Baku, May 19 –Russians become furious when East Europeans insist that that the Red Army, in defeating Hitler, did not liberate them from totalitarianism but only substituted one form of it with another, in part because such arguments call attention to something they still prefer not to face: That army did not liberate them either; it only reinforced Stalin’s dictatorship.
One of the more curious developments in the past year was the contrast between the anger Russians displayed toward the Estonians compared to their when the latter shifted a Soviet war memorial and the graves of Soviet soldiers and their general indifference to the ongoing and much larger destruction of war memorials and even cemeteries in the Russian Federation itself.
According to Moscow analyst Igor Dzhordan, part of the reason for this is that the Russian reaction to the Estonian events was a special operation of the Russian security services who hoped to transform the ethnic Russians there into a group Moscow could exploit against Tallinn and into a model for how the Russian government might act in Latvia and elsewhere.
But a greater part of the explanation, he suggests, has to do with the way in which Russians conceive of monuments pointing to the liberating role of the Red Army at the end of World War II. Beyond the borders of the USSR in the past and Russia now, these monuments are “symbols” of national greatness; inside, they are only “things” and thus can be destroyed.
And that attitude in turn, Zhordan argues, rests of the fact that Russians require these symbols abroad to support their use of the Soviet contribution to the fight against Hitler as a moral solvent against any criticism of their system but that the Russians recognize that the Red Army did not bring their own liberation or end the institutionalized civil war in their society.
(Dzhordan lays out this argument in three articles: “Has the Civil War in Russia Ended? (www.nazlobu.ru/publications/article2729.htm), “Liberation from the Myth of Liberation” (www.nazlobu.ru/publications/article2734.htm), and “Can Estonia Liberate Us?” (www.nazlobu.ru/publications/article2736.htm).)
Dzhordan’s core argument is as follows: The Soviet political system was based on “an institutionalized civil war. The USSR was the geographical-political form of the state of the civil war.” And consequently, when the CPSU was overthrown and the USSR dissolved, these were “the most important steps toward the end” of that civil conflict.
Consequently, after 1991, there was the promise of “civil peace” in which “force would no longer be the foundation of social life. But then Vladimir Putin created “a post-modernist cocktail,” in which thre was “(almost) the tsarist coat of arms and (almost) the Soviet hymn and in which the MVD traced its roots to Benckendorf and the FSB to Derzhinsky.
Such a compound state needed some things from the tsarist system and some from the Soviet one, Dzhordan says, and one of the things it needed from the Soviet was “the myth of liberation,” the idea that the Soviet Red Army “liberated” Eastern Europe and thus justified the use of force at home and the Communist mission abroad.
Such a myth, of course, would have been “impossible” to insist upon “if it was not based on something real, on the genuine experience of a grandiose people’s war, which ended with a victory over Hitlerite Germany.” But the “integral” quality of this myth represents “its weak side.” One cannot allow any part of it to be challenged, of the entire myth disintegrates.
That is all the more so, Dzhordan continues, because parts of the myth have already been eliminated – “the Soviet Union (alas, Condoleezza)” and the “camp of socialist states.” So what is left? Dzhordan asks rhetorically. And he answers: “a belief in the liberating mission of the Soviet Union.”
But is such a belief sustainable given that “the USSR did not liberate first its own territory and therefore did not liberate the countries of Eastern Europe.”
Here then is the crux of the problem, the source of “cognitive dissonance” for Russians now, Dzhordan says. “The Soviet Army did drive the Hitlerites out of the countries of Eastern Europe.” But “did the Soviet Army bring feed? Of course not,” he argues, “for it brought the Stalinist dictatorship,” something that can be called freedom “only in the Orwellian sense.”
And in his third article, Dzhordan asks the extremely provocative question: “Will Estonia liberate us?” Because the scandal over Tallinn’s shift of the Bronze Soldier and of the Soviet graves surrounding it has the potential to raise the kind of questions that will destroy the myth that is keeping Russians from freedom.
That explains why the Russian government worked so hard to condemn what the Estonians were doing and also why many Russians expressed their outrage at Estonia’s actions even though Estonia generally treated the Soviet memorials with respect while the same Russians ignored what Russians at home were treating with less respect within Russia itself.
Yes, it is the case, as other writers have argued, that “the Kremlin wanted to convert the Russian-speaking community [in Estonia] into some kind of autonomous formation which would exist under a unique Russian protectorate, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia or Transdniestria in Moldova.”
“If that scenario had worked in Estonia,” Boris Sokolov argued in words that Dzhordan quotes, then, it could be tried in Latvia in order in this way to begin the restoration of the Soviet empire bit by bit.”
As a Kremlin strategy in the era of Vladimir Putin, Dzhordan continues, this is entirely understandable. But what is “much less understandable is why a relatively large part of the Russian people with surprising lack of reflect conducted itself that mindless ‘patriotic’ machines.”
But once one recognizes the nature of the Soviet system as one of permanent civil war and of the way that the Red Army’s behavior at the end of World War II helps sustain the myth on which that system was based, then Dzhordan argues, everything becomes clear.
“If liberating myself is more important than liberating someone else, then that means I want freedom. I am the master in my land and in my hut about which I think and am concerned. It is necessary to help my neighbor liberate himself, but to arrange things for him once he has done so is not my concern.”
But “if liberating and arranging things for the other is more important than doing the same thing for myself then that means I am a poor master or not a master at all but rather a hireling or a slave.” Indeed, a slave to the point that “I want my neighbor to share my delight in slavery” and am furious if he does not.
Hence, those like Aleksey Kostitsyn are right, Dzhordan says, when they argue that “the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn is a symbol because for Russians this memorial is ‘a symbol of their national self-identification, a symbol of pride in their ancestors.” But the same monuments inside Russia play an entirely different role.
There Kostitsyn and Dzhordan argue, they are for most Russians not “a symbol of liberation, not a symbol of national self-identification, and not a symbol of pride in their ancestors” because the Red Army did not liberate the Russian people from its system. They are simply “things” and thus can be destroyed without causing anyone to get all that upset.
That makes complete sense, if one reflects upon it, Dzhordan concludes. Only when the Red Army “liberated someone beyond the borders of Russia (the USSR)” can Russians comfortably view themselves as “liberators and the liberated as fascists if they are unsatisfied with the liberation” the Red Army brought.