This spring, Russia has gone swastika mad. From the anonymous inmate of Sverdlovsk's Penal Colony 26 who tattooed a swastika on his body (he was fined 1,000 roubles), to toy soldiers in Third Reich uniforms on the shelves of Moscow’s largest children's department store (they were removed), a spate of swastika stories has flooded Russian media.
Russia's Investigative Committee is looking for the perpetrator of this neo-Nazi stunt, and a government agency with the Orwellian title of Rospatriotsentr (the Russian Youth Civic and Patriotic Education Centre) is asking people all over the country to inspect their local toyshops for dubious toys.
The swastika obsession
But it isn't just toys that are under investigation. While the Moscow city authorities are planning their own 'anti-Nazi' raids on shops (run by the capital’s anti-terrorist directorate), in Voronezh, women's sandals with decorative stitching reminiscent of a Luftwaffe chevron have also been withdrawn from sale.
In Bryansk, a photographic exhibition entitled 'Wartime Bryansk in Focus: Children's Lives', due to take place in a city library, has been cancelled. The reason for its cancellation is complicated: although the photos, taken in 1941-2 while Bryansk was under German occupation, show only local children, the photographer was a German, a member of the Wehrmacht, which makes them not just portraits of Russian kids, but Hitlerite propaganda.
Participants of a rally in Kaliningrad in support of Crimea residents. Photo (c) Agris Semevits via RIA
In Kamchatka, the organisers of an exhibition of wartime Soviet posters have also hit some problems: the posters show Soviet soldiers confronting German ones. To avoid breaking the Russian law banning the representation of Nazi emblems, the organisers have been forced to paint out all the SS and Wehrmacht insignias on the servicemen's uniforms. And Smolensk journalist Lina Danilevich was fined for posting on social media a photo of her own back yard at the time of the German occupation: there was a flag with a swastika visible on it. Sergei Saratov, a journalist from Saratov, was also fined for posting a photo of a swastika as part of an anti-Fascist collage.
Meanwhile, in Ryazan, two teenagers were fined for laying out a swastika shape in tiles on a pavement. And a court ordered a Moscow security firm to change its logo because it looked like the badge of the SS Panzer Division 'Das Reich'.
Next on the sanctions list may be Yekanterinburg's circus, whose 'Salute to Victory' show includes performing monkeys dressed in Wehrmacht uniform. Might that break the law as well?
Political correctness à la russe
The phrase 'political correctness' has been around in Russia for some time, but it has mostly been used ironically, as a dig at modern Western mores.
For instance, Russians find it rather amusing that helping a woman put on her coat is seen as sexism, that calling an African a Negro is racism, and referring to gays as homosexuals is homophobia. But in Vladimir Putin's third term, political correctness has finally arrived in Russia – though it looks very different from what we're used to laughing at on comedy shows ridiculing the West.
In the West, political correctness is about protecting the rights of minorities. In Putin's Russia, political correctness only protects the majority. To be precise, a majority that probably only exists in sociological surveys run by government departments and on TV shows – a majority which is ultra-conservative and ultra-patriotic.
In Putin's Russia, political correctness only protects the majority.
The assumption is that, since Russians not only hold very conservative views but are also very thin-skinned, the government needs to protect them from any information that might offend them. The famous 'gay propaganda', banned by law two years ago, is one example of such information, just like when Pussy Riot's performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour 'insulted the feelings of believers', back in 2012. Two years ago, they even banned (by law) any discussion of Russia’s possible collapse.
But the central element of Russian political correctness is the protection of veterans of the Second World War; it is considered that any public sighting of a swastika, even in a neutral context, might be seen by elderly ex-combatants as a slight on their military past; and so the state has espoused the defence of their patriotic values in its usual tasteful manner.
It is not the first time the government has gone OTT like this: six years ago a veterans' organisation forced a Moscow restaurant, 'The Anti-Soviet Kebab House', to change its advertising. Playing on the propaganda trope of 'anti-Sovietism', a byword for dissent, the name was, in fact, an old pun, which had become part of Muscovite folklore. The restaurant stands opposite the Sovietskaya ('Soviet') Hotel; for years, the kebab house's regulars had called it 'Anti-Soviet' because it was 'against' (i.e. opposite) the hotel.
This harmless wordplay became the subject of a political row – even the city authorities got involved. Back in 2009, the incident was nothing more than an anecdote about excessive administrative zeal. Now, however, it has become the norm. Every day, there will inevitably be a new story about how vigilant citizens have discovered yet another photo containing a swastika.
A change from Soviet times
Surprisingly enough, even in the Soviet years, when all media and mass culture was strictly controlled by the Communist Party, scandals like this were unheard of.
Children played with toy soldiers dressed in Wehrmacht uniforms; characters in films happily showed off their swastika armbands if required to by the plot; cartoonists and poster designers, denouncing European Fascism and Neo-Fascism, drew swastikas all over the place – on flags, clothing, firearms – and it never entered anyone's head to see cinemas, toyshops, and books as elements of Nazi propaganda.
The further the war recedes into history, the less sensitive we ought to be about it and its symbolism. But for some reason the Russian government has chosen the 70th anniversary to behave as if Nazi Germany has invaded Russia again and is already on the outskirts of Moscow, about to seize the capital.
In Vladimir Putin's Russia, this histrionic, almost religious attitude to the Soviet version of the Second World War has genuinely become our national ideology, the ultimate political credo, and almost the sole rallying cry used by the government to unite the nation.
Russia's entire rhetoric around Ukraine is based on words and images from 1941-1945. Our propaganda asserts that the separatists in Eastern Ukraine are fighting the Nazis who have seized power in Kyiv. In other words, the so-called 'polite people' in Crimea (soldiers in unmarked uniforms with Russian weapons) and the 'militias' in the Donbas are continuing the struggle of their grandfathers.
The St George Ribbon has become a trademark of loyalty to the Kremlin. Photo CC: Olga Butenop
The St George Ribbon, created in 2009 as a mass symbol of commemoration of the war, like Britain's red poppies, has become a trademark of loyalty to the Kremlin, particularly with reference to what is happening in Ukraine.
In the past ten years, the balance between history and contemporary life, when discussing the war, has shifted radically in favour of today: remembering the war is no longer a question of sorrow, nor objective discussion, but a hot topic with direct relevance to current political events – whether at home or abroad. The government's attempts to manipulate public opinion are nothing new or surprising, but Putin's skill has been to exploit a war that finished 70 years ago, to manipulate people today.
And since the war is neither the most obvious, nor the most important topic for Russians today, it requires constant reminders from the media. This swastika hunt may seem pretty extreme as a means of inducing public neurosis, but it seems to be working. On social media, at least, 'fascist' is still a favourite term of political abuse.