May 9, 2005

The good old days


David Satter has more on Russian nostalgia for the Soviet Union. (See here.)
This nostalgia is not harmless. Not only does it ignore the fact that the Soviet Union was just as terroristic as Nazi Germany, it also reflects what Hannah Arendt called "pervasive, public stupidity." This is the failure to understand that the truth about the past is not irrelevant--that it is, in fact, the best hope for a decent future. The re-Sovietization of Russia is possible because when the Soviet Union fell, the new Russian state did not break irrevocably with its communist heritage. To do this, it needed to define the communist regime as criminal and the Soviet period as illegitimate; open the archives, including the list of informers; and find all mass burial grounds and execution sites. None of this was done and the consequences are being felt today.
And, as President Bush commemorates the end of the European War in Russia today, Geoffrey Wheatcroft examines the myths created around World War II. He also notes the differences among the soldiers.
Hitler ruled by glamour and terror; his soldiers were driven by fear as well as zeal. In a war during which no British soldier, and only one GI, was shot for cowardice, at least 15,000 German servicemen were executed for dereliction of duty.

And that went for the Russians even more so. A heroic Russian narrative of the war, and the memory of the tens of millions of Russian dead, is still potent and plays a part in the sinister nostalgia for Stalin resurfacing in Russia but Russian heroism also has to be qualified.

We now know that in the first winter of the war on the Eastern Front in 1941-42, more than 8,000 Russian soldiers died not in action but shot by their own army for cowardice or desertion. During the battle of Stalingrad alone, another 12,000 men of the Red Army were put to death pour encourager les autres. This was a regime fighting a desperate war that could nevertheless put to death well over a full infantry division of its own men. On the other hand, the Russians relaxed at the end of the war, with Stalin’s encouragement, by indulging in the greatest act of gang rape in history against millions of women in Hungary, Austria, and eastern Germany.

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