Forgetting June 22, 1941

Sixty-Six years ago tomorrow, Adolf Hitler put Operation Barbarossa into action. The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union with initial overwhelming success. What Stalin knew, when he did, and what he did about it continues to be hotly debated. Like most topics in Soviet history, scholars are in a struggle to wrestle the Soviet response to the Nazi invasion from the politics of the Cold War. But these issues are for the most part academic and have little bearing on societies wider remembrance of June 22, 1941.

The real weight of WWII on Russia’s consciousness is difficult to measure. Opinion pulls show that 64% of Russians lost relatives in the war. Millions and millions of Soviet citizens were mobilized in the war effort. If there ever was a historical example of total war, Soviet Russia is it. However, this generation is now dying. When I was working in the Riazan Party Archive, the reading room head told me how she was working on a multi-volume encyclopedia of the biographies of Riazantsy who died at the front. She would call these old veterans at home urging them to give their testimony. Often she would yell because most couldn’t hear her of simply didn’t understand why she was calling. It is estimated that over 400,000 Riazantsy went to the front. Less than half returned. The window for collecting these remembrances, she surmised, was quickly closing. She estimated that she had about 5 years before all veterans were dead. As it stands, the encyclopedia is around 12 volumes.

The threat of forgetting is what RIA Novosti political analyst Maxim Krans finds so disconcerting. Statistics show that the memory of June 22, 1941 is being forgotten by Russia’s younger generation.

Seven years ago, I helped to conduct a poll of senior high school students in four Russian cities with dismaying results. Only 34% of the respondents knew when the war began; 93% said American, British and French forces had aided the Red Army in the capture of Berlin; and 81% knew nothing about the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.

The situation has probably gotten worse since then. Only 20% of students polled in Krasnoyarsk, a city in Eastern Siberia, could say anything about the events of June 22, 1941. A sample survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, an influential pollster, involving Russians aged from 18 to 35 yielded similar results. It looks like all these people are suffering from amnesia.

For him, this forgetting is one of the underlying roots of neo-Nazi revival in Russia. “According to the Public Opinion Foundation,” Krans writes, “15% of young people believe that Nazism as a system of views has some positive aspects. When asked what would have happened to the U.S.S.R. in the event of a German victory, 33% of university students in Moscow said the defeat would not have had any negative consequences. Over 10% said national living standards would have improved, and 5% virtually praised a hypothetical German victory.” These views are made all the more concrete when you consider that the human rights group SOVA recorded 32 murders and 245 persons injured at the hands of extremists in January-May 2007 alone. Legal deterrence is minor since most of these crimes continue to be prosecuted as hooliganism.

Sure the war continues to be a central theme for remembering and celebration on holidays. But it appears, if Krans statistics are correct, that the memories those holidays seeks to induce are being performed by rote or simply lack the emotional substance to make the trauma of the past an inescapable weight on the present. Could it be that the pageantry around the celebration of WWII in Russia really yet another Potemkin village?