Saturday, February 27, 2010

Russia reflects on sixty-five years since the Soviet Union's World War Two victory

This online supplement is produced and published by Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russia), which takes sole responsibility for the content. 

Alexander Mekhanik, Expert magazine

Something has changed in Russia. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the values on which Soviet society was based – and after two decades of hard times – the search is on for a firm footing in values and ideology. Attention has focused on the Second World War, especially the question of what we were fighting for.
It seems, in Russia and in the rest of the world, that there are two points of view about the war. The first holds that Stalin's regime was undoubtedly tyrannical, but the war was fought for humanitarian values and freedom. The Soviet Union made a decisive contribution to the victory of these values, though it was certainly no showcase for them.

The second may be called the revisionist one, that the Second World War was in fact two wars: the one on the Western Front a battle for democratic ideals and freedom; the other, on the Eastern Front, between tyrants seeking to oppress and enslave nations.

One Russian political analyst has even written that, while the Western allies were fighting for democratic ideals, most people in the Soviet Union had little idea of either democracy or Nazism, and were simply fighting for the Motherland. And even then they thought long and hard before fighting: Stalin's regime had so "exhausted" them that many were ready simply to surrender. This, in part, explains why Russia lost the early stages of the war.
Most Soviet citizens fought simply for their Motherland, with no thought of ideology; the same can be said about most people in the anti-Nazi countries and those who fought in the Resistance. It is true that all the enemies of Germany and Japan also lost ground in the early stages of the war.

If one pursues the logic further, then, evidently, the French, as well as the Czechs, Belgians, Dutch and others, had been "exhausted" by democracy. That isn't too far from the truth: democratic positions, as we now know, were seriously undermined throughout Europe as a result of the First World War and the Great Depression. This preordained the victory of the fascists and the Nazis in Italy and Germany.

One shouldn't forget that the younger Soviet generation supported the regime because it had allowed them to have educations and careers that before had been off-limits to them. They were fighting, if you will, for the Soviet Dream, for anyone having the chance to become, if not general secretary of the Communist Party, then at least a marshal or a people's commissar.

Who was the backbone of the Resistance in France? Supporters of de Gaulle and the communists. De Gaulle could not be called a consistent democrat. In his youth he was, after all, close to the right-wing thinker Charles Maurras.

The countries that conducted a real underground partisan battle and put up a genuinely fierce resistance to the Germans were ones that had not been especially democratic before Nazism: Poland, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece. Resistance leaders in these countries, such as Josip Tito and Enver Hoxha, could hardly be called democrats.

Indeed, only a small group of countries were then democracies, and far from contemporary notions of what a true democracy should be. Think of segregation in the United States; think of the state of human rights in British, French and other European colonies. In Eastern Europe there was real democracy only in Czechoslovakia: in Poland you had the Sanacja regime; in Lithuania Smetona's dictatorship; in Latvia Ulmanis's dictatorship; in Hungary you had the dictatorship of Horthy; and in Romania that of Antonescu.

Indeed, it's not a question of the moods of the warring countries, their citizens and leaders, or of their political systems: it's a question of the objective nature of a war which, from the point of view of the anti-Hitler coalition, was a war to preserve humanitarian and democratic values; a war for freedom in the highest sense of the word. This does not change the nature of the Soviet regime and its crimes, or the crimes of the English and the French in their colonies, or the discrimination against blacks and the lynch mobs in the US.

The question of what the communists were fighting for or, more broadly, the question of the values of communists in the USSR and in Europe is far more complex. The Russian Revolution was brought about by people who believed that the road they had chosen was the only possible road to a consistent democracy combining political and social freedoms.

During the Second World War those same people believed that they were fighting for their ideals. This is the fundamental difference between communism and fascism/Nazism, which in principle rejected democracy as an institution. One has only to compare the works of classic communists, from Marx to Lenin, with those of fascists/Nazis, such as Maurras, Mussolini, Hitler, et al.

It is not just the attitude toward democracy; it is the common spirit of universalism, humanism and cosmopolitanism that distinguished classic communism from the spirit of anti-humanism and chauvinism in fascism. Despite all the transformations, Soviet communism in those years still reflected classic values.

However one feels about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it did not run counter to the logic of the behaviour of leading countries in Europe at the time toward fascist Germany. From Britain to Poland and from Norway to Greece, all were trying to come to an understanding with Hitler behind each other's backs and at each other's expense.

First, the socialists and liberals of France, conservatives and labourites in Britain, and their European colleagues betrayed the Spanish Republic led by fellow socialists and liberals by allowing it to be torn apart by German and Italian fascists.

Then England and France, along with Poland and Hungary, betrayed Czechoslovakia. And between these betrayals they closed their eyes to Hitler's annexation of Austria. What could the Soviet leadership expect from such players? Another betrayal.

When France and England (after Germany invaded Poland) declared war, they were "just pretending". Small wonder that this war came to be known as the phoney war. This, evidently, is what Stalin was afraid of when he concluded his pact with Hitler: in the West there would be a pretend war, but in the East there would be a real one.

To all appearances, Stalin foresaw an extended war in the West and did not want to be left alone with Hitler. A highly rational, if not always highly moral, foreign policy combined with a domestic policy that was irrational in its terrorism: that was the trademark Stalinist style.

If the irrational anti-Semitism of the Nazis can be attributed to centuries-old prejudices peculiar to all of Europe, then the Stalinist terror cannot be attributed to anything but fear: fear of the ruling classes of old Russia that had suffered defeat in the Civil War; fear of the enemies real and imagined in one's own party; fear of the anarchic element in the peasantry, and so on. These fears were in part justified, but they assumed a paranoid form.

Responding to criticisms that he and Khrushchev did not do enough to expose Stalin's crimes, former first deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan reportedly said: "We couldn't do that because then everyone would have known what scoundrels we were."

That, too, is the difference between communism and Nazism: the communist scoundrels understood who they were because they realised the gulf separating them from the ideals they revered; the Nazis liked being scoundrels – that was their ideal.

Many historians and politicians in the new countries that rose from the ruins of the Soviet Union justify the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists and Lithuanian guerrillas on two fronts during the Second World War (against the Nazis and the communists) by saying that neither side in this "clash of tyrants" was better than the other; that these members of small nations were simply fighting tyranny. This is disingenuous: similar formations fought on the side of the Nazis and only towards the end of the Third Reich did they attempt to feign resistance.

The Second World War was no ordinary war. It was possibly the only war in history that was fought against absolute evil, a fight that united idealists defending their ideals, cynics defending their interests, and even scoundrels trying to incinerate their sins in the flames of a great struggle.

Together, they were all, like all the people who fought in that war, defending their Motherland, their life and their home in the present and the future – freedom for themselves and all mankind.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Soviet People’s Experience WWII

Defeating the Nazis became the animating force for everything in Soviet society for the next four years. The need to defend Mother Russia became everyone’s duty in the face of Hitler’s barbarism, and the building of socialism, so long trumpeted on the pages of the Soviet press, faded away. The result was the rapid development of a mosaic of moods among the Soviet peoples. Russian historians have recently argued that the events of June 1941 awoke in the Soviet people the ability to think about variants, to critically evaluate a situation, and not to take the existing order as immutable. The effort to repel the Nazis also meant that, at least at the local level of Soviet life, the democratic centralism of Lenin and Stalin’s party was no longer tenable. The key criterion for becoming a Soviet leader was no longer a person’s party loyalty, but rather his or her contributions to the work of the front. Out in the provinces, the Communist leaders were told to train their subordinates in the following fashion: the party is interested in having people think, and stop instructing the masses and learn from them.

That life in the Soviet Union would now be shaped by the real interests of ordinary people was a big change from the 1930s, when life had been shaped by their imaginary desires, and Stalin’s terror squads had made sure the elites worked to meet them. Meanwhile, Hitler’s armies were well on their way toward Leningrad, Moscow, and central Ukraine by July 1941. Leningrad was soon surrounded and would be under siege for the next three and a half years as 1.5 million Leningrad residents starved to death in the process. The main reason Moscow did not suffer the same fate was Hitler’s decision to concentrate his efforts on capturing Ukraine with its fertile fields, coal mines, ferrous metals resources, and strategic access to the oilfields of the Caucasus. Although the Red Army’s successful counterattacks were another major reason for tl1is diversion to the south, there can be little doubt that Ukraine was also the area that Hitler prized most as the perfect lebensraum for the German people. And such strategic and racial motivations also help explain why Hitler did not take advantage of his being greeted as a liberator by the peoples of western Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Baltic states who had suffered so much from the Nazi—Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

Although the Nazis treated these peoples as "lesser-beings” (untermenschen) from the start and would not allow them any rights whatsoever, what really convinced the Ukrainians and others of 1·litler’s malevolent intentions toward the Soviet people was the German army’s treatment of its Red Army POWs and the occupied Jewish population. ln places such as Kiev, where 650,000 Soviet troops were surrounded in September 1941 after a spirited defense of the Ukrainian capital and the Dnieper River region, perhaps two-thirds of the Soviet POWs died of hunger in Nazi captivity. lt was amid the euphoria of such victories in fall 1941 that the Hitlerites devised their Final Solution to rid these captured areas of their "great misfortune"—the Jews. ln the end, almost half the Jews who died in the Holocaust (some 2.5 million people) were Soviet citizens. Importantly, some of these people died in ways more ghastly than the gas chambers of Poland—mass machine gunning was the most popular method used—as the Nazis, the Wehrmacht (or German army), and a still unknown number of local collaborators experimented with methods of killing to find the most efficient way to achieve genocide. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the surviving Ukrainian and Belorussian civilian populations could only hope for the return of the Stalinists and an authoritarian rule that they understood and might be able to manipulate to their advantage.

ln the face of such calamities, Stalin’s effort to maintain control over the Russian rear certainly did not show any relaxation of his coercive methods. Red Army men who surrendered, for example, were said to be traitors and were liable to court-martial. Meanwhile, Communist Party members who remained behind on occupied territory were automatically suspect, and if for some reason they crossed back into Soviet-held territory, they were subject to a rigorous check of their backgrounds. Workers who violated the 1940 labor legislation on tardiness, absenteeism, or the prohibition of movement from one job to another could be hauled before a military tribunal and the same eventually became true for those civilians who ignored compulsory labor mobilizations, responsibilities that impacted everyone but the elderly and the mothers of young children.

Stalin’s epic mistakes on the battlefield were soon overshadowed by Hitler’s own bungling, and the Soviets found themselves with a second chance. The Nazi leader’s earlier decision not to take Moscow ensured that fighting for the Russian capital would take place in the winter, only after the Soviets had had enough time to prepare their defenses. Nevertheless, it was mainly the desperate resistance and simple patriotism of rapidly enlisted men and rearguard troops that saved Moscow in winter 1941-1942 from the Wehrmacht’s ”Army Group Center”  But the GKO’s incredibly centralized, command-and-administer system also allowed for the Ural and western Siberian economies to be quickly mobilized to meet the needs of the front. This was particularly important in winter 1941-1942 because the strategic Lend-Lease aid from the Soviet Union’s new American ally would not substantively help the Soviet war effort for another year. Even so, Stalin’s refusal to let his more able generals lead the efforts at the front resulted in yet more devastating defeats in spring 1942, with the Nazis now occupying all of Ukraine and moving toward their strategic goal of taking southern Russia and the Caucasus.

Here again, though, the Soviets were saved from themselves by Hitler’s hubris. The Nazi leader’s greatest strategic mistake came with his decision to try to destroy the besieged city of Stalingrad in fall 1942 in order to deal a public relations blow to the "man of steel." Hitler could have concentrated his efforts on occupying the Caucasus and Kuban (Russia’s own breadbasket) and exploiting their petroleum and agricultural resources in order to solidify his rule over his new eastern empire. But he went after Stalingrad in an effort to inflict a decisive blow against the Kremlin leader’s omnipotent presence in Soviet society. Stalin recognized the stakes too, and after a year of terrible retreat, he finally decided to listen to his generals and make a stand at this city lying along the Volga River The crucial point here is that the Wehrmacht was spread too thin by this time; Hitler did not have the resources necessary to continue his blitzkrieg. The Wehrmacht’s supply lines, for example, were stretched to the breaking point. Thus, the Soviets were eventually able to surround the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad and destroy it after Hitler stubbornly refused to let Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus retreat. This was the beginning of the end for the Germans—the crucial turning point in the war—where the logistics of what they were doing caught up with them. Hitler’s refusal to fully mobilize his own people and l1is murderous treatment of the untermenschen now meant the fighting initiative went over to the Soviet side.

Meanwhile, Hitler’s refusal to demand sacrifice from his own population resulted in anger and embitterment among the occupied Ukrainians and Belorussians as their sons and daughters were shipped to Germany to become slave laborers (Ostarbeitery). As the Soviets loomed on the eastern horizon, the Germans liberalized their agricultural policy by dissolving Stalin’s hated collective farms; however, at the same time, they were also stripping these areas of anything of value. Not only did the Germans seize raw materials, but they also took tools and macl1ines from factories and valuables from the republics’ museums and private apartments as well. One result of all this was a huge expansion in the forest—based anti—Nazi guerilla movement during 1943. True, many of these partisan fighters were motivated by a desire to curry favor with the advancing Red Army; but in the westernmost regions of the Soviet Union’s post—1939 borders, many partisans were there to fight sincerely for their nation’s political independence as Europe’s two totalitarian empires clashed. These "forest brothers," many of whom were as hostile to Moscow as they were to Berlin, would eventually be crushed by the NKVD after war’s end. However, their bravery and unhappy end deepened the hostility that many subject peoples felt toward Moscow.