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Russia still struggles with a violent past, 70 years after the defeat of Nazism

When Vladimir Putin reviews the troops marking the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory of Nazism, he won’t have many leaders of democratic nations to accompany him. EPA/Alexey Druzhinin/ RIA NOVOSTI

When Vladimir Putin reviews the passing troops on Red Square on May 9, he will do so in the absence of the leaders of many democratic nations. To date, the US President, the German Chancellor, and many of Eastern Europe’s dignitaries have already declared they will not attend Putin’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Nazism.

No official list of acceptances of the 68 invitations to Russia’s historic victory parade is currently available.

These decisions were triggered by Russian actions in Ukraine. In the absence of other leaders, Putin might be able to rub shoulders with a new buddy: North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

This boycott of Victory Day celebrations by “the West” is both painful and necessary. Who could review troops together with the man who ordered the invasion of Crimea and continues to support the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine?

And yet, for most Russians this embargo will be more than a snub of their elected president. It will be seen as yet another slap in the face of Mother Russia. The memory of the Great Patriotic War, as the war against Nazi Germany from 1941-1945 is still called, is the most important building block of Russian national consciousness.

The problem with the great victory narrative

Victory over Nazi Germany is one unambiguously positive accomplishment of the 20th century; and yet, constructing a positive narrative about the Soviet second world war has proven hard – largely because there are some stubborn facts to contend with (and stubborn historians, who keep pointing them out).

Irritatingly, for example, the second world war in Europe did not begin when the Nazis victimised the Soviets in 1941, but in 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. German aggression was aided by the Molotov-Ribbentrop (or Hitler-Stalin) Pact of the same year.

In its wake, Stalin assisted Hitler in carving up Poland in 1939, before waging war on Finland in 1939-40, and moving to take over Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, as well as Bessarabia and the Northern Bukovina in 1940. The brutality of these annexations – the arrests, deportations, executions – prevent an unambiguously positive narrative of the Soviet Union’s second world war.

Coming to terms with this complicated past is not easy, despite the sometimes heroic efforts of liberal intellectuals and historians. An increasing number of Russians, hence, choose denial and amnesia over critical engagement.

According to a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 14% of respondents last year thought that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was “a falsification,” up from 9% in 2005. Meanwhile, the share of those who believed in what had actually taken place declined from 43 to 39%.

More sophisticated are polemics that do not try to deny, but to relativise the Soviet conduct in the second world war – a line of argument President Putin also embraces.

These become increasingly popular in blogs and are regularly hurled at opponents on Twitter. One line is to equate the Hitler-Stalin pact with the Munich agreement of 1938, when Britain and France (assisted by Fascist Italy) tried to evade war by allowing Hitler to annex part of Czechoslovakia.

Russian nationalists now call this the “Munich Pact” in order to stress the alleged similarity with the one between Hitler and Stalin.

A second line is to claim that making secret deals and annexing other countries was simply how international politics worked at the time. It was “normal.”

Beyond 1941

That nationalists prefer a glorified past over black armbands should come as no surprise. Moreover, Russians do have something to be proud of once we move to 1941 and beyond.

The war in Europe was essentially won by the Red Army. More German divisions were disabled here, more military equipment destroyed, and more German soldiers killed than anywhere else.

Well before the Allies landed in mainland Italy in September 1943 and Normandy in June of the following year, the Soviets had first stopped, then beaten the German army in the battles of Moscow (1941-42), Stalingrad (1942-43), and Kursk (July 1943).

It was the Red Army, which captured Berlin in 1945 and the Nazi regime to surrender unconditionally.

These victories came at an immense price. The suffering and the losses sustained were unimaginable. More people were killed in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 than today reside in Australia. The physical damage – towns, villages, infrastructure destroyed – was such that the Soviet economy never really recovered from it.

The victory of the multi-ethnic Red Army

To appropriate this history as an exclusively “Russian” past, however, is misleading.

All of Ukraine and all of Belorussia was occupied by the Germans, while only part of the Russian Republic was. The occupied territories were subject to the most terrifying occupation regime of recent memory, and Soviet Jews to extermination.

As with victimhood, so with heroism: It was not a “Russian” army that saved Europe from Fascism, it was the multi-ethnic Red Army.

Jewish Red Army men died heroically and in significant numbers. So did other nationalities, current Russian images of their neighbours’ wartime record notwithstanding.

Three times as many Lithuanians served in the Red Army than alongside the Germans. Ukrainians also had a larger contingent fight against than with Hitler. Belorussia’s share of collaborators was dwarfed by the numbers in Red Army ranks.

Most of these soldiers, of course, were not volunteers – but neither was the majority of Russian fighters.

As Russian nationalists try to commandeer this victory, and those elsewhere in Eastern Europe resist this usurpation, the anniversary of 70 years of victory over Nazi Germany deepens the divisions in Eastern Europe.

The Victory Day boycott pushes Putin’s Russia further away from what is again called “the West.” This is a source of sadness for anybody who cares about Russia, about Eastern Europe, and about the open society.

But realistically, with Russia continuing to demonstrate that it is unwilling to respect the borders in the region, reconciliation over this terrible past is unlikely.

The Conversation is currently running a series looking at the history and nature of violence.

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