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Russia Has Trouble Escaping the Past

Posted on Jun 8, 2010
AP / Mikhail Metzel

Russian soldiers dressed in WWII uniforms rehearse for the Victory Day parade.

By Ivo Mijnssen and Philipp Casula

(Page 2)

At the same time, today’s Russian government tries hard to depict the country as democratic. Open adoration for Stalin is thus out of the question. The solution offered by the Putin-Medvedev government could be dubbed—if the process continues—a conservative destalinization. By distinguishing between the crimes of the leader and the virtue of the people, Victory can continue to serve as a keystone of national identity.

With regards to the Katyn massacre, a similar strategy is applied. The Russian leaders admit a certain degree of responsibility, but no guilt, since the Russian people they represent were as much victims of the Stalinist regime as the Poles. This is certainly an important first step. Critics argue, however, that it is not enough. Arseny Roginsky, the head of the Russian human rights group Memorial, states in an interview with the daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung that Russians need to confront “the evil” in their past and take responsibility for it. Roginsky demands that those who were guilty of crimes against humanity be named and tried. “We have to open all archives to the public without exception. We have to rehabilitate all victims.” This kind of action is still far off, as the Russian authorities have restricted access to the archives of the secret services in recent years.

The reluctance of the Russian authorities to promote open and self-critical debate on the USSR’s role in World War II and the cost at which the country won the war has an additional dimension. The idealized Victory is used to present the USSR as a member of the club of advanced nations that ostensibly got the world to where it is today. In the broadest terms, World War II was an instance where the country fought on the right side of history, together with Western powers, defeating fascism and helping negotiate a new, peaceful world order. The tensions of the Cold War are ignored in this narrative. The present-day Russian state hence uses Victory to bolster its demand to be treated as an equal partner in world affairs by other great powers—the United States foremost. This quest for recognition has been a leitmotif of Russian foreign policy since the late 1990s, under Yevgeny Primakov, who was both foreign minister and prime minister, and even more so during Putin’s tenure.

In this context, the “restart” in the Russian-American relationship offered by President Barack Obama during his summer 2009 Moscow visit was well received. His speech at the renowned New Economic School started with references to Russia’s “timeless heritage” and its contributions to world culture. Obama went on to recognize that Americans and Soviets had been “allies in the greatest struggle of the last century” and that “Soviet soldiers from places like Kazan and Kiev endured unimaginable hardships to repel an invasion, and turn the tide in the east.” His speech culminated in proposing a global partnership that “will be stronger if Russia occupies its rightful place as a great power.”


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This aperture has eased tensions and led to some results in the form of a new arms reduction agreement and increased cooperation on solving international issues like Iran. Particularly with regards to Iran, however, Russia has wavered between supporting sanctions in principle and continuing to pursue its own economic interests in that country. Other Russian proposals, such as the establishment of a new European security architecture to replace NATO, have remained vague and appear to be at least partly motivated by the desire to weaken NATO, in which Russia does not have a say.

The Russian self-image in domestic and international politics is still today closely intertwined with a past that is far from pristine. In a positive sense, Russia’s past can be interpreted so as to position the country as a constructive partner in international relations. In a negative sense, World War II as a point of reference for issues between nations can lead to an exaggerated sense of threat and a recourse to nationalist rhetoric and reflexes. Ultimately, the continuation of Russia’s pragmatic foreign policy—for example toward Poland—will to a large extent depend on whether it achieves the desired results.

Exactly what Russia desires, however, is not so clear. Russia remains ambivalent about its place in the world: The century-long question of whether Russia is a Western or Eastern power and the flaws in the country’s democratic institutions continue to prevent it from pursuing a coherent domestic and foreign policy. One might add, however, that the frequent lack of a coherent Western policy toward Russia has not helped it find its place either.

Ivo Mijnssen holds an M.A. in Eastern European history and sociology from the University of Basel, Switzerland. He worked as a researcher in the Swiss National Science Foundation’s project “Democracy and the Nation in Russia” and wrote numerous scientific articles on memory and memory politics in contemporary Russia. He is currently working as a freelance journalist based in Europe.

Philipp Casula is a research fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Basel, Switzerland. He studied sociology in Munich, Rome and Berlin and further specialized in Russian affairs and political theory. Among his latest publications are “Identities and Politics during the Putin Presidency” (co-edited with Jeronim Perovic, Ibidem, 2009) and “Political and National Identity in Russian Political Discourse” (with Olga Malinova, published in Lecours/Moreno: Nationalism and Democracy, Routledge 2010).

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By Ivo Mijnssen, June 15, 2010 at 3:48 am Link to this comment

Some of these comments fundamentally misunderstand the aim of this article. First of all, I believe that we can hardly be accused of an American imperialist attitude. I think some people read a lot of things into this article that are not actually there:

@Everest Mokaeff: You certainly make a valid point when you mention the fact that NATO expanded eastwards in spite of promises to Russia to the contrary. Putting this in the article would have, however, been beyond its scope. There is no idealization of Western policies towards Russia in this article: We do address its ambiguity. Besides, the aim of this article is to talk about the crucial role that the memory of WWII, or the “Great Patriotic War”, still plays in Eastern European politics and Russian politics. A full analysis of Western-Russian relations would go beyond the scope of this piece. That lots of journalists and politicians in the West still villify Russia is clear. But that you are angry about this is not our fault.
You also write that we present the “so called massacre of Katyn” and image of Stalin to villify Russia: First of all, it would be interesting to know what you mean by “so-called”. It is a historical fact that cannot be denied. Besides, “Katyn” is problematic for official Russian historiography because it had hardly any military reasoning behind it. The fact that Russians never speak of WWII, but of the Great Patriotic War (1941 (!)-1945) instead attests to this fact.

Second, Stalin is a highly problematic figure to say the least. Of course Hitler attacked Russia, and of course he was a genocidal maniac. Still, this does neither provides an excuse for Stalin’s crimes against his own people during the collectivization, as well as the utter disregard of the Soviet leadership for the lives of its own people. The point here is not to put the blame on anyone: Our point is that still today, Russia struggles to define its identity because it uses a highly problematical and ambiguous historical event as its foundation.
Of course, this is true for any historical myth, and the use of the myth of the American and Western European victory over Nazi Germany to justify the expansion of the American “soft empire” is a worthwhile subject for historical research.

Still, nowhere in the West was the War as traumatic as in Russia. And nowhere is it still as present as in Russia today (just think about all the unburied soldiers on Russian battlefields). And nowhere were difficult issues relating to the War silenced to the extent that this was the case in the post-War USSR and again today. But they won’t go away.

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By thisone, June 10, 2010 at 9:58 pm Link to this comment

I don’t see how you guys are reading this as having and American slant. The authors aren’t even American (I know them from a conference) and it seems pretty impartial to me.

Yes, every country has trouble escaping it’s past, but Russia’s relationship to it’s past seems interesting to me and is unique.

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By Richard, June 10, 2010 at 12:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

and the reason for the US to get involved on D day was the realization that Russians could defeat Hitler, and Europe would get under their influence to the detriment of the US empire…

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By Chris Herz, June 9, 2010 at 9:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

WWII was caused by the West being unable and unwilling to check Hitler before Sept. 1939 because he was seen by most within the various national elites as a bulwark against Stalin’s version of socialism.  The alliance between the UK and the US on the one side and the USSR on the other was never seen in Washington or London as other than a regrettable necessity due to the irrationality, the aggression and the lying of the Nazi Reich.

Americans should read a little more history; it was indeed Stalingrad, Kursk and the other operations of the 200 plus Soviet divisions which killed Nazism.  For all the bravery of my uncles and their British and Canadian comrades, Normandy was a sideshow by comparison.

Nor must we now forget that US operations today in Afghanistan represent an effort to capitalize on the fall of the USSR to capture the oil and other resources of the trans-Caspian former Soviet republics for US elites.  This too is a tragedy of historic importance.  The Great Game goes on.

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By jean Gerard, June 9, 2010 at 4:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The idea of “escaping from the past” is an exercise in futility.  A better aim
would be to learn from it, and in that case Russia succeeds to about the same
degree as most nations.  The U.S. seems unable to do any better, and the
current surge of reaction and lack of effective protest against it, points to our
own inability to face up to the grave damages we continue to permit both at
home and abroad.

I mean the crimes of persisting in wars and militarism, of widespread economic
injustice and in our spineless ignoring of environmental degradation—all
largely due to the excesses of corporate influence on government.  Indeed,
secretly we seem to be moving in the direction of establishing our own gulags
to eliminate criticism and protest.

In view of the facts, it is annoying to see articles like this opining on the failings
of Russia or anywhere else.

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By cheyennebode, June 9, 2010 at 7:31 am Link to this comment
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By MrWebster, June 8, 2010 at 2:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Very confused article.  Not sure what it was trying to achieve, but certainly not written with understanding of Russian nor Western history toward Russia.

I guess the message is that Russia must get over WWII to move forward.  The authors seem to make some sort of equivalence between what happened in Russia and I guess Western Europe. As one poster noted, looks like the article was informed by some form of exceptionalism.

Somehow I guess history does not matter and foolish Russia must get over it.  Two related points:

Hitler’s army was a genocidial and racist army and did to the Russians what they did not do for example to the French.  The Russian invasion allowed the Nazis to round up or kill on the spot millions of Jews. There is not equvalence between the two.  The German army spent about 7/8 of its fighting time in Eastern Europe.

But the reaction of the authors is “hey, forget about it.”  And yet, the authors are totally oblivious to the aggressive moves by the West like wanting to put missiles in Poland to shot down Iranian missiles??? Say what??  Or the attempt by the right wing/military/industrial complex to restart the Cold War after the Georgian attack on Russian troops. 

And now one of the biggest jingoists of that rhetoric is the friggin VP of the United States!!! Hey Russia, get over your historical paranoia.

Hey, do you two authors remember that question asked during the Presidential debates of Obama and McCain if Russia was evil?  And both respond as if this is some normal everyday concern of American foreign policy???

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By Mike3, June 8, 2010 at 11:34 am Link to this comment

Everest Mokaeff well said. You said what I wanted to say but couldn’t be bothered. Yes; good point, who the hell are these goons that wrote this garbage? I don’t have to tell you that this sick view of history is the American view of history. As quite a few of American High School history teachers have said, American history (British too) is the only subject where the students graduate dumber than when they started. That it was the Russians that destroyed Hitler’s Wehrmacht at Stalingrad and Kursk cannot be stated. Instead we have the Hollywood John Wayne bullshit – who was an asshole anyway.

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By Everest Mokaeff, June 8, 2010 at 11:07 am Link to this comment

The article fell face down to deliver. I know that it’s easier to destroy witness’ credibility than attack head-on the facts presented, but I take my chances and start with Ivo Mijnssen and Philipp Casula. Who are you guys? What is your personal standing on the issue? You several times mentioned so called Katyn massacre as if it should be construed as a gospel denying us any good part in the war of 1941-1945. You’re repeatedly and bitterly complaining that Russia sometimes seem to be overreacting and for some stupid reason can’t see a messianic US nuclear arm reaching out to embrace us - stupid russkies -  and protect from barbarians of Mideast. Can’t you conjure up something better than this? Do you really think we’re scared of countries in our backyard? Don’t be that naive. During all our history it was the western culturally-dominating, industrially-advanced, military-outstanding countries that attack us. Take a trip to the local library and check for yourselves when last time American and British troops were in Russia and what they were doing there.

Now lets see the facts.

1. What business do you have in our military parade? What is so special about it? Why you deny nation which lost 20-27 million people in that war it’s own day to honor it’s heros? You can’t say it in open so you cowardly imply that we do not deserve to be sat at the table among true victors - GB, US, France (can’t help but laugh about the latter).

2 You sampled our tensioned relations with Poland as to show our vicious character (to solidify your previous questioning of our integrity and advance your agenda to prove that we became a part of saint GB-US troops by accident). Why don’t you say that our troubled history goes back as far as 1242. Why don’t you never say how many times they invaded us, why don’t say that in war of 1605-18 they took and burned down Moscow. Why should we trust them when they readily accept US proposal to host Patriots to cut off on our ability to make a retaliation strike?

3 Stalin! Once again, please do not play old game. Why Herry S. Truman is being praised throughout the world as a true human rights champion instead of being tried at Nuremberg for annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oh yeah, I forgot, the history is being written by victors. Another war hero beyond any reproach Winston Churchill. Now only mind-wracked liberals still dare to quote Mr. Churchill humanistic proposals on how to treat uncivilized tribes with poison gas.

4 You stated as-a-matter-of-factly that Russia has no voice in NATO and is keen to compromise it because Russia looks flat in comparison alone with such a grandiose structure - pure manifestation of goodness and humanity. Why don’t you say that NATO was conceived with conceit to contain red menace, i.e. Russia. Why you never mention the fact that since collapse of Warsaw pact and subsequent demise of Soviet Union, NATO did noting but extended closer and closer towards Western Russian borders. It was done in clear violation of previously politically declared commitments not to expand NATO if Gorbachev agreed to reunification of both Germanys. Are you still surprised that we don’t wont to take your word on anything?

Stop making villains out of us according to the rules of successful Hollywood production: there should be bad guys and good ones. We are the good ones.

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By Eso, June 8, 2010 at 10:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The writers have it fundamentally wrong. The Russian and American relationship is hardly as relevant as Russia figuring out its history. The same thing goes for Eastern Europe and Europe proper. They have to start taking Anatoly Fomenko’s theories of Russian history seriously.

Fomenko shows (of course much more research has to be done) that the West or rather the Catholic Church in cooperation with Western kings imposed on the East an upside down history (and religion). This is what is wrong, and things will not be right until the imposed schizophrenia is solved by discovering the true story.

America lives on hubris in a world apart and will continue to do so until something far more serious than 9/11 takes it down. The disintegration of the financial edifice is part of the latter event.

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By Mike3, June 8, 2010 at 9:23 am Link to this comment

Nothing really new to be found here: an article that panders to the American ego. A lot of what the authors write about can be applied to the US or any country that has had an empire. And every country has a few skeletons in the closet that it would rather not pull out. But it’s nice to demonize the Russians as this is part of the current grand chess game.

Domestically, the Russian government has also shown an increased willingness to confront the darker sides of its past.

Would be nice if the US thought the same, reads like an undergraduate paper with a stiff upper lip Churchillian post-war view of recent history – I’ll give it a C-.

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By John Badalian, June 8, 2010 at 7:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If the United States had to carry the brunt of the fighting in WWII, I’m sure our current “zeitgiest” would be a helluva lot different!  It wasn’t just Stalingrad, but rather huge, withering clashes in Soviet territory for > three (3) years.  How many Americans are aware of (the siege of) Leningrad, Kharkov, Kursk, and the great White Russian (Bagratin) offensive of June, 1944? Soviet -and German - losses were staggering, incomprehensible to Americans. 
    I always wondered what would have happened if & when the Americans and Brits landed (finally)in force in June 1944; that instead of German 2nd line static troops (Omaha Beach excepted), the Kursk Army with all its Waffen SS crack troops/fanatics were waiting for them!?

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By balkas, June 8, 2010 at 5:57 am Link to this comment

Right to bear arms is an universla right. Poland or finland have that right; including the right to possess N-weapons.
But N-weapons shld be controled by them and not be another very expansionistic empire.

Poles and czechs thus wisely deocided not to allow another empire’s N-weapons on their soil.

It shld be noted that i spurn all land theft; russian included. tnx

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, June 8, 2010 at 5:32 am Link to this comment

Living in Eastern Europe and being married to a Russian woman gives me a unique insight into this turbulent place.  The author is certainly right that the former republics of the Soviet Union are intimately intertwined with the events of the war.  The union lost between 20-27 million people to the Nazi terror and few families don’t have a very personal connection to that conflict.  My wife’s mother lost her father, a fighter pilot, but they don’t know when or where.  The German army occupied the Crimea for some time and there are heroic monuments all over the place.  I often drive past the beach where Soviet troops stormed ashore in their bid to retake this valuable place.  I often see old men, their chests filled with medals, as they celebrate once again their great victories.  They call the war “The Great Patriotic War” ... not a title one can quibble about.  My friends universally believe the USSR won the war ... everyone else contributed little or nothing.  They point to the above number and laugh at the 300-400K soldiers America lost.  In their eyes, we did nothing.

There is a dark side to this fascination.  They cannot let go of the fear and apprehension.  They see bad guys behind every tree.  They tend to be paranoid about security.  It makes conversation and agreement difficult when one party is deeply suspicious all the time.  I am not glad that Putin chose to restart the parades.  It is time for this part of the world to make peace and to stop looking over their shoulders all the time.  Paranoia is a bad thing when held for so long.

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By Paul_GA, June 8, 2010 at 4:57 am Link to this comment

Of course, this country has problems escaping its own past. It can’t free itself from its Cold-War mentality, and thus feels the need to maintain the military-industrial complex and its self-image as the “bulwark of the West” and the “bright-shining city on top of a hill”, even if it means national collapse due to imperial overstretch.

And as for criticizing another country, I would note that the Lord said, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

Pots should not call kettles black, nor should those who dwell in glass houses throw stones.

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