Narrative X-ray: The Great Patriotic War

02.10.2023

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In this narrative X-ray, we shed light on one of the root myths of today’s Russia – the story of the Great Patriotic War and the self-sacrificing victory of the Soviet people over the fascist invaders who desired the freedom of European nations.

During the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union freed Europe from the brown plague of fascism at the cost of the blood sacrifice of its heroes, and for this, the whole world should be forever grateful to Russia as the rightful successor of the then superpower. This is exactly the kind of story that has been told in the territory of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Second World War, and this narrative flows like an unbroken river from Russian propaganda channels to this day.

How did the story of the Great Patriotic War come about?

The term “patriotic war” (Russian: Отечественная война) was first used as early as 1844 and denoted the Russo-French War of 1812. It can be found in Vissarion Belinski’s essay “Russian Literature in 1843”, first published in volume 32 of the Russian literary journal Otechestvennye Zapiski.

After 1914, the expression was applied to the First World War. This was the name given to a special wartime supplement of the magazine “Theater and Life” (Театр и жизнь) published in St. Petersburg, and it referred to the Eastern Front of the First World War, where Russia fought against the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The term in its current sense was first introduced by Yemelyan Yaroslavski, editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda, on June 23, 1941, the day after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. A long article written by him was entitled “The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet People” (Великая отечественная война советского народа). Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Red Empire at the time, also used it in his radio address to the Soviet people on July 3, 1941.

In May 1942, the Soviet Union established the Order of the Patriotic War, which was awarded for heroic deeds in war. At the end of the Second World War, the narrative of the Great Patriotic War became one of the core texts of the Soviet Union, which was confirmed with religious devotion in countless war movies, series, books, and patriotic songs, remembered at all kinds of festive events, taught at every level of education, shown in all museums, monuments to which were erected in every inhabited point, eternal lights were lit and was referenced daily on radio, television and newspapers.

What story does it tell us?

The “Great Patriotic War” narrative celebrates the victory over Hitler’s Germany in 1945 as the most important event in history, portraying it as the turning point that elevated the Soviet Union to superpower status. This myth also carries a strong messianic message: it portrays the Soviet Union as a country that fulfilled a unique mission to save the world from absolute evil. Europe, according to this view, exists today only because of those Soviet soldiers and officers who paid the ultimate price in ridding Europe of the brown plague of fascism.

In his Victory Day speech on May 9, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “Soviet people (…) freed European countries from the brown plague.” Nine years earlier, on May 9, 2012, he declared: “Our country (…) offered freedom to the nations of the world.” And in a televised address on February 24, 2022, Putin justified the invasion of Ukraine by the need to continue Russia’s historic mission as a liberator of the world from fascism, “The result of World War II is sacred.”

This narrative tells us the story of a peace-loving giant who certainly does not start any wars himself but ends them all when necessary. According to the Stalinist interpretation of history, which today’s masters of Russia have taken over and carved into law, Nazi Germany treacherously invaded the peace-loving Soviet Union, which was simply forced to protect its borders and then help other European nations, without the slightest desire to conquer or subjugate anyone to its will.

According to this logic, Russia consistently protests and rejects critical assessments of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, calling the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed before the war, a lie – thus denying the Soviet Union’s co-responsibility for the outbreak of the war – as well as the attacks against Poland and Finland committed during the war, the annexation of the Baltic states, the execution of about 22,000 Polish soldiers and intellectuals in the bloodshed of Katyn, mass terror against the citizens of the Soviet Union and the inhabitants of the newly annexed areas, etc.

The narrative portrays the role of the Soviet Army in the neighbouring countries in 1944-1945 as a clear liberator from Nazi German occupation. For years, Moscow has protested against alleged “distortions of historical truth” by Russia’s neighbours who refuse to accept the triumphant rhetoric of “liberation”.

Who is it aimed at?

The narrative of the Great Patriotic War has three main target groups. In particular, it was historically and still is today aimed at domestic use. After all, they had to somehow explain to their citizens more than 20 million people who died in war and repressions. This colossal loss of human life and the social trauma of war must have had some sacred purpose to make it at least bearable. As the other side of the same coin, it was necessary to distance oneself from anything that could indicate complicity in the outbreak of war.

The narrative of the Soviet hero soldier, the liberator of Europe, is raising more and more generations of citizens who, if necessary, are ready to take up arms and go to war for their homeland, and to fight heroically in foreign countries against imaginary fascism. And also to endure losses, because they are for the sake of a holy, justified cause, as the ancestors painted as saints endured in the Great Patriotic War. It also gives people the opportunity to identify themselves as citizens of a great and powerful country that defeated fascism and to whom the whole world should feel a debt of gratitude. Since the victory of 1945 is really the only historical event that speaks to a large part of society, it helps to overcome – at least partially – the social fragmentation from the Soviet era, so that Russians feel united and rely on the government.

The second target group is post-Soviet societies and compatriots living in foreign countries. Russia uses the “Great Patriotic War” narrative and talks about brotherhood in arms to support its “Russian world” narrative, which was discussed in an earlier narrative x-ray. It also denigrates opponents of Russian hegemony, associating them with “fascists”. Its aim is to force the neighbours to integrate economically, politically and militarily with Russia. However, this strategy has so far not yielded significant results and has often proved counterproductive.

The third target group is the “collective West”, that is, the political elite and societies of Europe and the United States. For them, it paints a picture of a country that, despite huge losses, was able to mobilize itself and finally walk over the mountains of corpses to victory. Whether Russia lost 20 or 27 million people in the war – it had the highest number of war casualties of any of the countries involved in the war, even in percentage terms falling behind only Poland (and perhaps Lithuania). And finally, throughout history, there have been people in the West who, believing this narrative, have felt a debt of gratitude or guilt towards the Soviet Union and its legal successor, Russia for the victory over fascism.

What are its goals?

Russian memory politics consists of ideas and practices designed to shape collective memory and historical discourse in ways that serve the political interests of the ruling elite.
The messianic myth of saving the world from absolute evil should hide the darkest chapters of Soviet history and justify all the Soviet or Russian wars and military interventions of yesterday, today and tomorrow, from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan to Syria and Ukraine. According to the current neo-Soviet interpretation, all these military actions were purely defensive and caused by external factors.

Over time, the emphasis in the narrative of the Great Patriotic War has shifted more and more to the military, triumphal side, neglecting the human dimension of the war. War is associated with mighty military parades rather than the suffering of the people. State propaganda flaunts military and patriotic symbols, which often leads to the carnivalization and trivialization of the war theme in society and public participation in strongly ideologized rituals. Its overall goal is to make those influenced by the narrative see the use of force as a natural and legitimate tool in Russian foreign policy. And themselves, if necessary, as the executors of this policy.

At the center of the narrative of the Great Patriotic War, as the name suggests, has been primarily the bravery and selflessness of the Soviet soldier, the genius of the Soviet leaders and the bravery of the Soviet people in enduring hardships. The role of the Allies in the fight against fascism has been rather modest and has gradually decreased over time. Today, in the propaganda channels of the Kremlin, no one talks about the massive economic aid of the allies to the Soviet Union. The message is clear – we can do it alone, despite all the difficulties – we will endure and in the end, we will still win.

How is it going at the moment?

With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, a temporary crack appeared in the Stalinist approach to the history of the “Great Patriotic War”. Russia’s short-lived period of openness and democracy in the first half of the 90s of the last century partially opened the archives of the Russian Ministry of Defense for a short time. This allowed the Russian historians who had access to them (P. Aptekar, M. Meltjuhhov, T. Bushuyeva, M. Solonin, B. Sokolov, D. Hmelnitski, A. Gogun, J. Felštinski, A. Pronin, L. Lopuhovski, V. Bešanov and others) to discover to a large extent the truth about what happened in the Soviet Union in 1939-1941, writes retired General Ants Laaneots in an article published in 2020.
In Putin’s Russia, however, there was a fairly quick return to the Stalinist approach to history, and the current national security strategy of the Russian Federation describes attempts to “revise Russia’s role in history” as a threat to national security. In 2014, the Russian parliament passed a law criminalizing the “deliberate dissemination of false information about the actions of the Soviet Union during World War II.” This can lead to imprisonment of up to five years.

However, there are some differences compared to Soviet times. Until the end of the 1980s, the Soviet authorities consistently denied the existence of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which led to the outbreak of World War II and divided Central and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, but in Putin’s Russia, the attitude towards this pact has become increasingly positive. In May 2015, at a joint press conference with Angela Merkel, Putin strongly and unequivocally praised the pact, calling it vital to the national security of the Soviet Union. In 2019, a copy of the Soviet side of the Pact’s secret protocols was also publicly displayed for the first time at an exhibition on the beginning of World War II.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, the narrative of the fight against fascism intensified in the Moscow channels, and if you believe the former President of Russia, the current Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, something comparable to the Great Patriotic War is going on in Ukraine right now. “He’s still good, that dead-faced Borrell. I remembered that our country defeated Napoleon and Hitler. Note that he himself made the analogy. Consequently, Ukrainian Nazis and Western Europe are direct descendants of those who fought against Russia. And the war with them is therefore a new patriotic war. And victory is with us. As in 1812 and 1945,” he announced in his tweet posted at the beginning of the year. The worse things get for the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine, the more vigorously the Kremlin’s propaganda channels try to process their followers.

Outside of Russian diaspora groups, the messianic narrative of Soviet victory has always had marginal influence, as all other societies that participated in World War II have developed their own comprehensive narratives about the conflict. Thanks to historical research and various public debates, they are much less prejudiced and ideologically charged than the Russian narrative.