the future. The slaughtering of yesteryear retreated behind the promised share in immediate prosperity.

But the bright capitalistic future was in no hurry, and by the mid-nineties nostalgic yearnings for the Soviet past – and the Brezhnev era in particular - started to gain the upper hand. And the symbolic significance of "the Great Patriotic War" grew accordingly, particularly as the other objects of collective pride such as the October Revolution, industrialisation, military superpower had lost their sheen. And so the myth of war and victor, which had first started to take shape in the seventies, eventually found its way back to its original role as the symbol of national identity. Today "victory towers over us", as Muscovite sociologist Lev Gudkov so vividly described it in his exceptional essay in the magazine Osteuropa (4/5, 2005), "like the stone columns left standing in the desert once the remaining rock has been weathered away."

In 1996, when asked which event in Russian history they were most proud of, 44 percent of the people questioned said the Second World War victory; in 2003 the figure was 87 percent. As the war gained in importance, so too did Stalin's authority as the commander-in-chief and leader. Between 1998 and 2003 the number of people giving Stalin a positive evaluation tripled from 19 to 53 percent. And accordingly, memories of Stalinist repression shrunk from 29 percent at the end of the nineties to less than 1 percent. According to the survey carried out by the Levada Center, which produced these results, almost a third of the population declared they would vote for Stalin as president.

On the eve of the victory celebrations, attempts to rehabilitate Stalin are springing up all over the place. The deputies of the City Duma in the central Russian city of Orel appealed to President Putin and the State Duma "to reinstall Stalin's name in the streets and squares in our cities, to rebuild the memorials to the commander-in-chief and to bolt the door on the falsification of history." They also called for the re-installation of "historic justice" in the Siberian city of Mirni and in the republic of Sakha, where once Gulag prisoners froze to death in the perpetual frost of the diamond mines. In line with the wishes of the veteran associations, a bust of Stalin is be erected there bearing the inscription "from the grateful descendants". For years, the City Duma of Volgograd has been pushing to change its name back to Stalingrad. For now it will have to make do with a ten tonne, four metre high bronze statue by Moscow kitsch-sculptor Surab Zereteli, depicting the leaders of the Anti-Hitler Coalition. In a letter to the Isvestiya newspaper protesting against the re-Stalinisation of society, a group of writers and artists, among them Andrei Bitov and Fasil Iskander, wrote that the figures of Churchill and Roosevelt were merely a blundering attempt "to conceal the shameless glorification of Stalin, and that at a time in which the memory of his crimes lives on in millions of families."

Literary academic Marietta Chudakova also sees evidence of a rehabilitation of Stalin and his abettors in the discontinuation of the inquiries by the Russian military prosecution authorities into the mass executions of Polish officers in Katyn "due tolack of evidence". The edict which closed the case is being kept secret and the Russians are refusing to hand over the majority of files to the Poles, despite the fact that important steps towards unlocking information and co-operating with Poland were taken back in Yeltsin's day. According to Chudakova, the secret services and the military believe that the truth about Katyn and a confession to the annexation of the Baltic states would diminish the greatness of victory. Liberal intellectuals believe that in terms of political history, Russian society has rolled back to pre Kruschevian de-Stalinification days. But the current "siloviki" regime, with its close ties to the secret service and the military, needs the myth of untainted victory as a sort of substitute belief to legitimise the incompetent and corrupt arbitrary rule. And it can still build on collective longings for the Breshnev era and the frustrated dreams of superpower shared by significant swathes of the population which seems to live in two contradictory realities.

Russia is a residual superpower fighting a losing war in the Caucasus and plagued by Islamic terrorism. The Russian army is demoralised, unfit for battle and homicidal. And the country is in the throes of a demographic and health crisis unparalleled in the world. With an average male life expectancy of 59, only a minority of war veterans will live to see the 60th anniversary of the "holy" victory. The so-called "monetarisation" of welfare benefits which is being fought by pensioner and veteran associations has further worsened their situation. Furthermore, the victory over fascism has not been able to keep the population immune to its own fascist tendencies, particularly among the younger generation who have grown up in the 90s in an atmosphere of chaos, violence and hopelessness. Over half the population agree that "Russia belongs to the Russians". Every day witnesses new racist attacks, and the skinheads often kill their victims. The "Weimar Syndrome", that results when revenge is sought for dishonour suffered, and the right of the Kremlin to play the saviour of civilisation are hard to unite.

The symbolic date of the end of the war has not taken root in the deeply divided Russian society, split over the war and its consequences. The memorial celebrations seem to have little in common with the expectations and emotions of the population. The Yeshednevnaya Gazeta criticises that at the people's festival, which is apparently intended to unite the population, the people are unwelcome. The war veterans have been allocated the role of extras in a spectacle, whose protagonist, surrounded by a handful of foreign dignitaries and state guests, is Vladimir Putin. The newspaper's reaction to the announcement that Moscow would be sealed off during the celebrations, as it was during the notorious Olympics in 1980, was to suggest to the inhabitants that they would be better off leaving town. And indeed Moscow's security forces seem to have no better way of protecting the people against the attacks that have already been announced by Chechnyan terrorists. But that is the point: the myth of the untainted "holy" victory and the dirty war in Caucasus are difficult to hold apart.

The Stalinism-lite so widespread in Russia, which appears so daunting to outside observers, is not aimed at the world outside. It is above all a yardstick for the moral and economic decline in which Russian society finds itself after fifteen years of "transformation". If progress fails, people carry on living in an imaginary past. Russia's historic clock seems to be winding down. In this atmosphere the approaching memorial day arouses feelings of unease, more than anything else.


The article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürchner Zeitung on 30 April, 2005

Sonja Margolina is an author and journalist living in Berlin. "Das Ende der Lügen" (the end of lies, 1992) is published by Siedler Verlag. "Wodka" (vodka, 2004), is published by Wolf Jobst Siedler jr. Verlag.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european