Putin’s cult of commemoration keeps Russians enslaved

Russians killed in war have long been a state resource, exploited by politicians through the ages – including Vladimir Putin. The opposite is also true; when it is expedient, leaders hide, deny or minimise the human costs of military conflict.

Stalingrad, 1942.
Stalingrad, 1942. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

My Russian friends stopped writing to me after Putin launched his war. If they are not abroad by now they can’t say much by mail. I was surprised a few weeks back, then, when a question from St Petersburg popped up on my screen. Could I confirm, the author wrote, if eighteen countries of the EU had really supported Hitler during the blockade of Leningrad? Why had the whole of Europe been on Adolf Hitler’s side?

The question seemed outlandish; as a British citizen, I know how hard my country fought and what it fought against. My father’s only brother died in 1944, my family has memories of rationing and bombs. The point, however, is these facts don’t shape my daily life. They’d never prompt а letter like the one I’d just received. By contrast, Russia’s preoccupation with the Second World War is overwhelming and omnipresent. This may seem natural and obvious. The fighting was on Soviet soil, whole landscapes were destroyed. Some of the most terrible battles – Stalingrad, Kursk, the siege of Leningrad itself – were won exclusively by Soviet troops. And then there is the death toll that the Soviets sustained, currently estimated at more than twenty-seven million. The pain, the loss – they’re real and true. Such memories endure.

Except, however, they do not, or not as we might think. In the parallel reality of Russia’s state-controlled media, the memory and meaning of war are constantly manipulated for political purposes. This is not to deny the scale of wartime suffering, merely its exploitation after the fact. Restricted to the maudlin fare of Russian state TV, most viewers cannot even question the current Special Military Operation, whose myth now speaks to Russia’s sense of victimhood. They do not know what’s going on, just that it’s Europe’s fault.

This intellectual isolation, this total Russian thought-control, may seem grotesque in the era of global connectivity, but there’s nothing new about it. Ghoulish though the idea sounds, dead Russians are a state resource, exploited by any political leadership that needs them. The opposite is also true; when they think it expedient, the leaders hide, deny or minimise the human costs of war. Leonid Brezhnev did just that when his adventure in Afghanistan went wrong after 1980. The soldiers’ bodies were buried at random, not in clearly marked war graves, so that the people could not count them and keep tally for themselves. But Stalin lied about deaths, too; his mortality figure for the Great Patriotic War was a paltry seven million. In a speech made in the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev revised that figure upwards to twenty million, but even that was a cynical lie. The true cost would have cried out for a recognition of some kind; for answers, changes and even the possibility of rights. Far better to name some vague but impressive-sounding sum; what mattered was saving the leader’s face.

Just as twisted is the story of official commemoration, of memorials. Vladimir Putin is an enthusiastic wreath-layer. He was at Piskarevskoe just a few weeks ago, leading the mourning for Leningrad’s siege dead. The man is seldom far away from an eternal flame. Russia’s dead are sacred; they must be (and for millions, they are). But for the state, at times, they weren’t. The current fashion for commemoration – or the current official focus on one specific version of it – is a recent artifice. True, there have been parades of some kind every year for decades now, but they have not been consistent. The fiftieth anniversary of the victory, 9 May 1995, was certainly one that provoked complaints. ‘They didn’t even give us any decent sausage’, an old soldier protested to me, handing over the offending package. ‘And the medallion – just look. It’s not even decent metal.’ For Yeltsin’s westernising government, the Soviet legacy was a real embarrassment, but veterans, like angry ghosts, kept harking back to it. Ghosts just weren’t Yeltsin’s style.

Ghosts also walked in Stalin’s time, ghosts to be exorcised. The bones were fresh, the ashes warm, but the Kremlin resisted public commemoration of the war. Instead, the focus was on Stalin’s role and on the Five Year Plan. Khrushchev, too, kept remembrance to a respectful minimum, in part to dissipate the cult of Stalin’s personality with which it had become entwined. The widows and the amputees held to their memories, of course, but they looked dowdy against the dazzle of Sputnik. In any case, their private recollections were already being swept off in a tide of new war films. When I asked veterans for their stories, thirty years later, many unconsciously substituted the cinema versions for their own less glamorous war tales. Worse, words like fear and pain and rape had vanished from their consciences.

Then Brezhnev glorified the war. A generation on from it, live memories were fading. In their place, giant statues appeared, including those at Volgograd (Stalingrad), Leningrad and Soviet-era Kiev. Good sausage was available and so were new museums. The point was not to mourn the millions of wartime deaths, let alone to apologise for their scale. Instead, in the era of blue jeans and The Beatles, the goal was to make people proud of simply being Soviet. It didn’t work. The contrast between virile war and pallid, frail gerontocrats just sparked off more new jokes.

I don’t hear many jokes these days, or not about this war. When I see Putin, the secret police chief and thug, with a hypertrophic mourning wreath or holy candle in his fist, I’m in no mood to laugh. True, sacrifice is tricky stuff, it can inspire new life. As Stalin came to understand, the struggle to survive one war forced some people to wake up. That’s why he launched renewed repressions while the guns still burned red-hot. The act of fighting had itself turned out to be empowering. The Kremlin had to crush that spark.

‘We looked into our hearts,’ wrote the poet, David Samoilov, of the 1940s, ‘and did not find slaves there’. On this first anniversary of an unprovoked attack, our eyes are rightly on Ukraine and all it has endured. But there are other sorrows, too, and one of them, for me at least, is the unending stream of lies that keeps Russians enslaved. On the model of past conflicts, their blood should buy them freedom – that’s the theory, anyway. It won’t, of course, and can’t when they are fighting without cause. But instead of taking a risk and looking into their hearts, the odds are that, as in the past, they’ll just watch state TV.


Catherine Merridale