The draft law that the Russian State Duma is about to pass to criminalize anyone questioning the victorious role of the USSR in the Second World War is an ominous symptom. Just like any ominous symptom it does not appear that ominous at first glance. Who would argue that the USSR won and Hitler lost? However, once one takes the time to read the draft's vague definitions (traditionally vague in the Russian legislation to create opportunities for convenient interpretations), one realizes that it is nothing else but another attempt to impede open discussion, detached and objective international historical discourse – a discourse the Russian society is in desperate need of.
It is an attempt to squeeze the tragic WWII theme back in the Procrustean bed of heroic propaganda, the legend about “The Great Patriotic War” as this worldwide catastrophe used to be referred to in the Soviet school books. I remember very well how in my early teenage years I used to know about the war only as much as I was supposed to know, perceiving it as something that began abruptly on 22 June 1941 and ended with the undisputable Soviet victory on 9 May 1945. Only years later and turning to sources less accessible than school books, digging though historical works and memoirs of the unlucky witnesses of the past, did I begin to ask different questions about the causes and the consequences. Those questions concerned the years immediately before the Soviet version of the start of the war, when following the 1939 pact between Stalin and Hitler any antifascist propaganda was prohibited in the USSR, and the latter turned into an officially neutral, and factually collaborating power. In 1940, prior to the Nazi tortures, it was the horror of the Soviet occupation that Western Ukrainians , Moldavians, Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians had to go through, including multiple arrests and deportations, executions and violence. For those people all of that was already the Second World War, even though for most of the common Soviets, the Great Patriotic War had not yet begun. Stalin's criminal unpreparedness for an attack on the Eastern Front as a result of pathological lying within his inner circle, trembling with fear after the tsunami of the Great Terror, many leading military commanders arrested and shot – will that, too, become classified as “questioning the Soviet victory”? And the millions human lives crashed between the Scylla and Charybdis of Stalinism and Nazism? – For the POWs, convicted for having stayed alive, for the hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilians enslaved in the German rural provinces and released only to become enslaved in the GULAGS and labelled traitors of the Motherland, the victory of 1945 did not signify the end of their tortures. The existence of the trudovaya arniya (‘labour army' , i.e. soldiers of unfavourable ethnic or social descent destined to become cannon meat in the doomed operations), the existence of zagradotryady , ‘blocking squads' shooting those who decided to retreat. The Russian nationalism connected to Stalin's functionary Zhdanov, armed with the propaganda version of the victory claiming that everything had been done by the Soviet army singlehandedly, with minor contributions from the Allies, and hitting hard against the Leningrad intelligentsia, because Leningrad had to be made to forget about its own private victory in the siege and its hopes for the general thaw in the minds of the elite. And finally, what may be defined as the Second Holocaust that began in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s – early 1950s, when tens of thousands of Jews were arrested (many executed), and an even greater number was fired, thrown out of their apartments, not allowed to continue their education; plans were made to create special concentration camps in Siberia especially for Jews, the old slogan “Kill the Yids!” was revived (similar to the German practices of the early 1930s). Only Stalin's death in 1953 slowly put this rotating death machine to a halt.
The above elements of our native history are barely mentioned in the school book course on the Great Patriotic War. (The First time I even heard the word ‘Holocaust' was when I was 15 and came to the US as an exchange student). In reality, it seems, the Second World War started in Spain , and its echo remained hanging in the air all the way until the end of the epoch we call Stalinism. We should not be speaking of Nazism versus Stalinism, but about the common role of the two in this unprecedented tragedy of the 20th century.
An immense number of people sacrificed their last energy, whatever they had left after the hungry and schizophrenic years of the Great Terror, to fight for freedom during the war, and they won their land back. Yet they were not fighting for an abstract Motherland, but for their immediate families and homes. Moreover, many of the survivors remember the war years as their best years, for it was the only time during the whole Stalin era when people did not have to be continuously afraid of denunciations, did not have to mistrust their family members and neighbours. In the face of probable physical death they stopped fearing arrests, confiscations, humiliation and social ostracism. And when they went to battle or to work in a weapons factory, they did it with a firm belief that everything would be different, everything would change after the great war, that their sacrifices would be recognized, that a thaw would come, that their relatives would be released from the camps, that a human life would regain its value. We know that none of this came true. In the post-war USSR there was not even a rehabilitation programme for those who came back handicapped, whether physically or psychologically. The victory was used for another sort of rehabilitation – the rehabilitation of the Great Terror.
In order to even try to understand the pain our grandparents experienced, what use have we got in the cliché formulas about heroism, if we cannot talk about their human emotions? Dry official definitions in the school books whose authors are too afraid to reflect on the past only make their young readers insensitive to the suffering of the previous generations.
Why don't we, instead of inventing silly bans on any form of discussion, talk about the simple human lives under Stalin, why don't we finally open all the historical archives, stop carrying out searches and confiscating computers at the Memorial society (collecting memoirs from Stalinism survivors) and just for a moment imagine ourselves in the Shoes of those whom Stalin called vintiki , ‘little screws in the machine of the State'.