Unearthing Russia’s war dead, over and over again

Seventy years after the war, many of Russia’s dead still lie scattered in fields and bogs across the eastern front. The Russian state has no problem instrumentalising their memories to shut down discussion. Русский

Ksenia Polouektova-Krimer
22 June 2016


May 2015: members of an excavation team searching for the remains of Soviet soldiers killed during WWII uncover remains of Soviet soldiers in a swamp east of St Petersburg. (c) Dmitry Lovetsky / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Every seven years, the highlands of Madagascar and certain parts of Indonesia become the scene of an eerie custom known as the “turning of the bones”, or the “Famadihana” and “Ma’nene” rituals. In a relatively recent ritual practice, villagers come together to exhume their dead relatives, fix the damaged coffins, clean and rewrap the bodies in fresh clothes and then parade them through the village or dance with the corpses around their burial sites to live music.

Most Russians will take deep offence at such a comparison, but the country’s public commemoration of the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known, bears striking resemblance to the Famadihana and Ma’nene rituals — not in form, but in spirit.

Many of the war’s fallen soldiers are still awaiting their burial, their bones scattered across the forests and swamps of Russia and the neighboring countries. The country is still to count its exact losses, which, in various estimates, oscillate between the staggering 27m and 35m people.

However, as the public Victory Day celebrations across the country and a dozens of world capitals on 9 May demonstrated, the absence of actual graves and the profound ambivalence of the legacy of the war do not preclude the descendants from symbolically “unearthing” the dead and parading them around the cities. Just like the rituals of Famadihana and Ma’nene, for several years now, thousands of people in Russia and abroad walk in “Immortal Regiment” marches on 9 May holding pictures of those who fought in the war in an attempt to relive the victory again and again, to claim symbolic heirdom to their “heroism and suffering” (a rhetorical cliché) and to forge a community on the basis of this supposedly shared loss.

Just what such identification with and “exhumation” of the dead and its popular reception tell us about today’s Russian identity, its implicit anxieties, frustrations and yearnings, is worth exploring at some length. I believe that the public frenzy unleashed by the cult of the Great Patriotic War and the prevailing forms of commemoration, both spontaneous and orchestrated by Putin’s regime, reveal the haunting presence of a deep-rooted trauma at the core of today’s Russian society, which has long been denied and suppressed.

The failure to fully confront and work through the trauma of the war dovetails with a refusal to own up to the legacy of Stalinism and the Soviet regime as a whole. The triumphant myth of the “Victory” functions as a ploy to whitewash and eclipse the crimes of Stalinism, integral to the trauma of the war years. In place of the moral reckoning that this complex historical legacy necessitates, official commemorative rituals and many of the grass-root memorial practices launched in public and digital spaces offer little besides easy sentimentalisation and a set of worn-out Soviet clichés.

Against this background, the recent proposal to extend electoral suffrage to the 27m Soviet victims of the war so that they could “influence the current affairs in the country in whose defense they fought and died”, voiced by the head of Russia’s Institute for Economic Strategies, sounds perfectly logical.

If the war that was fought 70 years ago still rages on in political discourse at home and the actual battlefields in Ukraine, then the boundary separating the actual participants of the war, dead or alive, and their self-proclaimed heirs who uncritically appropriate certain aspects of the past, is bound to become flimsy at best.

From silence to salience

Russia’s obsession with the war and the war’s central place in the matrix of Russian identity are both rather recent phenomena. Between 1948 and 1965, 9 May, the day when Germany’s Instrument of Surrender signed at 23:01 CET entered into force in the Moscow time-zone, was not a public holiday. Nor was it an occasion for massive public celebrations and military parades and “the most important holiday in the national calendar”, which, according to recent opinion polls, it has become today.

Most of the public commemorative rituals and memory sites now firmly associated with the war — the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin Wall, official ceremonies of laying wreaths beside graves and war memorials, etc. — did not come into being until the 1960s.


1971: the Brest Fortress memorial park, light up at night. (c) Vladimir Shiyanovsky / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

In the immediate postwar years, provincial communities would often raise modest funds to erect simple cenotaphs to honour fellow locals slain in the war, but the state did not participate in these efforts until the late 1950s. Thus, both veterans and civilians (who often did not know where their loved ones were buried and how exactly they had perished) were deprived of both a tangible locus to firmly anchor their grief and loss, and of a public forum to articulate them.

Moreover, the devastation and poverty of the post-war years, the 1946-47 famine and the new wave of terror overlaid the war-time ordeal with a series of new traumatic experiences, precluding any meaningful encounter with the still recent trauma of 1941-1945.

It was not until the relative liberalisation of the Soviet cultural sphere during the “Thaw” years that literature, art and film began to play their therapeutic role in bringing the suffering and the brutality of the war years back to the forefront of the national consciousness. These cultural artefacts offered a more humane, private idiom in which war-time experiences could be finally expressed in public. With the regime maintaining its tight ideological grip on the historical profession, it fell to culture-makers throughout the Soviet period and beyond to piece together a social history of war.

Yet Khrushchev’s politics of destalinisation, though it did enable the rise of polyphonic counter-memories of the war, was too inconsistent and limited in scope to trigger a thorough reexamination of what might have been the most traumatic aspect of the Soviet war memories — the brutality and injustices of the Soviet system itself experienced by the survivors of the war.

In 1964, the short-lived romantic and soul-searching impulse of the “Thaw” gave way to a much more cynical era of “mature socialism” under Leonid Brezhnev. This period saw curtailing of destalinisation and growing popular disenchantment with the Soviet project and its unfulfilled promises of a happier, communist future. In response to this ideological crisis, the regime discursively moved away from the romanticisation of the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War to a new focus in political propaganda.

From the mid-1960s on, the “Great Patriotic War” became the new “myth of origin” for the Soviet community.

The war as a “myth of origin”

This myth required its own pantheon of heroes, its own lofty language, loaded with heroic pathos and clichés, as well as an elaborate system of rituals and memorial spaces, Most of these were invented and manufactured throughout the 1960s-1970s — an eclectic hodgepodge that drew on a variety of symbolic systems, from religious to communist and beyond.

Eternal flames, giant memorial complexes and numerous smaller provincial monuments usually erected alongside local party headquarters, were inscribed into the very core of Soviet urban topography. They became sites for a range of personal and state-organised civil rituals — from the official initiation ceremonies of the Young Pioneers organisation to the laying of flowers by newly-weds.


The large-scale sculpture park at Mamaev Kurgan, Volgograd. (c) David Sholomovich / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

At the same time, the partial rehabilitation of Stalin (now portrayed as a wise and competent military leader), as well as the avalanche of carefully edited war “memoirs” authored by high-ranking army commanders (and penned by party ideologues), worked to produce an internally cohesive myth of the “Great Patriotic War” and the Victory, devoid of any ambiguity or complexity.

This myth allowed little space for the un-edited experiences of combatants and survivors and for the grief of the traumatised population. Instead, it transformed “the people’s war” into the war fought and won by the state, its leader and triumphant communist ideology, which drew additional legitimisation from the victory and its enormous human cost.

In the absence of independent historical inquiry and an uncensored public sphere, the appropriation of private war memories by the state meant that the trauma inherent in them was neither addressed nor worked through properly. Instead, it was paved over with layers upon layers of memorial bronze and marble.

“Ours is a righteous cause”

The “myth of the war” portrays Russia as a peaceful state and a victim of foreign aggression, never an aggressor or an occupying power itself. The post-war Soviet crushing of eastern Europe is conceived of as liberation, not occupation, for example.

The myth perpetuates the image of a unified Soviet nation that — to a man — rose up in defense of its socialist land. It also legitimises the idea of a strong state by blending it with the concept of “motherland”, asserts the priority of state interests over individual survival and celebrates collective readiness to stoically endure any hardship. In this narrative, no sacrifice is too big and no violence is too extreme when it comes to defending one’s country.

Even a brief overview of the basic tenets of the Soviet/Russian myth of the war reveals its nationalistic core and the ressentiment towards the west that permeates it. It is hardly accidental, then, that historically it has always tended to gain heightened momentum in the periods of Russia’s confrontation with the west and military expansionism.


22 June 2016: people spell out "We remember" in candles on Palace Square, St Petersburg. (c) Alexey Danichev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

The myth also works to normalise and redeem Stalinism by discursively presenting it as a peaceful socialist paradise, which was violently invaded one summer Sunday morning on June 22, 1941, as an efficient regime, that for all its excesses “saved the country and the world from fascism.”

No less importantly, it betrays a yearning for a more straightforward system of moral coordinates, symptomatic of a society in the grips of an ethical and ideological crisis.

Within these moral coordinates Russia’s victory over what is rhetorically codified as “the absolute evil of Nazism” automatically places it on the side of absolute virtue. To quote Molotov’s famous dictum: “Ours is a righteous cause”. By extrapolating this logic onto its other conflicts, both past and present, Russia has been able to demonise its opponents, such as the Baltic states or Ukraine, as “fascists” or “collaborators”.

The politics of war commemoration in Putin’s Russia

The “myth of the war” received a new impetus on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the allied victory. It was crystallised against the backdrop of eastern European “memorial wars” that laid bare the deep rifts between the interpretation of the 20th century history prevalent in Russia and its former sphere of influence.

The refusal of the Estonian and Lithuanian leaders to attend the military parade in Moscow (2005), Ukraine’s memorial law declaring Holodomor an act of ethnic genocide (2006), the full-blown confrontation triggered by the relocation of the “Bronze Soldier – Liberator” in Tallinn (2007) and the creation of several national research institutes and museums dedicated to the history of Soviet occupation of eastern Europe, could not but radicalise Russia’s politics of memory in the late 2000s, putting it on the defensive.


April 2007: members of pro-Kremlin youth groups rally outside the Estonian Embassy, Moscow to honour the memory of a young ethnic Russian killed in a clash over the Bronze Soldier. (c) Mikhail Metzel / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

In 2009, fearing that the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact would unleash “a fury of anti-Russian hysteria” in the west, certain nationalistic politicians began to lobby for the setting up of a presidential Historical Truth Commission (2009-2012) to counter “falsifications of history to the detriment of Russia’s interests” and for a memorial law that would penalise “rehabilitation of Nazism”. The law was obviously tailored in the likeness of other European memorial laws that ban Holocaust and genocide denial, denial of communist crimes or atrocities committed by colonial administrations.

Although not without their issues, European memorial laws have been mostly initiated by left-wing advocacy groups and seek to defend the memory of the victims. In contrast, the Russian law (2014) explicitly aims at defending the state’s historical righteousness against counter-claims of the many victims of the Soviet regime.

Five years in the making, the law was finally adopted in 2014. The timing could not be more telling. Following the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and the resulting standoff between Russia and the west, Putin’s regime was bent on promoting its own historical and moral framework that would present its current confrontations as the continuation of the war fought and won 70 years ago and thus, as a confrontation waged for reasons of morality, not realpolitik.

Again, the cultivation of the “myth of the war” and discursive allusions to the glorious past in Putin’s Russia reveal a profound ideological bankruptcy and cynicism typical of this era.

The Kremlin has been unable to put forward any viable vision of the future. Instead, it draws its legitimacy and mobilising potential from the heavily distorted narratives of the past.

In the early years of Putin’s regime, the anti-communist impulse of the previous decade had been worn out and replaced with a more conciliatory nostalgic discourse of “accepting the past with all its tragic and glorious aspects”. In the absence of an independent professional community of historians (who are traditionally widely mistrusted in this country) and a legal assessment of the Soviet crimes (no Soviet “Nuremberg” and no equivalent of the Frankfurt trials has ever taken place here), this eclectic magnitude lacks both a stable moral and factological core.

“We remember, we are proud”

Sociological surveys reveal that the majority of Russians are well aware of the scale of Stalin’s purges and other criminal aspects of the Soviet past. The exact death toll is still a matter of wide speculation and guesswork. What is missing, however, is the will to confront and critically reflect on this past, instead of variously justifying, rationalising and sentimentalising it.

This is why awareness translates into a vast variety of redeeming narratives that combine facts and fiction to forge a mythologised vision of the past, stripped of any complexity. Within this polyphony of anti-historical collected (rather than collective) “memories”, nostalgia for the militantly-atheist communist regime or its most brutal manifestation, Stalinism, can coexist with religiosity; veneration of Nazism props up nationalistic views and, again, religiosity, while self-professed “liberalism” is reconcilable with chauvinism.

Scholars of trauma would make a lot of the paralysis that characterises today’s Russian (a)-historical consciousness, of its inability to bring together the experience of trauma itself. The rift between emotions, words and actions that generates this eclectic and anti-historical polyphony is nowhere more evident than in the prevailing forms of commemoration, both state-sponsored and grass-roots, that supplement Russian public memory of the war.

Consider, for example, the by now ubiquitous symbol of the Russian victory, the black-and-orange striped ribbon, popularly known as St George’s ribbon. It was launched in 2005 by state news agency RIA Novosti and a pro-Kremlin youth organisation under the slogan “We remember, we are proud”. It is ubiquitous at Victory Day celebrations and beyond. In fact, the ribbon is a misnomer and a historical fraud of curious pedigree. It has nothing to do with the Order of St George. Quite to the contrary, it was adopted by the Russian Corps that fought the Red Army in Serbia on the side of Nazi Germany.


2014: A volunteer hands out St George's ribbons at the All-Russian Exhibition Center, Moscow. (c) Maxim Blinov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

But the people who tie the ribbon to their bags, car antennas, dog collars and everything in between hardly seem to be bothered by the historical fallacy that they help perpetuate. They seem to mind even less the many political and ideological uses to which this allegedly innocuous token of Russian war-memory has been put. A recognisable sign of Kremlin loyalists, the St George ribbon has been variously adopted by the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Antimaidan activists in Russia and the notorious People’s Liberation Movement among others.

For more than 70 years now, Russia has insisted on its own terminology and periodisation of the war, which effectively suppresses the pre-1941 period, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its secret protocol providing for a German-Soviet partition of Poland and the Soviet domination of Bessarabia and the Baltics. The state has minimised the contribution of other Allied nations to the war effort, focusing instead on the unique role — and unprecedented human sacrifice — of the Soviets in defeating Nazism. This, in turn, props up the country’s claims to a privileged international standing and moral status.

Russia’s official memory of the war has always marginalised the Holocaust by concealing the true identity of its victims under the generic cliché of “peaceful Soviet citizens”. It also overlooks inter-ethnic violence and the complexity of age-old inter-communal tensions all across the annexed and forcibly Sovietised territories that formed the backdrop to much of what happened in these “bloodlands”, during the war and beyond. It downplays the true scale of desertion, defection and local collaboration with the German and Romanian occupational regimes and the diverse motivations that spurred them. It resists any serious discussion of the military incompetence and its costly human price and rejects the very idea of the Soviet responsibility for the unnecessary deaths of millions of soldiers in ill-conceived frontal attacks. It denies the reality of mass rapes committed by the advancing Red Army in Eastern Europe and Prussia, of the penal battalions and anti-retreat detachments.

In short, it silences the violence and brutality that were not only experienced, but also witnessed or committed by the Soviet people during the war.

The war as a quasi-religious cult

Instead of mending the many rifts in one’s knowledge and understanding of the war, Russian propaganda and the public responsive to it prefer to police and censor the discursive field by proclaiming memory of the war “sacred”.

The war has thus been turned into a secular religion — any attempt at questioning its conventional tenets is viewed as nothing short of blasphemy and socially ostracised the same way that certain cultural productions have been assaulted for “insulting the feelings of religious believers”, a criminally punishable offense in Putin’s Russia. The quasi-religious rhetoric of “insulting the memory of the dead” precludes impassionate inquiry into the causes and nature of these losses or into the psychological consequences for those who experienced, witnessed or survived them.

Indeed, the “Immortal Regiment” marches have seen a variety of “grandpas” proudly paraded through the streets of Moscow, from Stalin to security chief Lavrentiy Beria and from Vyacheslav Molotov to the unlikely Nicholas II. This massive public ritual, which this year drew hundreds of thousands of participants in dozens of countries around the world, began as something very different and much more subdued. In 2012, journalists of the Tomsk television channel TV-2, one of the country’s last remaining independent media at the time, invited ordinary people to march the streets on 9 May carrying photos of their deceased relatives who had fought in the war. The idea was to complement the impersonal official ceremonies with something more private and intimate, making the war once again “a people’s war”.

The project proved so immensely popular that soon similar marches were held all across the nation. Early in 2015, TV-2 lost its broadcasting license and was partially dismantled. The concept of the “Immortal Regiment” was hijacked by the pro-Kremlin communist MP and his “popular movement”, becoming part of the official parade in Moscow.

In 2015, Putin himself led the procession carrying the photo of his father, who had fought on the Leningrad front. Other portraits spotted at this march were even more problematic. Among them Lavrentyi Beria, Stalin’s chief of security and secret police and Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, neither of whom had been to the front in the first place.

In an even more absurd twist, the “General Prosecutor of Crimea” Natalia Poklonskaya carried the icon of Nicholas II and seemed completely undisturbed by the problematic vicinity of the portraits of Bolshevik leaders and the icon of the tsar murdered by that very same Bolshevik regime.


May 2016: Russian student Mikhail Mosesov walks through central London with a picture of Stalin. Source: Angliya.com

.Finally, one of the participants of an “Immortal Regiment” in London, a 19-year old Russian student, walked the streets with a portrait of Stalin. In an interview, he argued that Stalin was an inalienable part of the history of the war: “We won the war and at the hem of this victory was Comrade Stalin in his white combat jacket… The price of this victory is the price of our identity, and the foundation of Russian ‘truth’ in today’s world.” One could hardly agree more.

This year, in stark contrast with the proclaimed purpose of the “Immortal Regiment” march, the overall mood in the massive procession in Moscow was rather joyous. The whole thing resembled a militarist carnival rather than a procession of mourners. Thus, critics of the “Immortal Regiment” parade, appalled by its alleged vulgarity and superficiality, took to Facebook in an attempt “to reclaim for ourselves the only undisputed and uncontroversial [sic!] Soviet holiday that we have ever had, now appropriated by the pro-Kremlin propaganda”. They published photos of their grandparents with captions detailing their war experiences. Quite a few mentioned that their grandparents had never talked about the war and thus there was no way to truly know what they had done or been through in these years. 

Awash in feeling, my Facebook feed on 9 May was essentially a digital version of the “Immortal Regiment”. What was taking shape there was a similar symbolic community of “heirs to the Victory”, ever eager to feel proud of grandpa, but refusing to own up to the bitter legacy of the war, which as I have argued, was everything but unproblematic and undisputed. The stories narrated were unanimously about their grandparents’ heroism, victimhood and a sense of triumph at having survived the horrors of Stalinism and Nazism, prompted by pride and sentimentality of their descendants. 

But while reading them, one could not help but wonder: who is going to own up to the stories less heroic, less conventional, loaded with ambivalence and shame? And more importantly, what needs, anxieties and frustrations do these digital commemorations reflect and respond to?

Perhaps, the yearning for a collective cathartic experience, for an undisputed source of pride and valorisation is only natural given Russia’s torn social fabric gaping with deep socio-economic, cultural, religious and ideological rifts. Perhaps, when the sense of individual pride and security is inaccessibly in the present, people tend to evoke collective pride and achievement of the past to forge at least some tenable social connections across the many rifts and divides that separate them. 

The problem, however, is that these connections and the identities that they produce, both collective and personal, are charged with the sense of self-righteousness that precludes any true work of moral reflection. Moreover, the moment private family memories are “unearthed” and paraded in the public realm, be it a social network or the central street of one’s city, they risk getting subsumed into and contaminated by the toxic “myth of the war” that now completely dominates Russia’s public discourse, at the expense of their complexity and unpredictability.

In the west, the boom of social history and oral history projects, the swell in the writing of memoirs and diaries and interest in the family genealogy triggered critical reflection within the professional academic community on the limits and artifice of memory, which is always contaminated by the imports from the present.

Russia’s professional historians have failed to offer similar reflection and critique for they have neither the public visibility, nor the authoritative voice necessary to make themselves heard. As a result, the proliferation of “wartime memories” that we currently witness in both traditional and new media works to further an anti-historical polyphony of perceptions, sentiments and mythologies, instead of inspiring the more sober work of confronting one’s historical legacy and critically working through it individually, and hopefully, collectively as well. 

Without this epistemological and ethical effort, Russians are forever bound to repeatedly “unearth” their dead and use them for their current ideological and psychological purposes, instead of giving the dead a proper burial and a moral reckoning that forgets nothing and owns up to everything. 

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