Another anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe came and went with the now usual disgruntlement bubbling between Russia and all the other participants. This year was notable for Russian parliamentarians introducing a bill into the Duma to ban any comparisons between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, denying the former’s “decisive role” in the defeat of the latter, and, more broadly, the historical “truth” of “the humanitarian mission of the U.S.S.R. in the liberation of European countries.” During the official commemorations in Moscow, Putin noted growing Russophobia and praised Russia’s war contribution in language perfectly in accordance with the spirit of the proposed law:
We shall always remember that this noble feat (defeat of the Nazis) was committed precisely by the Soviet people.
At the most difficult time of war, in decisive battles which determined the outcome of the battle against Fascism, our people was alone – alone in the laborious, heroic and sacrificial path towards victory.
“Alone” was Putin’s personal substitution for “united” in the original draft. Russia’s (or the Soviet) role in the ultimate victory has always been considered very significant if not decisive – now it is sole and exclusive. The fact that upwards of 27 million Soviet citizens perished in the Second World War is beyond dispute; it’s a testament to the brutality of the Nazi aggressors, committed as they were to the extermination of a large proportion of those conquered, as well as to the brutality of the Communist defenders, for whom human life was the cheapest of all commodities at their disposal. Putting aside a non-insignificant number of those who had died as a result of Stalin’s, as opposed to Hitler’s, decisions and actions, the focus on the ultimate sacrifice of some 8 million Red Army troops says as much about the often suicidal courage of individuals as it does about the criminal behaviour of their military and civilian superiors. That for much of the war, up to 10 Soviet soldiers were dying for every German one is not something that any decent and reasonable person should be proud of and celebrating; it’s an indictment of tactical and strategic stupidity, logistical backwardness, and psychopathic disdain for one’s own people. Considering the Soviet population was only twice as large as that of the Reich, Stalin was lucky he did not run out of men before Hitler run out of time.
For Putin, of course, the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War, only starts in mid-1941, with Germany’s treacherous attack on the Soviet Union. Mind you, he would not use the word “treacherous” as that suggests a betrayal of an ally, which the Soviet Union was for nearly two years – a historical fact that Putin wants us all to forget, and his pliant parliamentarians want to ban. A victim in 1941, the Soviet Union was a co-aggressor in 1939, with Stalin carving up Central and Eastern Europe with Hitler. At a rather insignificant cost in blood as far as the Soviet standards were concerned (the Wehrmacht did most of the heavy lifting), Stalin gained the western parts of Belarus and Ukraine, a chunk of Romania, as well as the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The Soviet invasion of eastern Poland on 17 September 1939 did not affect the ultimate outcome – Poland’s defeat – but it shortened the campaign by weeks, by denying the Polish Army the opportunity of a fighting retreat towards the vast south-east of the country. It was Poland that could just as easily say it was alone “at the most difficult time of war”, since its allies Britain and France chose to provide all the support short of assistance as its two powerful neighbours steamrolled from the west, the south, the north – and eventually also the east. The Western inaction rather than the Soviet action is to blame for the course of war, but that is no reason to give Russia a free pass for Stalin’s dastardry.
If Poland faced its greatest peril alone, so did Britain a year later. After all, as a good ally, the Soviet Union supplied Germany with large quantities of food and natural resources for nearly two years between August 1939 and June 1941. German soldiers and airmen who attacked Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Great Britain in April 1940 and after were eating Soviet food while riding on vehicles made of Soviet raw materials and powered with Soviet fuel. There was no “second front” for Britain and France in 1940; Germany’s back in the east was safe and secure. And so for a year after the fall of France, Britain too was all “alone… at the most difficult time of war”, fighting the Axis powers in the skies over home, in the waters of the Atlantic, and in the deserts of north Africa. Stalin, as soon as Hitler invaded in 1941, would hypocritically demand of Britain (and soon after America) the second front in Europe, and would castigate his new-found allies for their tardiness for three years until the D-Day. It certainly took a while, but at least Britain wasn’t supplying Hitler’s war effort in the meantime.
It is those three years that Putin considers the Soviet Union stood and fought alone against Nazism. There is no doubt that in terms of sheer manpower and resources, the Eastern Front was the main game of the Second World War; most of those who died, whether in or because of the fighting, died in “the bloodlands” between Berlin and Moscow. This is where the titanic struggle took place – Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kursk and hundreds of others – this is where the Holocaust and the mass-murder and starvation of millions upon millions of Slav civilians (20 in the Soviet Union, 3 in Poland, and so on) unfolded. The Allies were fighting – the air war over Europe, on and under the sea in the Battle of the Atlantic, in the defence of Egypt, and then the invasion of north-west Africa, Sicily and Italy. Perhaps more importantly, they kept supplying the Soviet Union with vast quantities of resources and material throughout the years of struggle, including, in the end, much of Red Army’s motorised transport. Unlike the Soviet Union, too, America and Britain were fighting a war on two fronts, in Europe and the Mediterranean as well as in Asia and the Pacific. The Allies only got their second front against Japan in August 1945, after the outcome was beyond doubt but an opportunity to snatch some of the Japanese territory still extant.
No one should begrudge or question the major role the Soviet Union played in defeating Nazi Germany. Equally, no one should accept Russia’s simplistic, nuance-free and self-congratulatory view of the war where nothing happens before 1941, the communists are the only good guys, and Eastern Europe is “liberated” by the Red Army in 1945. Barbarossa was Stalin’s comeuppance – though in real life what the leaders deserve it’s their long-suffering people that end up getting good and hard – and to borrow from Henry Kissinger, it was a pity that in the Nazi-Soviet war both sides could not lose. If Putin wonders about ambiguity shared then and now by many outside of Russia he should recall the odious nature of the Soviet regime, in 1941 fresh from murdering somewhere between 15 and 30 million of its own (and neighbouring) people. If someone does not like you, they might be the problem; if no one likes you, you are most likely the problem. All the talk of the growing Russophobia cannot disguise the fact that much of Europe has genuine reasons to be concerned about a saber-rattling Russia with chips on its shoulders and an unapologetically rosy view of its imperial and totalitarian past. It’s not because everyone else is a fascist, it’s because you are an asshole.