Russia's WWII: still too many taboos?


For most of the USSR, WWII started on 22 June 1941. Exactly 70 years have passed since then, but there are still many ‘uncut pages’ of history, and few attempts have been made to present a view that differs from Soviet propaganda, writes Andrei Kalikh

Andrey Kalikh
22 June 2011

22 June 2011 marks the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. This date is to this day a painful memory for the people of Russia, though for a long time the official Soviet calendar ignored it. Everyone knew that 22 June was the start of the war, but it was not until 1996 that Boris Yeltsin declared it a day of national mourning.

That it went for so long unrecognised was, in my opinion, a reflection of the fact that neither the state nor Soviet historical science (which depended on the state) had a clearly defined position on the date the war began. The propaganda machine could not make proper use of the event, because the evidence that the USSR had been to blame for unleashing the war was all too obvious.

"22 June was far from an unequivocal matter for righteous anger and, after the war had started, the ideology machine had a hard time trying to explain to people why yesterday’s friend had suddenly become our worst enemy."

There was a strong desire not to be reminded of:

  • above all, the friendly relations between Germany and the Soviet Union which lasted until virtually the end of the pre-war days: the joint military parades and manoeuvres, the reciprocal gestures of attention and the generous concessions such as the 1939 division of Poland;
  • the mass repressions of the 30s which wiped out hundreds of good officers and commanders, or sent them to Stalin’s camps, and the crippling of the Red Army by Stalin himself;
  • the fact that the German aggression effectively caught the USSR off its guard, despite countless communications sent to Stalin from Soviet and German sources that Germany was preparing for war. The unexpected attack on the USSR revealed the total failure of Stalin’s foreign and defence policies, which, taken with other mistakes, led to the tragic defeats and countless casualties in the first months of the war;
  • the fatal similarity between the two totalitarian regimes with Socialism in their names.

For all these reasons 22 June was far from an unequivocal matter for righteous anger and, after the war had started, the ideology machine had a hard time trying to explain to people why yesterday’s friend had suddenly become our worst enemy.


Brest, 1939. Major General Heinz Guderian and Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein at a joint Wehrmacht and Red Army parade held following the invasion of Poland. Relations between the German and Soviet armies were genuinely friendly, based on mutual hostility toward Poland and years of secret collaboration after World War I.

Attitudes to this date have varied in Russia’s public consciousness, depending on the period and the historical context. Attitudes now, for example, are very different from what they were in the 40s. I think this tragic date could well be considered the beginning of the most difficult and desperate of the tragic stages in the life of Soviet society, though it was only one more in a series of such stages. One more, because, despite the reports of the successes and happiness in the Soviet Union, many people have other memories: the cruelty of collectivisation, the industrialisation, the Stalinist terror, famine and other misfortunes. “Times were hard,” our grandparents used to reminisce, but the war was a continuation, rather than the beginning, of these hard times. A most bloody continuation.

In the decades after the war official propaganda tried to remove these sorrowful dates from public consciousness and to concentrate instead on the victories and achievements. But not this date, because everything had been arranged in such a way that 22 June was firmly fixed in the national memory as the day ‘evil’ Germany treacherously attacked the ‘good’ Soviet Union. Which is how the Russian collective memory regards it to this day.  It is well known that nothing is more successful in uniting a nation than mobilising against an external enemy, and a shared past of heroism and tragedy, but crimes against one’s own people and terror inflicted on neighbouring countries can play no part in this unification.

Many of the more “uncomfortable” war themes remain outside society’s assimilation process for the same reason. Public consciousness takes almost no account of the Holocaust, for instance. Research into Jewish topics was not part of official Soviet war historiography. There are many reasons why not, but to my mind the problem is not quite as simple as it might seem. The main reason is, of course, anti-Semitism: always present in Russia, it was strongest (and had official support) in the post-war years (1948-53), when there were openly anti-Semitic campaigns such as the “Doctors’ Plot” and the “Rootless Cosmopolitans”.

The second reason is the cruel non-selectivity of war. Far away from the centre, in the collective mind it was not only Jews that were killed. Obviously in the country where in Belarus alone more than 100 villages and settlements were torched by the Nazis together with their inhabitants, it’s difficult to impress on mass consciousness that Jews were killed solely and entirely because they were Jews. It was simply omitted from the list of Nazi crimes committed in the USSR. Schoolchildren were not told in their history lessons of the mass murders and the Jewish ghettoes, and politicians made no mention of them at events held to honour the memory of the war victims. According to the official version, the death camps murdered civilians, but the terrifying tragedy of one people was simply struck out of the history of the war. Independent research into the genocide of the Jews in the USSR has only started appearing during the last 20 years.

Prisoners of war in the USSR are a topic that is almost un-researched and remains extremely complex. Historians quote Stalin’s words: “There are no [Soviet] prisoners of war, only traitors.” Hundreds of thousands returned from the Nazi camps only to go straight into Soviet camps – firstly filtration camps, then the GULAG. To this day the few old men still alive who were in German camps have not been granted the status of war veteran and have no proper state benefits. They should long since have been rehabilitated, but this is not even a subject for discussion.

Another closed subject is the crimes of the Soviet military in liberated territories. The post-war generations have never heard anything about them: they grew up with the concept of the Soviet soldier’s saintly achievements and find it extremely difficult to take in information about the robberies, rapes and murders of civilians in Poland, Czech Republic and Germany.


Heinrich Himmler on a visit to a Soviet POW
camp in Minsk

The subject of collaboration and treachery was also banned for a longtime. If there was any talk of Soviet citizens or soldiers who had gone over to the other side, then it was only in tones of the greatest contempt, allowing of no possible justification for their actions. Any attempts at analysing why at the beginning of the war thousands of people in the occupied territories went over to the Germans, greeting them as saviours from the unendurable yoke of Bolshevism, were nipped in the bud. Who was to know that the new rulers would be no less bloody than their predecessors? But for Soviet citizens this remained a mystery. 

Official thinking completely ignored the idea that there was any similarity between the fates of people in Europe and inside the USSR. It is rarely remembered that the war began on 1 September 1939, not on 22 June 1941. That it claimed more than 60 million victims throughout Europe. The Second World War and the Great Patriotic War co-exist in the public consciousness as two parallel events running side by side. This means that the war can never be seen as a shared European tragedy or the battle with Nazism as a pan-European battle; it makes universal reconciliation impossible and, as a result, is an obstacle to the process of European unification.

Soviet society was tightly knit around memories of victory and liberating Europe, and the accompanying rhetoric was based on myth-making, simplified realities and the substitution of one set of concepts for others.  This was the cement used for decades by the official propaganda machine to bind society together. The new ideology continued to use the standard clichés to back up the myth of Soviet (Russian) society’s special status and messianic role. That said, who the hero is (or isn’t), what is a source of pride and what is better forgotten is determined by the state, not society.

Meanwhile many problems and difficult issues have remained unaddressed since the end of the war. The category list for the victims of fascism is by no means complete.

Tragically, public opinion refuses to include Stalin’s victims in the category of those who suffered in the war:

  • the deported peoples. Accusations of collaboration with the enemy were extended to cover whole peoples and in 1943-44 there were mass deportations of Germans, Kalmyks, Ingush, Chechens, Karachays, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, Nogays, Turkic Meskhetians, Pontic Greeks, Bulgars, Crimean gypsies, and Kurds.
  • the slaves of the GULAG. Thousands of prisoners in countless Stalinist camps perished from the unendurable work, the cold and the hunger. Their contribution to building up Soviet defences was crucial.

After the collapse of the USSR in the 90s, censorship was abolished in the countries that had been part of it. This gave rise to a hitherto unimaginable orgy of discussion about our past. Much more became known about the history of the war and this brought the “frozen” difficult issues up to the surface again.


For many living in the Baltic States, the Red Army
victory over Hitler was no liberation, but the
beginning of a new occupation. In 2007, Estonian
authorities controversially orded that a statue to the 
Warrior Liberator be removed from central Tallinn.
This led to a period of increased tension between
Russia and Estonia.  

For decades people had been fed a diet of myth and disinformation and it’s only now that we are finding out the hard truth. This has given rise to the important phenomenon of the so-called “history wars.” It turns out that Russian memories of the war and our Soviet past are very different from memories in the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus. This became horribly clear with the scandalous events surrounding the relocation of the monument to the Warrior-Liberator (the “Bronze Soldier”) in Tallinn.

Arguments about the role of the national liberation movements in the Baltic States and Western Ukraine broke out with renewed force. During the war they called themselves the “third force”. The nationalist uprisings were mainly directed against the occupiers, both German and Soviet. In Soviet (Russian) propaganda and collective memory the rebels are still enemies and traitors. The degree of hatred towards them often exceeds hatred for the fascists.

"Soviet society was tightly knit around memories of victory and liberating Europe, and the accompanying rhetoric was based on myth-making, simplified realities and the substitution of one set of concepts for others.  This was the cement used for decades by the official propaganda machine to bind society together."

All this means that in Russia there is much talk of the falsification of history and the attempts to blacken the Soviet Union’s heroic past to fit in with the interests of our adversary, the West. The older generation, who grew up with heroic images of the war, find opening its tragic and awkward pages very painful:  the destruction of the myths and discovering the truth is hardest of all for them. 

Today’s youth is not burdened with the myths of propaganda. They are well-disposed towards Europe, Europeans and the Germans, rather than full of hatred and indifference.  The difficult memories of the war are receding, to be replaced by a two-way exchange of cultural experience.

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