WWII and the power of stories


"Happy Victory Day!"

“Happy Victory Day!”

Russia is running out of stories.

On May 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an addition to Russia’s criminal code that establishes severe penalties for “rehabilitation of Nazism.” As the law states, this could include denying the findings of the International Criminal Court at Nuremburg or spreading false information about the activities of the USSR during World War II. Those found guilty may be fined up to 300,000 rubles (about $10,000) or subject to up to three years imprisonment, or even more if they use mass media.

Many countries, of course, have similar laws. But Russia’s new law has little to do with concerns about Holocaust deniers and everything to do with the current political need for an unambiguously pro-Russian official history of World War II.

As the Kremlin’s official news release puts it, the law also establishes criminal penalties for “distribution of information about the days of military glory, and about memorial anniversaries of Russia connected to the defense of the Fatherland, that expresses clear disrespect to society, and for desecration of symbols of military victory of Russia that are committed in public.”

It’s worth noting that one of those memorial anniversaries, Victory Day, is today, May 9. The Russian government is in fact making kind of a deal out of it. It may be that one of those “symbols of military glory” may very well be the orange-and-black ribbons that many people have recently adopted as a sign of pro-Russian allegiance in the current conflict with Ukraine. And that the official Russian narrative of current events in Ukraine is that neo-Nazi fascist thugs have taken over and are threatening the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.

But why a law drawing boundaries around a particular historical period? It has a lot to do with the power of stories, and with the current Russian government’s lack of good ones.

One of the crucial tasks for political elites in any country is to convince the public, or at least enough of the public, that those in charge have a right to be there. And one of the most powerful means of doing so is for those in power to tell good stories, particularly stories that resonate with people’s own beliefs about their identities and their place in the world. This, in a nutshell, is what nationalism is all about: We, the people of X-land, share a past, a present, and a future–and I, the brave leader, will defend that past and lead you to that future.

In the US, we have stories about progress and the American Dream, about shared values like justice, equality, and opportunity. We have a wealth of stories about collective struggle and triumph: the American Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, working people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, sending a man to the moon. Politicians campaigning for office have rich material to draw on when they try to convince us they’re the ones who best understand those stories and who will protect those values. The particulars of each history might be messy, but even that messiness fits in with the grand American narrative of progress: we might not be perfect, but when we all come together we can change things for the better.

Russia, it turns out, doesn’t have that many stories. At least, not ones that bring the majority of the public together. A few may be nostalgic for the days of tsarist empire, but there’s not a whole lot to celebrate about centuries during which most people lived as serfs or peasants, dominated by a tiny class of aristocrats ruled over by an autocrat. Putin’s trying–in recent years, Tsar Nicholas I’s defeat of Napoleon has gotten some official celebrations–but one must tread carefully when the current government is…a tiny class of oligarchs ruled over by an autocrat.

The 1917 Revolution? A bit awkward for official celebration, now that socialism is over. There’s certainly nostalgia for the stability of the latter-day Soviet period, but nobody has fond memories of consumer goods shortages. Not to mention that the politicians and business leaders currently in charge have made fortunes in the market economy. They can’t exactly start cheering Marxism.

We’ll just skip over the famines caused by collectivization, the Stalin purges, the Gulag–the less said, the better.

On the other hand, it’s awfully hard to cheer the transition to capitalism. Sure, a lucky few made billions. But the average Russian experienced the 1990s as a series of economic crises. Hyperinflation, banks collapsing, the disappearance of entire economic sectors, and the rapid fraying of the social safety net? Capitalism doesn’t have the most pleasant associations, either. Russian nationalist websites are full of screeds against neoliberalism and alleged Western plots to destroy Russia through market integration and the export of decadent values.

So not only does the official narrative of Russian history not celebrate the transition to capitalism–if anything, it emphasizes these feelings of collective trauma, social atomization, and alleged moral decay, and blames the West for them. This is national narrative number one: Russia as the victim of Western plots. Hence the blaming of the CIA and the State Department for opposition protests, the scapegoating of LGBT citizens, and the harassment of foreign NGOs.

But one can only do so much rallying around victimhood, and Putin doesn’t really seem the type to dwell solely on his own disempowerment. Helpfully, there’s one more official story that’s even more resonant: Russia’s sacrifice and victory in World War II.

Russia’s leaders have found this a powerful narrative for decades. The Soviet government had nearly always celebrated its military, even demolishing a historic gate to allow tanks to enter Red Square for parades. But it was in the 1960s that Victory Day celebrations became one of the central state rituals. Each year May 9th has been marked by massive official parades of current soldiers and veterans, speeches honoring those who sacrificed their lives for the war effort, and pilgrimages to the cemeteries, eternal flames, and monuments to unknown soldiers in almost every city and town across the country.

The popular resonance of the Victory Day holiday would be hard to overstate, and no wonder. Even in the US, WWII is regarded as the last good war, the subject of endless History Channel specials and Hollywood dramas. The villain was clearly evil. The heroes were clearly good. Add to that the fact that millions of Russian soldiers and civilians died, and you get a narrative that is not only symbolically powerful, but that directly touches almost every Russian’s own family history.

But–as the wording of the new law hints at–that doesn’t mean there’s no room for criticism. Did the USSR commit war crimes, too? Did its soldiers or partisans engage in anti-Semitic pogroms? What about the masses of populations with “questionable” loyalties who were sent to work camps in the Far East, and the masses who died as a result?

A different government might be willing to engage with these questions, to allow historians to research the ugly parts of history, even to apologize for its predecessors’ treatment of victimized groups. The current ruling elite is not that government.

Instead, in practice and now in law, the Kremlin is declaring the official narrative of Soviet heroism a sacred story. It is set apart, not up for debate. The Kremlin will decide who the fascist enemy is, and was. The Kremlin will decide who the heroes were, and are.



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