Staunton, April 12 – Writing in Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza a week ago, Wacław Radziwinowicz argued that Moscow’s victory in World War II has become “the new civic religion” in Russia, a suggestion that has provoked a strong negative reaction in that country with many Russians saying that the Polish journalist had insulted their national history.
On April 1, Radziwinowicz, the Polish paper’s chief Moscow correspondent, wrote in advance of the May 9 commemorations that “the cult of a Victory of 70 years ago – a word which in Russia is always written with a capital letter has been converted into the basis of a civic religion, an indisputable dogma which the state, law and church guard with all their strength”.
His article attracted the attention of many Russian media outlets, with some Russians indicating in their comments that they agreed with the Polish writer but with most sharing the views captured in the title of one article “Polish Journalist Pours Dirt on Russian History”.
Radziwinowicz has now discussed both his argument and the Russian reaction to it with Anna Plotnikova, a correspondent for VOA’s Russian Service, who also interviewed Nikita Petrov, a historian with Moscow’s Memorial organization.
The Polish correspondent tells VOA that what is happening with Victory Day is the result of Russia’s losses in the oil and gas wars, the collapse in the price of oil and the decision of Europe to find other sources for its energy needs.
“Therefore,” Radziwinowicz says, “the Russian authorities have hurried to find for themselves another source of their own legitimacy, and such a source has been found in the form of the mobilization of society.” He adds that in his opinion, “now Russian society is ready for war.”
The Kremlin has concluded that the West is not prepared to use force against it, but Moscow has not missed a chance to talk about its “nuclear potential” and readiness to “‘defend compatriots abroad,’ even if the latter do not ask to be defended.” Thus, this cult is preparing Russians for another war.
“The ideological foundation for the mobilization of its own population and the show of force is provided,” the Polish journalist says, by constant reference to the Great Fatherland War, a conflict that was holy and without flaws “when all good was on our side and all evil on the side of our opponents.”
And that imagery is maintained by sacrificing accuracy: The American use of nuclear weapons against Japan, for example, is considered a war crime even though „the Soviet Union was also at war with Japan;” and Soviet atrocities in East Prussia are simply ignored or denied altogether.
Petrov agrees. “The Great Victory is all our tradition, all our history. The Bolsheviks cut off Russians from the history of the people before 1917. With them the October Revolution was still sacred. [But] to us now the only things left to be positive about are…the taking of Berlin and the flight of Gagarin. What else can we be proud of in the last century? Nothing.”
The selective memory of Russians about the war and its consequences, he continues, reflects the fact that they “cannot imagine” that East Europeans do not share their views about the victory and are not grateful for the Soviet occupation. “’We liberated them from fascism and shared with them what we had,’ they say.”
One of the reasons for the rehabilitation of Stalin is that Vladimir Putin wants to use the conflict and its outcome in the same way Stalin did, Petrov says, privatizing and personalizing it to win unquestioned support. But the Kremlin doesn’t see that this will isolate Russia from the West for a long time to come.
Radziwinowicz for his part suggests that the West will view the rehabilitation of Stalin in a dual way. On the one hand, Western public opinion will view this as evidence that the Russians do not understand that one must not deify mass murderers. But on the other, the Western expert community will dismiss it as only Putin’s latest ideological trick.
Petrov says that the future of the Cult of Victory and any possibility that it will cease to be “a civic religion” for Russians depends not so much on the passing of time but on the policies of the Russian government. At present, however, no change in those policies appears to be in the offing.
Instead, the Memorial leader says, the war that ended 70 years ago “will soon cease to be the most important theme and its place will be occupied instead by contemporary Russian policies that from hour to hour and day to day are becoming ever more aggressive and worse.”