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Putin’s Great Patriotic Purge
As Russia prepares to commemorate the 70th anniversary of defeating the Nazis, the Kremlin is rewriting history for political convenience.
MOSCOW — When prosecutors and police officers from the anti-extremism division showed up at Dmitry Lazarenko’s antique shop in Sochi a few months ago, they took him by surprise. After rummaging through the wares in the small space he keeps with two other collectors, they accused him of spreading Nazi propaganda before seizing a World War II-era German uniform hanging in the corner.
“There was a price tag on the swastika on the cap, but sometimes it falls off,” Lazarenko told me, as if still searching for an explanation for what befell his business. The officers said he violated a law forbidding Nazi propaganda. A local court sentenced him to a 1,000 ruble (about $20) fine. The affair left him shaken and puzzled — and angry about losing an expensive antique. “Some people collect Red Army uniforms and others German uniforms,” he said.
“It’s an historic article, it’s intended for collectors. We don’t go waving it around,” Lazarenko said. “What sort of extremist am I?” Lazarenko told me he’s a patriot who frequently gives Soviet army paraphernalia to local museums; he planned to wear a Soviet uniform for Russia’s celebration of its 1945 victory over Nazi Germany on May 9.
The raid on Lazarenko’s shop was not unique. As Russia gears up to mark 70 years since the end of World War II — and the Great Patriotic War, as the country calls its own four-year struggle against the Axis forces — the Kremlin’s fight against the specter of Nazism, fascism, as well as any perceived insults to the war’s memory has been revived with a fervor unseen even in Soviet times.
The law banning Nazi propaganda, which has existed in some form since the 1990s but was significantly amended last November, now has toy stores, book sellers, and museums trembling with fear. Previously, the law forbade “propaganda and public demonstration” of Nazi insignia. In the new version, lawmakers changed the “and” to an “or” — formally making any depiction of the swastika a punishable offense. Panicking bookstores went through their stocks, removing anything that had a swastika on its cover in a purge that swept from shelves even anti-fascist books, such as Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, the son of a Holocaust survivor. The law’s wording was so broad that one over-cautious exhibit of wartime posters in the Russian Far East covered up the Nazi insignia with fluorescent stickers.
The new law was one in a raft of measures phased in not long after the conflict in Ukraine began. Russian lawmakers called for a wider interpretation of Nazi propaganda that would include any extremist groups, including some Ukrainian nationalists who were fighting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. According to Moscow’s official line, they are fascists because some take inspiration from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and its leader Stepan Bandera, who fought the Red Army in the 1940s.
“Fascist youth flaunt these symbols daily and call for genocide,” deputy speaker of the State Duma — Russia’s lower house of parliament — Sergey Zheleznyak, who authored the amendments, said last May. “These groups are what led Ukraine to chaos, disintegration and de facto civil war.”
In the same vein, a law against “rehabilitation of Nazism,” passed last spring, calls for up to three years in prison for those who deny Nazi crimes, “disseminate disrespect” about Victory Day, or desecrate monuments of wartime glory. While in Russia almost nobody — with the exception of a tiny faction of fanatics — deny Nazi crimes, the law is being used to launch nominal probes into incidents of vandalism of Soviet war memorials in Ukraine. In Russia, people like Lazarenko are unfortunate casualties of Moscow’s widening definition of support for Nazism and of law enforcement officials who are only too willing to crack down.
In many Russian circles, the narrative surrounding the conflict in eastern Ukraine borrows from the rhetoric of World War II, with talk of “liberating” cities now under Kiev’s control and even retaking Kiev from U.S.-backed “Ukrofascists.” The mythology of the Great Patriotic War is woven tightly into the narrative of the two “people’s republics,” and their fighters frequently adorn their uniforms and Kalashnikovs with the St. George’s ribbon, the orange and black stripes that appear on military medals and which have made a comeback in recent years as a government-backed symbol of Soviet World War II glory.
Speaking to local veterans this week, the separatist leader in Luhansk, Igor Plotnitsky, promised to “defeat Nazism for good and raise the Victory Banner over the new Reichstag of Banderites.”
With the conflict in Ukraine, Victory Day is changing in Russia, said Andrei Kolesnikov, who heads the Russian domestic policy program at Carnegie Moscow Center. “There is additional aggression, hysteria, and one-sidedness of interpretation of historical events, when any sort of critical discussion about what happened before during and after the war is unacceptable,” he said.
World War II has always been a symbol of perseverance and unity for Russia, and looms large in the collective consciousness. Even today, over half of Russians say they lost at least one close family member in the war. That public memory is used as a tool to boost the “personalistic regime” of Vladimir Putin, Kolesnikov said. “It works in favor of Putin’s charisma. In this way, the regime accomplishes the goal of consolidating most of the population around itself, and it is very effective.”
A decade ago, Putin stood over the military parade on Red Square attended by foreign leaders from the United States, Germany, France, and many other countries. Putin, then in his sixth year in power, delivered a message of friendship and peace. “We have never divided Victory into ours and someone else’s and we will always remember the aid of the allies,” he said.
This year, with almost no Western leaders planning to attend Victory Day celebrations, his message is bound to be different. In recent months, Putin has repeatedly accused the West of revanchism: rewriting the history of the war in order to “weaken the power and moral authority of modern Russia, to rid it of the status of victor.”
Victory worship went into overdrive this year as Putin attempted to further legitimize his rule, said historian Pavel Aptekar, a columnist for the daily newspaper Vedomosti. “It’s easy to say: if you are against us, then you are against victory and against our grandfathers who died in the war,” he said. “Our leaders are parasitizing on victory” in a way that is similar to “early Mussolini, who parasitized on the Great Roman empire.”
As the Kremlin uses the memory of World War II for political expediency, the interpretation of the 1945 victory put forward by officials is “less bloody and more presentable than it really was,” Aptekar said. Few people in today’s Russia understand the nature of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, though more people than in the post-Soviet period believe that the secret protocols to that pact, which carved Eastern Europe into two spheres of influence, were fake. And today, more Russians than ever before blame the start of war on France and Britain’s inking of the Munich Agreement, which permitted Germany to annex some provinces of Czechoslovakia.
With fewer and fewer Russians alive who remember World War II, its legacy is shifting. What in Soviet times was unequivocally a “holiday with tears in our eyes,” in the words of one well-known Soviet song, now inspires jingoistic messages of conquest and tone-deaf marketing. The Great Patriotic War has been featured everywhere from body art contests to cake-baking competitions, while ribbons and medals are plastered on store promotions — even in sex shops.
Meanwhile, the “never again” message of the older generation is getting lost, at a time when Russia has positioned itself as the great power challenging American unilateralism in world affairs. Pro-Kremlin youth sport T-shirts boasting nuclear missiles, and Putin has said openly that he was ready for nuclear war over Crimea during last year’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
Bumper stickers reading “To Berlin!” — the Soviet Red Army’s counter-offensive slogan sometimes painted on tanks and missiles — have been popular in Russia for years. But this year, new bumper stickers have appeared, bearing even more provocative slogans. One boasts, “1941-1945. We could repeat it again,” illustrated with a stick figure with a hammer and sickle for a head sodomizing another stick figure representing the Nazis.
To the people who remember the war, in which the Soviet Union lost over 26 million people, such statements are unfathomable. “There is no need to repeat that triumph. War is human blood and loss, and we don’t need it,” said Galina Golovlyova, 95, who spent the war in the Moscow region digging trenches, scouting for enemy warplanes, and surviving on a small daily ration of bread. While she likes seeing the return of Soviet symbols and the red flag at the May 9 celebrations, “much of them are for show,” she said. She would rather see the money go to helping poor veterans with housing, medical care, and pensions.
“I don’t like the attempts to make Victory Day into some cartoonish holiday, with trite posters, ‘patriotic’ products, and tons of St. George ribbons, all while moving to flatten the past. Negating the swastika is precisely in the flow of this aggressive window-dressing,” said Polina Danilevich, a Russian journalist who also fell afoul of the “Nazi propaganda” law this spring.
Danilevich, who hails from Smolensk — a city in Western Russia that was occupied by the Nazis after some of the most devastating combat on Soviet territory early in the war — was browsing through archived images when she came across a photo of her own house. A Nazi flag flapped over a group of soldiers assembled in front of their commanding officers. “Found a picture of my yard,” Danilevich wrote when she posted the black and white photo on her social networking page, VKontakte. She was found guilty of Nazi propaganda and paid a fine.
“It was like finding a picture of a great-grandfather or some lost family relic,” she told me. “But our anti-extremism officials only saw the swastika and in it, Nazi propaganda…. They ignore the full picture, the historic memory, to focus on the particulars.”
Aptekar, the historian, is so fed up with the historiographical mistakes and exaggerations in state media that he has stopped watching state channels at all, only tuning in for sporting matches. “Leave history to the historians so that they look into the difficult and complicated details,” he said. “As long as history is made into ideology by all sides, it will be a constant reason for insults, resentment, and the squaring of accounts.”
Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images