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The Kremlin Remembers Its Favorite War


Russian servicemen take part in the Victory Parade on Moscow's Red Square on May 9.

Russian servicemen take part in the Victory Parade on Moscow's Red Square on May 9.

Not every bachelor's thesis gets tweets of approval from such luminaries as Evgeny Morozov and Ed Lucas. So, kudos to Jacob Evan Lassin. The soon-to-be (we assume) graduate of the College of William and Mary has written a compelling thesis on Russia and the "myths and memories" of the country's involvement in World War II.

Lassin details how Soviet leader Josef Stalin took pains to keep essentially every aspect of the Red Army's involvement in the war either completely secret or spun in a way to show maximum greatness. After the war ended (or after the Soviet victory, depending on where one stood), Moscow commissioned statues in Berlin, Tallinn, Warsaw, and Sofia commemorating the Soviet victory and, as Lassin notes, to reinforce the notion of Soviet control.

After Stalin's death in 1953, successor Nikita Khrushchev sought to do away with the "personality cult" that had sprung up around Stalin, and amended the war-history narrative to give greater credit to the party and the people.

Over the next decade, the utopian socialist experiment began falling apart and the party needed a good story of unity -- World War II was perfect. May 9, Victory Day, once again became a state holiday and the Red Square parade to mark the day was reborn. As Lassin explains, the Soviet account of the war was "canonized" over the subsequent 20-plus years.

WATCH: Red Square Victory Day Parade, 1965


WATCH: Red Square Victory Day Parade, 2012


Fast-forward to 2007. The newly elected government in Tallinn, Estonia, decides to move the Stalin-era Bronze Soldier of Tallinn statue from the city center, much to the chagrin of Estonia's ethnic Russian population and to Russian officialdom.

To counter such acts, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree in 2009 creating the Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests. The commission was populated with pro-Kremlin historians and other political actors and given the force of law, with attempts to falsify the history of World War II (or "rehabilitate Nazism") in the former Soviet Union made punishable with three to five years in jail.

Apparently not much came of the commission, however, and it was dissolved on February 14, 2012 (we couldn't find a single prosecution). One member, Natalya Narochnitskaya, was pretty disappointed, but is under the impression that the commission's work will continue in some way. Although the official commission is no more, the rhetorical and electronic campaign continues. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in Israel on June 25, called the memory of World War II "sacred" and said, "We must keep and defend the truth about the war."

The Kremlin has taken the campaign online as well, funding the website Iremember.ru (which Lassin analyzes in his thesis) through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications. The site houses anecdotes in English, and troves of information on the war and the people who fought it. Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, the more conspiratorial (or anticonspiratorial) aspects of the site -- like the section bemoaning the film "Enemy at the Gates" -- are available only in Russian.

As Lassin explains in his thesis, the web offers a sort of middle ground for national discourse. While people and content can be manipulated, making something "open" like Iremember.ru gives a semblance of a lack of control and provides a certain degree of randomness, which, in Internet-speak, means "legitimate." RT, the Kremlin-run international news outlet, also has a dedicated portal to World War II, which is actually relatively well done and includes interviews, key dates, and feature-length films.

Over the past decade, the Russian government has emerged as one the world's most information-savvy regimes. It employs an army of bloggers (official and otherwise) and keeps the Russian web largely free of formal restrictions, choosing to engage and spam rather than censor and block.

There are calls by some in the Kremlin, however, to be more restrictive online after months of street protests. Russian officials have claimed a "Western hand" in Russia's unrest, and in April, Federal Security Service Deputy Director Sergei Smirnov said: "Society must defend itself. If the enemy uses 'dirty' technology, we need to purge the space of such activity in some way."

Internet rights may change in Russia, but, for the time being, as RT puts it, World War II "was truly patriotic, as the Soviet people were fighting on their own land trying to save their homeland and the whole world from the terrible menace that was the Nazis. And, as we know, they did it, having won that war and forced Nazi Germany to capitulate."

And that's a fact.

-- Zach Peterson

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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