April 24, 2020

Gleb Morev: As Veterans Died, the Meaning of 9 May Changed

The Russian publicist thinks pure and simple revanchism is starting to take root in Russia.

The ever-increasing gap between the interpretation of the causes and effects of World War II in Russia and in the West will lead to the winners of the war being divided into two factions in future school textbooks, according to Moscow publicist and culture journalist Gleb Morev (52) in his interview with Diplomaatia on the topic of celebrating 9 May. A year ago, Morev published a controversial article on the changes in celebrating Victory Day in Russia’s biggest business paper, Vedomosti. Morev studied Russian philology at the University of Tartu in the late 1980s.


Diplomaatia: What does 9 May mean for you personally?

Morev: My childhood memories mostly include military parades—that was in Soviet times. By the way, the parades were not organised every year. [Throughout the history of the Soviet Union, the main annual military parade took place on 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik October Revolution. Soviet military parades on 9 May took place only in 1965, 1970, 1985 and 1990.—JP] Later on, these parades of military equipment in Red Square were, for me, replaced by war fiction, for example the novels of Vasily Bykov [Belorussian novelist who wrote his best-known war stories in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are available in Estonian—JP], and films like Belorussian Station [one of the most famous Soviet war movies, which premiered in 1970 and was said to be one of Leonid Brezhnev’s favourite films—JP]. This attributed a very different feel to the day. It was not so much festive and parade-like any longer, but more like a day of mourning. That is what the day is like for me today: 9 May is meant for commemorating the people who sacrificed their lives in the war. The Soviet Union’s losses were horrendous [According to official modern Russian statistics, the losses of the Red Army are reckoned to be 11.3 million, but the number may even have been 18 million. Based on the Russian State Duma’s data, the Soviet Union as a whole lost 42 million people.—JP] and I am not talking only about the number, but also about the quality of the lives. Think how many brilliant and talented people died before their potential was realised. We know of a few geniuses who survived the war, like Juri Lotman and Bulat Okudzhava, but we don’t know how many Lotmans or Okudzhavas perished. Thousands, tens of thousands of bright young people died. The war was a massive blow to the gene pool. I personally think about the victims and trauma the war caused.


Did anyone in your family die in the war?

No one from our family died in the war per se. One of my grandfathers fought on the front, reached Berlin and survived. My other grandfather and grandmother lived in Leningrad throughout the war and survived the siege. That grandfather worked in a munitions factory. In August 1941, when the war had already begun, they had a daughter. Grandmother was giving birth to her when the German artillery started bombing Leningrad. Six months later, their baby died, of course. She would have been my aunt, had she survived. This grandmother was a Belorussian Jew. Her entire family was killed there, 11 or 12 people. After that, grandmother never visited her village again.


When you see cars on the streets of Moscow or other Russian cities with bumper stickers saying “We can do it again!” [Можем повторить!], how does it make you feel?

Disgusted. At first it seemed like madness because, when you start to think about it, what do they want to repeat? The enormous national catastrophe with millions of victims? It is well-known—and soldiers-turned-writers like Viktor Astafyev have described it on several occasions—that the victory was won at the expense of huge losses. Victory was achieved with tactics and strategies that did not attribute value to sparing the lives of soldiers. The strategy was, as they say, “bury the enemy under corpses” [закидать противника трупами]. Do these people want to use such a method of warfare again? I do not believe so.

If I see slogans like “To Berlin” [На Берлин] on BMWs, Mercedes and other German cars, I fail to understand what they are trying to say. A country that has not managed to make a single decent car in the past 75 years sticks slogans like this on cars made in the country that lost the war—I don’t think this leads to favourable interpretations.


What are the reasons for slogans like these?

It is simple revanchism. These people are looking for a sense of power related to the victory that was achieved, a sense of superiority. Until recently, almost the present day, there was nothing that could offer such a feeling. On the contrary, the country was lagging, suffered losses, the empire had collapsed, and so on. The year 1945 and taking Berlin were the only time when the Soviet Union could be said to have been at the height of its power in the recent past. That is the only event that could evoke such emotions.


When I see the bumper stickers with “We can do it again!”, I always recall my Siberian grandmother, who often said even 40 years after the war had ended that “I hope there will not be a war!”. There is quite a pronounced dissonance between various generations—I mean the generation who survived the war and the youth of today.

Of course. For the generations that survived the war, it was an enormous trauma and catastrophe, because they actually knew what war meant. The current propagandistic treatment of the subject has nothing to do with actual events. History is being exploited for the benefit of the current political situation.


People may be driving cars with these stickers, but are the Russian authorities trying to send the message of “We can do it again!” to the world with the pomp of their 9 May celebrations?

The state naturally does not want this; they do not intend to go to war. We can deduce this, for example, from the conflict between Russia and Turkey in Syria, where Russian president Vladimir Putin is trying to steer clear of a military clash no matter what. Of course they do not mean to repeat World War II, since in present circumstances it would mean a global catastrophe, everyone’s death, and the demise of Russia.


Still, what does it say about today’s Russia that a Soviet victory achieved 75 years ago has become virtually the central topic in the authorities’ propaganda campaigns?

It has to do with the artificial fostering of national pride. There is nothing else to feed it [national pride]. Come to think of it, what was the event like? A victory was won 75 years ago in a major military conflict in another state under the aegis of a different political regime. Undoubtedly, it is an important historical event, but it is being celebrated indiscriminately widely today. It is being celebrated like the victory occurred yesterday, as if it attributed meaning to our life today. However, our lives are no longer determined by the Yalta Conference, but by the political reality that arose after the Soviet Union collapsed. This event no longer has a direct effect on modern life, but it is presented as a vital element of modern times.


Perhaps sending Gagarin, the first person in space, could be celebrated instead. Doesn’t that foster national pride? Sixty years will have passed since the first manned space flight next year.

Celebrating this would probably be too peaceable and it is not sufficiently connected with the superiority of the state or its power, as it has more to do with the triumph of science. It would be too intellectual a celebration; the state probably does not need something like this. They need something that would allude to military prowess, the might of an empire. Celebrating the defeat of Napoleon [in 1812] would be as successful in Russia.


To what extent does the Kremlin need 9 May simply to mobilise society? Do they treat it as an example of how society was able to rally back then, how everyone supported Stalin unanimously and without argument, and Russia was able to win the war as a result? By extension, if everyone supported Putin and his circle the same way today, everything would be alright. 

Of course it is an example of successfully rallying the nation. That is one of the objectives behind the celebration. Polls show, however, that Russians tend to refrain from supporting such joint causes and do not want to wage war but would primarily like to improve their quality of life. That is what interests them, not patriotic ideals and fighting external enemies. The fact that they are willing to participate in celebrating a military event in such a raucous and all-encompassing way is another thing, since one must make an intellectual effort to understand that there was nothing very festive about the war ending and the war was quite unlike how the current powers want to depict it. Not everyone is capable of understanding history in this way.


Gleb Morev: our lives are no longer determined by the Yalta Conference, but by the political reality that arose after the Soviet Union collapsed. Private Collection

Has celebrating 9 May turned into a ritual that must be followed each year for the Russian people—a bit like Midsummer Eve for Estonians, when we jump over a campfire, as we always have? In addition, people get a few days off to celebrate 9 May, which is nice as well.

It really is a part of pseudo-religion in a sense. It represents the replacement of certain religious practices, of which there are actually few in Russia. The people consider themselves to be very religious, but only a small number actually participate in religious life and follow Orthodox principles. This quasi-religion does not demand that people obey any rules, nor does it prescribe restrictions, like fasting or prayer—people just need to spread the general atmosphere of joy and belligerence.


This year, celebrating 9 May and the 75th anniversary of World War II ending has the additional context of a so-called memory war with Europe over how to interpret history correctly. Why did the Kremlin raise this sore subject, when no one has questioned the Soviet Union’s role in winning the war—Europe is interested in who was to blame for it starting?

From Russia’s point of view, this is a battle over the Soviet Union’s historical legacy, over interpretations of the USSR’s role in history in general and this war in particular. The Western discourse treats these events differently. During the war, the coalition that fought Hitler was to a large extent formed based on the situation and was not at all natural. On the one hand, it included countries like the UK and the US, idealistic and staunch opponents of socialism and fascism, who became military opponents of Germany as well. On the other hand, the coalition included the Soviet Union, at first Hitler’s opponent, then an ally, and then compelled to become an enemy again, although Hitler and Stalin were no different in terms of the ideas they supported. After the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed, they were friends, a marriage of minds. No one [in the Soviet Union] spoke about the ideological differences between the regimes and no one in the USSR protested against some of the fascists’ methods. This was out of the question. Hitler attacked the Soviet Union to get more Lebensraum for the Germans, not because the Soviet Union was its ideological opponent—unlike Winston Churchill and the UK, which was both the military and political opponent of Hitler. In order to assess this fairly, the umbilical cord that joins the Soviet Union and today’s Russia should be cut. This was referred to by judge Konstantin Aranovskiy, who claimed that Russia cannot be the legal successor of the Soviet Union, an illegally formed criminal state, which is why it is nonsense to claim Russia is its successor. [Morev is referring to a resolution by the Russian Constitutional Court concerning compensation to people whose parents lost their possessions during Soviet repressions. Judge Aranovskiy added a dissenting opinion to the resolution.—JP] Unfortunately, Russia is building its identity precisely on being the USSR’s legal successor. [During the constitutional reforms, a separate clause was added to the Russian Constitution to reflect this.—JP] This is why Russia cannot view Stalin objectively and attacks on him are considered attacks on modern Russia. All of this creates a situation in which Russia constantly needs to protect the claim that the Soviet Union’s actions were justified.


It is especially bizarre that in 2009 Putin wrote an article in Gazeta Wyborcza in which he said that the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was immoral, but now he has started to protect it again. How do you explain that? [A similar farce is being played out over recognising the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940—sometimes Russia admits to it, at others it tiptoes around the subject.—JP]

This has nothing to do with Putin’s views of history or his search for historical truth. It is connected to the political situation, and current political needs. The situation back then was different from what it is now. His views change based on the situation and its requirements.


For this year’s 9 May celebrations, the Kremlin is emphasising that Russia is the only successor to the state that won the Great War, and those that do not understand and accept this are Russia’s enemies. How do you interpret this message?

In reality, the consequences of this are paradoxical. Distancing itself from the World War II discourse dominant in Europe and clinging to the Soviet Union’s identity will lead to the next generation of historians starting to differentiate between the allied war effort against Hitler and the battle between two totalitarian regimes, one of which was compelled to join the Allies but quickly left the democratic coalition after the victory was won, resulting in the Cold War. Victory over fascism will be presented not as the joint achievement of all coalition powers but as the triumph of democracy on the one hand and one totalitarian power defeating another on the other hand. In short, the victors will be divided into two factions. Democratic forces, not Stalin, will emerge as the actual, ideological defeaters of fascism. Russian soldiers are undoubtedly not to blame in this: they were heroes who earned the victory by paying with their lives. They are also not to blame for being an unwitting weapon in the hands of Soviet totalitarianism. However, by trying to put Stalin’s regime in a better light, Putin also casts a shadow on Russian soldiers.

It is clear this celebration will not disappear from Russian history but it would be more reasonable to highlight the heroics of Russian soldiers and Russian commanders, and the memory of the fallen, not the heroic deeds of the Soviet Union and Stalin. Human aspects, not state-related factors. The celebrations would then be quite different from what they are now. They were different during Soviet times, when the veterans were still alive. Today, the so-called living element has disappeared from the celebration, which has turned into an entirely different holiday. Living, traumatic memories were replaced by abstract ideological ideas, which have little to do with reality.


Last autumn it seemed that the Kremlin wanted to bring as many foreign leaders as possible to the 9 May parade in Red Square to celebrate 75 years since the end of the war. In his recent statements, Putin ruled this out. What was that about?

This kind of behaviour does indeed seem destructive. I think that reacting aggressively to the Western war discourse prevails over such tactical matters as inviting Western leaders to the 9 May parade. It probably seems impossible to them [the Russian leadership] in a situation in which the Kremlin can under no circumstances recognise the Western war discourse.


Putin could react less passionately and convey his message in a way that would allow the leaders of other nations to be invited.

The time for moderate reactions has passed since [events in] the Crimea. All responses are sharp. The emotional state of these people since 2014 no longer allows for mild gestures.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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