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TV Rain - the wrong question

A row over a viewer opinion poll has effectively silenced TV Rain, Russia’s most independent TV channel. A pity they asked the wrong question. на русском языке

Daniil Kotsyubinsky
28 February 2014

At first glance the significance of the regime’s attack on Dozhd (also known by its English name, TV Rain) seems clear: the silencing of the only relatively independent Russian TV station (no TV in Russia can be completely independent of the Kremlin) is just yet another step on the Putin regime’s path towards total media censorship. But the TV Rain story is about more than that: it illustrates the lack of clear thinking in the opposition’s mentality that makes it possible for the Kremlin to sideline it in any debate.

The channel lost its main cable and satellite carriers after running a live poll of its viewers on 27 January, the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the 872-day Siege of Leningrad during the second world war. The question asked was: should the Soviet Union have surrendered Leningrad in order to save some of the hundreds of thousands of people who died during the blockade?

Journalists have of course the right to ask any questions they like, however provocative.

Journalists have of course the right to ask any questions they like, however provocative, but the thing about this poll wasn’t so much its provocative character as the fact that it reflected the same old military-patriotic myth created back in the USSR. According to this myth, throughout the Siege period (during the first winter of which more than a million Leningraders died of cold and hunger), German forces ‘were desperate to seize’ the city, while its inhabitants ‘defended it, died for it, but didn’t give in.’

Former President Dmitry Medvedev in the studio at TV Rain playing with a camera.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev in the studio at TV Rain. Photo via Kremlin.ru

The TV Rain poll accepted the truth of this sacred myth, and merely attempted to tinker round the edges by suggesting that it might have been better for Leningrad to ‘surrender and survive’. So it’s not surprising that this rather flip exercise created such outrage among so many people, giving the Kremlin an excuse to effectively silence the channel.

The myth…

It is equally clear that if the Dozhd journalists had looked beyond the accepted myth they could have come up with a different question, and one that wouldn’t have provided the Kremlin with an excuse for hounding the channel. Because a look at the facts shows that both parts of the myth are historically incorrect.  

Firstly, the Germans were not ‘desperate to seize Leningrad.’ From the beginning, Wehrmacht generals took the decision not to storm the city; having completed its encirclement in September 1941, they switched to siege mode in order to avoid unnecessary losses among their own troops and to be able to spare some as reinforcements for the march on Moscow.

Secondly, the Soviet High Command initially failed to understand this manoeuvre: up to the end of 1941 they expected an assault on Leningrad and were making plans for a possible surrender. Their main priority at the time was to pull as many troops and weapons as possible, along with machine plant and operators of use to the defence industry, out of the doomed (as Stalin believed) city. Which meant that the organisation of supplies and/or evacuation of its inhabitants were very low on the agenda.

The Germans, after completing the encirclement of Leningrad, switched to siege mode to avoid unnecessary losses.

Stalin was effectively prepared to hand Leningrad and its population over to the Germans. All he was interested in saving was the more than half a million troops defending the city, and the sailors of the Baltic Fleet. At the time, the Red Army was melting away in front of his eyes: by the end of 1941 almost four million Soviet soldiers had been taken prisoner by the invading forces. Naturally, he had no desire to hand them another half million combat-fit troops. So his orders to units fighting on the Leningrad front were to break a corridor though the German lines, not just for their own supplies but for their potential departure. In other words, the Soviet leadership’s only priority was to save its troops, not to hold Leningrad at any cost.

It’s difficult to say how matters might have developed further if the commanders of the Leningrad front had been able to break through the blockade towards Volkhovo, to the east of the city, where the 54th army was at the time.  The German command would probably have attempted to close the gap as quickly as possible and, to avert this (the Wehrmacht had an overwhelming numerical superiority over the Red Army), Stalin and his marshals would have gone for an immediate withdrawal of troops through the temporary corridor. This would have meant the surrender of the city to the enemy.

In the autumn of 1941 Stalin was effectively prepared to hand Leningrad and its population over to the Germans.

There was nothing surprising here; in the first few months of fighting [Russia entered WWII only in June 1941] there had already been quite a few such sieges (among them those of Minsk, Kiev, Tallinn, Vyazemsk, Odessa and Smolensk), all of them ending with the capture of Soviet troops trapped in the encirclement. So Stalin and Vasilyevsky’s panic reaction to what, initially at any rate, looked like a similar situation is quite understandable.

Civilians walking a bombed out Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad in April 1942.

Civilians walking Nevsky Prospekt in April 1942. Photo CC RIA Novosti/Boris Kudoyarov

History has deprived us of the chance to test the hypothesis that Stalin, given the chance, would have withdrawn the troops and handed Leningrad to the Germans. Or rather, we were deprived of it by the Wehrmacht, which prevented any breakout by the Red Army until 18 January 1943, more than a year later, when the Soviet leaders’ priorities had of course changed. By this point it was clear that the Germans would not be storming Leningrad, and supplies to the defending troops and the surviving inhabitants were up and running fairly efficiently. In January 1943 there was no reason to surrender the city and withdraw its troops. But in the autumn of 1941 it all looked very different.

…and the facts

The question Dozhd asked its viewers was therefore a pretty senseless one, with its basis in mythology rather than historical fact, and it gave the channel’s patriotically minded opponents the opportunity to condemn it for its apparent attack on a sacred cow. If the question had been worded along the lines of: ‘Could the Soviet leadership have managed the evacuation and supply of not only its troops, but also its civilian population, hence averting the death of a million Leningraders?’ it would have been difficult to organise a hate campaign against it.

The historical facts are clear. With enough political will, even in the first winter of the siege in 1941-2, the government could have evacuated a large part of the population of Leningrad and ensured an adequate food supply for the rest. It could also have supplied the troops with all their needs (not to mention maintaining the luxury lifestyle of the many thousands of officials who lived in the city during the blockade). All the claims - that the Soviet leadership was running out of time and was almost out of all essential supplies, and that it was a question of halting the enemy at whatever cost so the safety of civilians didn’t have high priority – are a load of propaganda bullshit.

The fact is that other countries were encountering similar problems. During the Dunkirk crisis, for example, in the course of ten days, 26 May – 4 June 1940, the British government managed to evacuate around 340,000 allied soldiers from occupied France.

In the first months of 1945, Germany was in an even worse situation than the USSR in the winter of 1941-2. But that didn’t stop its leadership evacuating 2.5 million people from East Prussia to Germany proper, many of them by sea under submarine and air attack, as the Red Army advanced westwards. Compared to this operation, the transport of two million Leningraders across the frozen Lake Ladoga would have seemed much more technically feasible.

In the first autumn and winter of the siege, however, none of the USSR’s rulers apparently gave a thought to saving the city’s inhabitants. Or indeed to evacuating people from Tallinn, Odessa or Simferopol, although this would have been possible while their defences held. And even when the scale of their blockade problem finally got through to them, the cogs of Stalin’s military-bureaucratic machine, paralysed as it was by fear and lack of initiative, moved very slowly and with a very loud creak.

The Ladoga road of life…

For most of the autumn the Ladoga flotilla (Lake Ladoga, to the east of Leningrad, was the only break in the encirclement) made little attempt either to evacuate civilians (between September and the beginning of November only 15,000 were brought out, all of them skilled labourers) or to transport supplies to the city. Nor was it a question of the flotilla being too small; in November, despite the beginning of the freeze up, the flotilla was able to evacuate 20,000 troops in a few days when they received the order to do so.

The thickening Ladoga ice allowed horse-drawn sleighs to cross the lake from 20 November and trucks from 22 November.

The order for the evacuation of civilians and the large scale provision of foodstuffs to the city was, however, a longer time in coming. Dmitry Pavlov, the man charged with organising both, wrote in his memoirs that the thickening ice allowed a column of horse-drawn sleighs to cross the lake from 20 November,  and trucks from 22 November. But the evacuation of civilians only began at the end of January 1942, when they were dying in their thousands. That month only 11,296 people were evacuated, with mass evacuation starting only in February, when 117,434 evacuees left the city, followed by another 221,947 in March and 163,392  in April.

…and the alternative

In less than four months the winter ‘road of life’ evacuated just over half a million people. But it was too little too late, both for those that were already dead, and for those who, weakened by malnutrition and exhaustion, would succumb to illness in evacuation. One of these, twelve year old Tanya Savicheva, left a brief diary, now on show in St Petersburg’s history museum, in which she catalogued the death of family members one by one.  But if evacuation across Ladoga on barges had been begun in September-October, and mass food transports started at the same time, most of the population would have survived…

Female soldiers stand guard on the rooftops in Leningrad.

Female soldiers stand guard on the rooftops in Leningrad. Photo CC RIA Novosti/Boris Kudoyarov

Stalin and his marshals were however occupied with other things: how to bring out arms and industrial machinery, how to break a corridor through to evacuate the troops trapped in the city. So planes flew out of Leningrad into the big world laden with guns and mortars, not elderly people and children. And right up to the end of January sleighs and trucks transported soldiers and workers across the Ladoga ice, not the weak and sick.

Twelve year old Tanya Savicheva left a brief diary, in which she catalogued the death of family members one by one.

To avert the effective genocide that was the siege of Leningrad, all that was needed was a different regime with a different, European, political culture and mentality and a different set of priorities. Soviet Communist leaders felt perfectly at home sitting in their warm studies and luxury cars and watching exhausted, dying people staggering past their windows, dragging sledges on which lay the bodies of those who were already dead.

The late intellectual and literary historian Academician Dmitry Likhachov used to remember how once during the siege he was for some reason summoned to Communist Party headquarters at the Smolny Palace, and how he walked through the corridors of this Bolshevik fortress, exhausted by hunger and tormented by the enticing smells emanating from the dining room, but no one offered him anything to eat. Other people have reported the same thing, some of them even ordered to wait on the party elite at banquets, but left hungry themselves. The recently published diary of a not particularly important bureaucrat who worked in Leningrad during the siege records how well he ate in his government guest house at the height of the blockade. 

This is why Dozhd’s question, ‘Should Leningrad have been surrendered to save the lives of the inhabitants?’ was badly worded. To let the enemy into a city full of well armed and fed troops and lose half a million combat-ready soldiers at the height of the conflict would be patently absurd.

The real question is: could a million Leningraders have been saved from a cold and hungry death in siege conditions? The answer is clear: yes, they could have. And there is an equally obvious answer to another question: who is to blame for the fact that the ‘useless’, from the Kremlin’s point of view, inhabitants of the city were left to their fate and condemned to certain death during the first blockade winter? This is what we need to remember about the blockade, and not just the blockade, but the entire history of the Soviet Union and indeed of Russia.

Liberals need to reject the myths of Russia’s past

St Petersburg in particular, and Russians in general, need a new, revised version of their historical memory that does away with the stereotypes of the old ‘great power’ mythology, both Soviet and pre-Soviet. This is the only way for liberals to win the ideological battle with our authoritarian regime. Old imperial myths are impervious to ‘liberal reform.’ They need to be left behind and replaced by rational and authentic historical memory. In Russia’s case this would mean focusing on the tragedy underpinning it: the age-long oppression of its enslaved people by the slave-owner state.

Old imperial myths are impervious to ‘liberal reform.’

But as far as I can see, liberals still haven’t even tried to develop a view of their own, differing from the official, on Russia’s past and, by definition, its future. All their sporadic and random attempts at a ‘humanist revision’ of the old historical myths are in the end less than convincing,  rooted as they are in those very same myths, rather than in a fundamentally different and anti-imperial liberal approach to Russian history (which has yet to emerge).

The business of the silly ‘blockade poll’ is just one obvious example of the serious condition affecting today’s Russian opposition, including its inability to understand its country’s past, which can be defined as ‘acute ideological inadequacy.’

In my view this inability or unwillingness to put real intellectual effort into escaping the imperial mythology, and not simply changing its emphasis, is at the heart of the opposition’s ideological problems. It means that, in any debate with the regime, liberals can only adopt a reactive position. They will be doomed to lose that debate until they come up with a properly thought-out and coherent perception of the past and future of the Russian state.

Standfirst image via facebook.    

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