A tug of war over Victory Day

SUN JOURNAL

Russia: A younger generation, which was born and came to power after World War II ended, is challenging traditional views about the conflict.

May 09, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Sometimes an offhand remark can sum up, unexpectedly, a whole different way of looking at the world.

Andrei Klimov, 17, is a student at Moscow's prestigious diplomatic academy. Recently he was asked what he remembered about the Victory Day celebrations in the small town in Russia's northwest where he grew up.

"I was proud," he said. "It was the West that sent this fascism, and it was the Soviet Union that stopped it."

There it was. World War II in a nutshell: West vs. Soviets, and the Soviets won.

In his schooldays in Karelia, Klimov was taught that the Americans and the British were mixed up in the fight against the Nazis, but the essence of it was that the attack on Russia came out of the West, as it always does, and the Russians, as they always do, managed to repel it with staggering losses.

The West is where aggression and perfidy reside, as plenty of Russians were only too eager to point out during NATO's campaign against Yugoslavia a year ago.

Honoring veterans

Today Russia celebrates Victory Day. The celebration comes a day later than in the rest of Europe because by the time Germany's capitulation was sealed, late in the evening of May 8, it was past midnight in Russia. With parades and fireworks, Russians will honor those veterans who fought their way to Berlin, and the 28 million Soviets who lost their lives in the conflict.

Fierce fighting and unimaginable cruelty raged across the western Soviet Union from 1941 nearly until 1945. Russians declare, with considerable justification, that the turning point of the war came at Stalingrad in 1943, when a Nazi army of 600,000 was destroyed in what the Germans called "the cauldron."

Changing views

But in ways that are subtle and not so subtle, views of the war are being tugged this way and that by a later generation, a generation coming to power that was born after the war had ended.

For the first 45 years, things had been simple. Though Josef Stalin appealed to Russian nationalism in prosecuting the war, in peacetime the Soviet Union relentlessly promoted the memory of the conflict as Communism's finest moment.

Memorials are everywhere - though it is difficult to weigh the genuine outpouring of grief and triumph behind those monuments against the sometimes cynical propaganda of a regime that saw the victory as its principal claim to legitimacy.

Now, a decade after the Soviet Union was swept away, the government is heavily promoting the 55th anniversary of the war's end. Without Communism to trumpet, nationalism will have to do.

Promoting nationalism

Last week, President Vladimir V. Putin met on the site of a great World War II tank battle with his counterparts from Belarus and Ukraine - Alexander Lukashenko and Leonid Kuchma - and they declared that World War II had been first and foremost a victory of the Slavic peoples.

The implication is that the most far-reaching war in the history of the world wasn't about ideology or resistance to tyranny, but was an ethnic war. It was Germans and Slavs, fighting it out any way they could, for predominance.

That, perhaps, helps explain Moscow's outrage over the decision by Latvian prosecutors to charge a former Soviet partisan fighter with war crimes in the shooting of unarmed civilians. War isn't about legality, Moscow seems to be saying. War is pure hell, and the winners get to mete out the justice - and in case anyone forgot, the Russians were the winners.

Yesterday, Putin unveiled another monument, this one in Kursk, also the scene of a major tank battle.

"Pride in one's country and one's people, a sense of patriotism, is not simply formed by itself. It must live in the memory and through memorials," he said.

Counterveiling currents

But Russia is not monolithic, and unmistakable countervailing currents are at work here, too, pushing against the idea of the ethnocentric Great Patriotic War. Three commemorative coins are being struck this year to note the anniversary of the Potsdam Conference. One features Stalin - the first time his likeness has appeared on a coin - but the other two depict English Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and President Harry S. Truman.

Reproductions of victory posters from 1945 - which go on sale every May - this year include several with the Soviet, British and American flags in neighborly togetherness, even more so than in the selection from the big anniversary of 1995, when Russia's relations with the West were far better than they are today.

And a striking photo exhibit opened Saturday in Moscow, bringing together Russian, American, British and French war photos for the first time. Some of the Russian photos are from KGB archives and have never been publicly displayed.

The exhibit, put together by Olga Sviblova, director of the Moscow House of Photography, to upset conventional Russian views of the war.

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