Saturday, May 8, 2010


As threatened, this is part one of a two-parter dedicated to my contemplation of the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. There will be pictures I've plumbed from my trip to the Novodevichy Cemetery, so give your eyes and thoughts a break when you need to, and
Remember me as you pass by.
As you are now, so once was I;
As I am now, so you must be,
Therefore prepare to follow me.
I've never been able to convey this in a way that sounds lucid (I am, as I often profess, a crazy person). Let me try anyway.

I know that Victory Day doesn't sound important to my US readers. Here it's like Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, and the 4th of July all in one. I've heard it described as "New Year's Eve, Part II" (remember that Russian New Year's Eve is both Western New Year's and Christmas). I'll talk about the polemic of my status as a foreigner tomorrow. Today, let's pretend I have a grip on what this holiday means.

First off, when I mention Memorial Day and Veteran's Day I mean inasmuch as there are military parades and barbecues. The emphasis, however, is not on the war, nor on the soldiers, nor on the veterans, nor on the victims. The emphasis is literally on the victory; the celebration begins with the euphoria of troops' return to their home cities. It's not the storming of the Reichstag that's important, but the flag of the Soviet Union flapping in the wind above Berlin.

This sets the celebration in diametric opposition to the manner in which the war is remembered and encoded in films, which are often celebrations of annihilation (perhaps a subgenre of torture porn?) As Gregory Carleton recently described,
In these revisionist narratives a tide of blood washes over all. Absent now, however, was the justifying, indeed comforting, patina of sacrifice; in its place came the stark truth of untold, unknown millions who perished unnecessarily...Death stalks Russia; war is its permanent affliction, not a temporary condition. Be it World War II or Chechnya, he [Astafiev, a memoirist] argued, there has to be a point – moral, ethical, historical and semantic – where pride in sacrifice should become shame in carnage; where pyrrhic victory is no longer victory.
(I didn't play with the color saturations - the rose is plastic, and that fakely bright.)

In the decorations around the city, there are images of war and death, but in weird, "learn about history" presentations. The major banners and billboards are pictures of women holding babies or grandparents with little children or loving couples. As I see it, this rhetoric has a very good and a very bad side.

The positive is that it gives voice and emphasis to a euphoric cry: "We survived!" That's a nice sentiment, from individuals in a culture stereotypically represented as dry and hopeless, from individuals whose country was occupied by a military force whose own rhetoric involved massacre and enslavement of the entire populace.

The negative is that it recasts war as a glorious event without suffering. Victory is not the sacrifice of the dead; victory is not the psychological scarring upon the living and the maimed. Victory is an encoding of Russia into the Holy Ones who have protected themselves (and the rest of the world) from Satan Himself. It ignores history; it destroys history; it destroys nuance and particulars.

(That's fresh pussy willow in his grip.)

If we conceive of the Nazi ideology as the ideal fate of racism, the fight against the Nazi engine of war was the fight against racism itself. Kak eto ni paradoksal'no [That makes it all the more paradoxical] that this rhetoric of victory recasts history into nationalist and racist propaganda: THIS people is 100% holy and triumphant; THAT people is 100% evil. I have heard very educated Russians, individuals whom I respect and think quite wise, nevertheless intone radically racist statements about the current German youth. One told me that, seeing a group of athletic German college students drinking juice on a train, he could only picture them in 20-years time as a Neo-Nazi group.

I think, primarily, because a) they were German b) they were drinking juice, not beer.

When I've gotten to this point I'm usually stopped by the comment: "But doesn't it make sense, to an extent? When the Germans occupied Russian territory, they were perpetrating total war. Think of how many millions died. Of course they remember; of course they cast it as a celebration of surviving."

But the people who survived are not the current generation. That's where I'm scared in this recasting of the war into selective memory. There is, first of all, no mention of the thousands of German women who had unpleasant surprises nine months after Soviet troops rolled through their territory. There is only this sense that "I was victimized but I survived," to this day, from individuals who were not victimized, but taught a culture of victimization. There is nothing individual about that rhetoric of annihilation and torture and victimization; it's not "These are the relatives whom I lost," or "This is how I was personally affected."

It's a collective, "WE, the RUSSIAN PEOPLE, survived." And because it is cast as such a collective, such a general statement, it becomes individual again. It allows everyone, anyone born in 1925 or in 1995, to perceive of "the Russian People" as a mass with one face - the face of that individual. That is - the positive is negative, and the negative is worse, and the whole phenomenon is very, very scary to me as a foreigner, as a historian, as a person.

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