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Russian Teenager's Peaceful Speech In Germany Kicks Up Angry Reaction Back Home

The furious reaction to the student's speech reflects Russia's increasingly rigid nationalism, where any critical revisiting of history -- war history, above all -- is met with withering scorn.
The furious reaction to the student's speech reflects Russia's increasingly rigid nationalism, where any critical revisiting of history -- war history, above all -- is met with withering scorn.

The speech given before Germany's parliament by a Russian high-school student fit perfectly with the theme of the event -- an annual German remembrance for the military personnel and civilians killed in wars and from political oppression.

The Russian teen, Nikolai Desyatnichenko, lamented the loss of life during World War II, and he related the story of a German soldier who was taken prisoner during the Battle of Stalingrad and later died in a prisoner-of-war camp. He said some German soldiers clearly didn't want to fight in the war.

The speech didn't go down well back home.

The furious reaction Desyatnichenko's presentation sparked is a small reflection of Russia's hallowed history of what is known as the Great Patriotic War. It also reflects the increasingly rigid nationalism under President Vladimir Putin, where any critical revisiting of Soviet or Russian history -- war history, above all -- is met with withering scorn.

Desyatnichenko's school in Russia's far northern Novoi Urengoi region had participated in a joint academic project with a German high school, studying the biographies of some of the victims of the war.

The Russian students traveled to Berlin to participate in some of the ceremonies surrounding Volkstrauertag, the annual observance of the victims of the war and political oppression.

On November 19, Desyatnichenko, along with Russian classmates and German students, presented some of their findings before the Bundestag, which always holds an official ceremony.

During his 2 1/2-minute speech before lawmakers, he told the story of one Wehrmacht soldier, Georg Johann Rau, who was captured during the fighting in Stalingrad and died in March 1943 in a Soviet camp. He said he was moved by Rau's story, so he traveled to a cemetery in Russia's Chelyabinsk region, where Rau and other German soldiers were buried.

He said he was impressed by the site of the graves of the soldiers, "many of whom wanted to live peacefully and didn't want to fight. They experienced unbelievable difficulty during the war, which my great-grandfather, who was gravely wounded, told me about," he said.

"I sincerely hope that common sense will triumph everywhere on the planet and the world will never again see war," he said.

Supporting Fascism?

Video of Desyatnichenko's speech circulated on Russian social media and YouTube not long after; some commentators called for beating him up; others said he should be kicked out of Russia.

One blogger posted a written appeal to Russia's main security agency, accusing Desyatnichenko of trying to rehabilitate the memory of Nazi criminals. A lawmaker in the regional legislature released a letter calling on the local department of education and prosecutor's office to investigate both the student and his school's administration.

The Moscow tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a headline: A Novoi Urengoi Student Repented In Germany For The Innocent Fighters Of the Wehrmacht.

Desyatnichenko did get a vote of support from Novoi Urengoi's mayor, who said the teen was right in saying that not all German soldiers wanted to fight. "That in no way should be interpreted as the boy's support for fascism," Ivan Kostogriz was quoted as saying by local news agencies.

Desyatnichenko's mother, meanwhile, told the news site Znak that she personally helped edit and draft the speech. She said she was surprised by the angry reaction to it.

"You can't say that my son was somehow apologizing" for the war, she was quoted as saying. "Just the opposite, I think that was he meant was a different fact: that there were these people, these soldiers fighting who possibly didn't want to fight and that they ended up there not by their own choice but were ordered to," she said.

She said people were reading his speech out of context, and she was worried about the threats and insults her son was receiving.

"He wanted people to understand and not to allow a repeat of this war," she said.

With reporting by and
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