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Humanism is out of fashion

In today’s Russia, why is anti-militaristic speech perceived as a call for historical revisionism? RU

Berlin schoolchildren on the former main street of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (c) Mikhail Kaluzhsky
Early last Tuesday morning I travelled to Bergen-Belsen with a group of Berlin schoolchildren, to visit the memorial centre on the site of the former concentration camp. We were there to meet Jovan Reisz, a Jew from northern Serbia who spent several months in the “Hungarian camp” [the camp was split into a number of sections for different national groups – ed.] between autumn 1944 and April 1945, when the camp was liberated by British forces. He was 11 years old, and most of his family had perished in Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps.

Bergen-Belson was not an extermination camp. Initially it held French and Belgian, and later Soviet and Italian prisoners of war, and later Jews from the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland and citizens of neutral countries. But its death rate, especially towards the end of the war, was horrendous, mostly a result of starvation or a typhoid epidemic: Anne Frank was a typhoid victim. When the British troops liberated the camp, they demolished it to avoid any further spread of the epidemic. The memorial centre consists of clearings in the forest where foundations of the camp barracks have been preserved, with information panels on its history.

It was raining, and Jovan Reisz, standing on a muddy track, showed us the birches and oaks that have grown on the site of the barracks where he spent several months, 70 years ago: “This is where we lived. And the kitchen was over there. When we were liberated, the streets in the camp were strewn with bodies”.

Reisz then answered the schoolchildren’s questions:

  • Didn’t you consider committing suicide?

“No, an 11-year old kid doesn’t think about suicide. He or she suffers as much as an adult, but gets used to the situation more quickly – sees it as a fact of life. I thought about killing myself later, when I was about 20, but managed to put the thoughts out of my mind by discussing them with other camp survivors.”

What is your attitude towards Germans?

“I hate those who sent me here and killed my family. But I only hate those who committed war crimes. The post-war generation has nothing to do with all that.”

  • How do you live with that hate? Didn’t you want revenge?

“I thought about it at the end of the war. But the camp commandants were immediately executed. Other camp staff were imprisoned for their war crimes; some were released early and I calculated that one of them served precisely 23 minutes for every child who died there. But when I thought seriously about revenge, I realised that resorting to violence would turn me into one of them.”

The trip to Bergen-Belsen and back took half a day, and I spent the whole journey reading news articles about Nikolai Desyatnichenko

The young Berliners spent more than three hours talking to Jovan Reisz. When we were leaving, other groups of schoolchildren were also waiting for their buses. They were ordinary German kids, in other words, people from the most diverse of ethnic backgrounds: many of their great-grandfathers had obviously not lived in Germany under the Nazis.

The trip to Bergen-Belsen and back took half a day, and I spent the whole journey reading news articles about Nikolai Desyatnichenko, a Russian teenager who in a speech to German MPs suggested that many German troops who invaded the USSR in World War Two were themselves victims of the conflict. I noted down questions to which I knew there were no answers – or blindingly obvious ones. Banal, naïve questions.

  • More than 19,000 Soviet POWs died in Bergen-Belsen. Why are there no regular visits to the camp by schoolchildren from the former USSR?

  • Do Russian schoolchildren visit the site of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers?

  • Do the descendants of people who were deported ever meet the descendants of those who did the deporting?

  • Do people in post-Soviet countries other than Russia put stickers reading “We can do it again” and “To Berlin” on their cars?

This list could be very long.

The new normal

On 19 November, the annual ceremony to mark Germany’s National Day of Mourning in memory of war dead and victims of totalitarian regimes took place in the Bundestag. On the previous Sunday, Russian high school students and their German counterparts from a school in Kassel had spoken in the German parliament, remembering the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and Red Army who had died during the 2nd World War.

One of them was a student of a school in Novy Urengoy, a city in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, in Russia’s far north. This is what he said:

“Hello. My name is Nikolai Desyatnichenko, and I go to a high school in the city of Novy Urengoy. I was offered the chance to take part in a project about soldiers killed in the 2nd World War. I was very keen to get involved, as I’ve been interested in the history of both Russia and Germany since I was a child, and I immediately started collecting information on the subject.

“My first step was to visit the city archive and library, and then I tried to find stories of German soldiers on the internet and other sources. But later I worked with the German War Graves Commission to make a detailed study of the life of Georg Johan Rau, who was born into a large family on 17 January 1922 and fought as a lance-corporal in an anti-aircraft defence unit in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-3. Georg was one of 250,000 German troops surrounded by the Soviet army in the so-called “Stalingrad cauldron”, and later spent time in a Soviet POW camp in the Beketovka district of Stalingrad [now Volgograd]. Only 6,000 of these POWs returned home, and Georg was not amongst them. And it was only a year ago that his family heard from the German War Graves Commission that he had died on 17 March 1943 as a result of the harsh conditions in the camp, and was possibly buried nearby. Georg’s story and my work on the project touched me deeply and gave me the idea of visiting a war cemetery near the town of Kopeysk.

“It depressed me immensely to see the graves of all these innocent soldiers, many of whom just wanted to live in peace and didn’t want to fight. They went through incredible hardships during the war – my great granddad, who fought as a commander of an infantry company, told me what it was like. He didn’t see a lot of active service, as he was seriously wounded and invalided out. The [19th century German Chancellor] Otto von Bismarck once said: ‘Anyone who has looked at the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think twice about starting a war’. I sincerely hope that common sense will prevail and the world will see no more wars. Thank you for listening to me.”

Nikolai Desyatnichenko speaks in the Bundestag. Source: YoutubeNothing that Desyatnichenko said went beyond the bounds of the generally accepted discourse of pacifism and reconciliation. Which is why the vicious reaction of thousands of Russians is no surprise.

It is no surprise that Sergey Kolyasnikov (link to Russian site) a manager of the “Old Soldier” chain of shops in Yekaterinburg who was fined in 2007 for circulating Nazi symbols, has written to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Presidential Administration and the FSB demanding that both Desyatnichenko and his school be subjected to a “review”. Or that one of the people responsible for this “witch hunt” (as he calls it himself) was Dmitry Steshin, a journalist at Komsomolskaya Pravda known for his sympathies with the neo-Nazi Combat Organisation of Russian Nationalists (BORN).

It is also not surprising that Desyatnichenko’s “Ukrainian” surname arouses hatred and distrust (link to Russian site) among such people, and that thousands of outraged Russian citizens are demanding that not only Nikolay but his family, school teachers and the organisers of the students’ trip to Berlin be whipped, bloodied and generally punished. It is not even surprising that amid this hysteria, mythical “Bundeswehr tanks along our borders” and “Ukrainian Fascists” are being conflated with the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich.

And, last but not least, it is no surprise that everyone howling for the blood of Nikolay Desyatnichenko talks about the Great Patriotic War, rather than the 2nd World War.

In Russia, It is difficult to imagine a less popular idea than pacifism - apart, possibly, from atheism

Because this is the real conservative about turn that, from just being one element in the propaganda agenda, has become a true creation of the masses.

Because in Russia, It is difficult to imagine a less popular idea than pacifism - apart, possibly, from atheism.

Because 12 years ago, the Kremlin appointed the Red Guards of the organisations with the appropriately fascist names of “Nashi” [“Ours”] and “Idushschiye vmestye” [“Stepping out together”] to be their main anti-Fascist forces. 2005 also saw the first, extremely successful, campaign to make the 1945 victory central to its political mobilisation – its symbols being the St George Ribbon and the manipulative slogan, “My granddad’s victory is my victory”. Victory, it appeared, was everyone’s and no one’s. Everyone could feel part of the great and eternal triumph. And the real acts of heroism of those who fought were reduced to an opportunity to attach an orange and black (symbolising the Imperial, rather than Soviet Red legacy ) ribbon to your car aerial or handbag.

Photos of prisoners in the museum of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. (c) Mikhail Kaluzhsky.The era of the great simplification arose, with flagrant denial of history neatly supplemented by a Manichean rejection of the complexity of the map of the world.   

Not long afterwards, TV and then the internet uncovered the presence of fascists not only in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania but also in Ukraine and Georgia. The distance between “My grandpa’s victory is my victory” and “We can do it again” instantly disappeared. And the memes “Hit them in the outhouse” and “smear their livers over the asphalt” sound natural coming from Russia’s rulers, and not because Putin and Peskov are the actual thugs that set the agenda. They are the loudspeakers, but not the scriptwriters. This is a symptom of the overwhelming public mood, where a call to business to prepare for war, a theatre director spending months in pre-trial detention and repressive measures against Crimean Tatars are all seen as equally normal.

And as for the Desyatnichenko story, it is unfortunately no surprise that both his detractors and supporters never call him by his name, and refer to him as “the high school student from Urengoy” or “the Urengoy boy”. This is another element in the desire to simplify everything – and it doesn’t just affect Russians, or the Right, but the Left as well. So Desyatnichenko is stripped of his free will and personality, and his individuality reduced to mere age and geographical indicators. And dubbing “the high school student from Urengoy” an intellectual is just as demeaning as his detractors calling him a “Ukie kid”.

Acting the victim

It’s commonly believed that over the last few years the memory of World War 2 lies at the heart of Russians’ identity. This can’t be denied, but it isn’t just a state foundation myth. For millions of Russians, it has eroded any sensation of living in this day and age. The paradox is that, seeing the war not as a traumatic experience but a source of pride, many people identify themselves emotionally with the people who perished 70 years ago. In other words, Russians’ perception of current issues, whether political or economic, are distorted by this voluntary rejection of their own individuality.

There’s no doubt that history doesn’t end with peace treaties and political statements. Everyone has the right to their own version of memory. But the question is, how does the interpretation of the past affect the future?

An obsession with the “rehabilitation of fascism” prevents some from seeing the real xenophobia, militarism and feeling of superiority that prevails in our country, and actively incites it in others. We can and do repeat that this is the answer to the question of why there are no mass protests in Russia about what its army is doing in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia. We are victims; we have suffered adversity from numerous enemies. We are settling accounts with the past by fighting in the present. Nearly 30 years ago, poet Igor Irtenyev wrote the following in a frivolous verse called “The Kremlin New Year Children’s Party”:

The times are adrift

At the festive table

The Hundred Years’ War is going on

And the Tatars are outside Oryol.

After several decades of postmodern politics, the Russian version of postmodern irony has become a psychological reality. The energy of discontent, for which there are millions of reasons, is sublimated in a fierce struggle for a coherent, uncritical, neat version of the past that doesn’t allow for any individual interpretation. Nikolay Desyatnichenko visited the grave of Georg Rau near Kopeysk, and that very fact makes thousands of Russians furious. Recently in Ozersk, not far from Kopeysk, there was a radioactive discharge. But hardly anyone gives a damn. The Crimean anarchist Aleksandr Kolchenko, one of many Russian political prisoners is behind bars in this same Kopeysk, accused of terrorism. And his imprisonment has won the approval of the mass of the Russian people.

Nikolay Desyatnichenko took a rare in our times humanitarian step: recognising the trauma of the past, he sought reconciliation. So does Yovan Reisz, who survived a concentration camp, and so do the Berlin schoolchildren who visited Bergen-Belsen. But over the past week, the efforts of thousands of Russian bloggers and dozens of politicians have just widened the distance between the forces of violence and the supporters of peace even further.

About the author

Mikhail Kaluzhsky is Lead Russian-Language Editor at oDR. He is the author of Music Repressed (2007) and many documentary theatre projects. In 2012-2014 he curated the theatre programme at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Center. He can be found on Twitter via @kaluzhsky. 


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