After I wrote the blog post below, I realized that while it reflected some of my thinking as a historian, it was in no way an adequate characterization of what I feel as an expert, a visitor and a friend of Ukraine and Russia. I am mostly and utterly devastated for the people of Ukraine. I cannot count the many happy hours I have spent wandering around Kyiv, Odesa, Lviv, Chernivtsi and Simferopol, my home for the better part of 1999 and my entry into all things Soviet, Russian, Ukrainian, Tartar and Karaite – and much more. My heart breaks when seeing footage of these places and their inhabitants under fire, under threat or under occupation. As a Soviet historian, one is used to encountering much pain, not only historically but also in the present-day post-Soviet space. Yet the vicious and unnecessary nature of what is happening now is beyond the scale. To a certain extent historical examination matters little right now, since no analysis can justify an unprovoked attack with thousands of victims. I have to admit, I am also scared, because while Putin’s Russia has been repressive and aggressive from the start (Putin started his time as President with the Second Chechen War), there have always been some boundaries. Now it seems that nothing that is beyond the pale. The totality of the clean-up started in November with the liquidation of Memorial – one of the pillars of Perestroika change. It continues with the liquidation of Ukraine as a state. The rhetorical threats have reached Sweden and Finland. Putin is rewinding the clock. And nobody knows where he wants to stop it. It is already clear that he is willing to sacrifice both his and other people for this endeavour.
One could be forgiven for looking at the calendar when hearing the words being spoken (and the allusions being made in the words not spoken) in this newest war in Europe. It is the year 2022 and there is an aggressive war being waged on the territory of the sovereign state of Ukraine, yet the words uttered in official and unofficial declarations appear to be from a previous era: there is much invocation of fascism and fascists, of Nazism and Nazis (and de-nazification), and other coinages familiar to the Russian ear from the Great Fatherland War. The pictures being invoked on social media are of Moscow and Kiev in 1941 and 1942 (people looking into a sky filled with enemy airplanes, civilians sheltering in metro stations). And there are, of course, many analogies to Hitler, 1939, and 1941. The Second World War is alive and kicking. Or better, the battle over its memory and moral legacy is alive and viciously kicking the present in the face.
Over the last few days even the most doubtful observers have painfully learned that one has to take Putin’s utterings on history seriously. Not because they make a contribution to history, but because they translate into policy. Not because they hold up to the complexity of history as it happened (let alone to the profession’s demand to let different interpretations speak to each other), but because they do inform and reflect how many Russians see the situation. And more important, because they are going to be part of the debate in the following years, since they have been disseminated to millions of people who live in Russia, and via Russian media, to the whole world.
As a German I have always been curious about the frequent use of “fascist” in Russian speech. As an historian of the war and post-war era, I could trace the rise of this term in archival documents. While reports from the middle of the war still often speak of German invaders (nemetskie zakhvatchiki) or German-fascist invaders (nemetsko-fashistskie zakhvatchiki) in the post-war years there was a decisive shift to referring to the defeated Nazis as fascists. This was due partly to the formation of the GDR and hence the creation of a ‘good’ Germany, and partly because it allowed the subsummation of non-German collaborators into the narrative without making complicated distinctions. I always felt that I personally benefitted from this rhetorical trick, since, unlike in the UK where I lived most of my life, I never felt that I had to brace myself when revealing my nationality in Russia or Ukraine. Being German did not necessarily mean being a fascist. But the prominence of the term ‘fascist’ in the Soviet and post-Soviet historical rhetoric also meant the category was elastic and inclusive, in the bad sense of the term. The strongest association with the term – open and subconscious – was reserved for western Ukrainians, of whom even in the 1990s I was often told ‘that they are all fascists there’. The historical basis of this (untrue) claim is the complicated and often unsavory role played by the Ukrainian Independence Army led by Stepan Bandera in the postwar years, which was involved in a guerilla fight with the Soviet military and administration well into the mid 1950s and indeed meted out considerable violence to Poles and Jews. Bandera and his troops have become heroes in western Ukraine and among Ukrainian right-wing paramilitaries since 1991, something that is seen as hugely problematic not only by Russians but also by Ukraine’s Jewish community, Poland and historians working in this field. It is also one of the issues that has dogged Ukraine since 2014, since ahistorical veneration of Ukraine’s history of postwar resistance graduated from being a local phenomenon to being at the center of debates shaping the Ukrainian state narrative.
It is here that it becomes apparent that while certain dates such as 1991 (independence), 2004 (orange revolution) and 2014 (Euromaidan) are important markers, there is also a story that runs much deeper than the political independence of Ukraine. One of the widest fissures within Soviet society was how the Great Fatherland War was remembered in different parts of the country and by different individuals. The uncritical memory of Bandera in the Ukrainian west was a response to an official Soviet narrative (created by Stalin and intensified by Brezhnev) that left no room for nuances and personal recollections running counter to the story of Soviet liberation from fascism and Nazi occupation. But Ukraine, and especially the part that was newly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939 under the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop protocol, did not write a simple story. Occupation, as has been shown by historians of France, Denmark and other places, always leaves morally messy landscapes that defy easy classification into collaborators and resisters. And the longer an occupation lasts, the messier the situation becomes.
Jumping over much complexity, it suffices to say that the upshot of an extremely streamlined Soviet rhetoric and memory of war was that already in the 1970s the ultimate middle finger to Soviet authority was the invocation of fascist rhetoric and the sporting of Nazi symbols. The testimony of Soviet hippies, whom I interviewed, referred again and again to instances where hippies adorned themselves not only with peace signs and folkloric ornaments but with swastikas and Nazi uniforms. A recent scandal at the Bayreuth Music Festival centered on the Russian opera singer Evgenii Nikitin who had been discovered to have a swastika tattooed on his chest. His justification that this had nothing to do with Nazism did not sound credible to the German organizers but made more sense to those who knew the Soviet heavy metal scene in the late 1980s and 90s, which was saturated with that kind of symbolism. By the end of the Soviet period, the ideological clarity of communism was not the only thing in tatters. Fascism too had been degraded to a cypher for some vague notion of provocativeness, blending out its dark features and grim history. This process has been partly reversed in the post-Soviet era when the sacrifices of the Great Fatherland War became more personalized in collective memory and one of the rallying points for Russian identity. Ukraine moved its own celebration to 8 May in line with the rest of Europe – a hugely symbolic act, demonstrating that its independence stretched to this most sacred of collective memories shared with Russia.
Putin’s invocation of Ukrainian fascists is hence a rallying cry to those post-Soviet people who remember the Great Fatherland War as he does (as a military and moral victory of the Soviet Union and hence its main successor state Russia) and as he has propagated with ever greater force through the strict control of a militarized and cleaned-up history curriculum and the state sponsored celebrations on Victory Day on 9 May. It is a declaration of war against those whose memory differs – and who by definition are the enemy. There is no grey in wartime politics and certainly not in Putin’s worldview. This memory war has been played out in smaller form in violent controversies over monuments to Soviet soldiers in Riga and Tallinn in the early 2000s. But Ukraine is on a different scale. Ukraine is supposed to be an active and passive part of the narrative of Soviet liberation and moral unambiguity. The assertion of Ukrainian statehood as such is a challenge to this memory, because it questions the post-war order as established in 1944/45. It shifts the agency away from the state – a sacred entity in Putin’s view – to the people who voted with over 92% for independence in 1991. This is the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state and how it understands itself. Yet in Putin’s eyes Ukraine only exists in its current form because of what he calls ‘Stalin’s presents’ (alongside what he labels Tsarist and Lenin’s presents) – an ethnically purified Ukrainian West (its large Jewish population was killed by the Nazis and its even larger Polish population was part of a population exchange with Poland). The form of Ukrainian post-war republic was established by Stalin, as the leader of the morally superior cause in 1945, and hence owes allegiance to Putin in 2022, who is the rightful heir to both Stalin’s mission and power.
It is instructive to remember here the term Putin introduced when the invasion started: the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. This too, of course, is a Stalinist term. While before the war the preferred term of vilification was ‘enemy of the people’, in the post-war years it was fascist or collaborator. Both categories were elastic and served to settle scores on many levels. Even the whiff of contact with the invader – even having been on occupied territory – shaped post-war lives, strongly until 1953, less severely after Stalin’s death. Denazification in the Soviet context, as the purges in the 1930s, was not an attempt to understand levels of complicity, but had an exclusionary and even exterminationist logic. It tapped into images of contamination (another obsession shared by Stalin and Putin) and was understood as much collectively as well as individually. Putin’s usage gives a glimpse of what he envisions for a post-Putin-war Ukraine. Under the cover of a term understood around the world to signify the restoration of justice, Putin plans to change not only the Ukrainians’ physical reality of living in their own state, but their very notion as a people separate from Putin’s vision of Russians.
The last few days, however, have also shown that Putin was mistaken about the emotional force of his rhetoric on the Russian people who are his main audience. Its lack of imagination and contemporariness is painfully evident to the younger generation. It is in striking contrast to the modern vision of a state Zelensky is outlining in Russian to Russian citizens in speeches over the last two days. Second, as I already indicated, the term fascist had already lost its lustre in Soviet times and mostly resonates with an older generation. And even those people find it hard to see it applied to all of Ukraine and all Ukrainians. Too many people have friends and family in Ukraine to square that circle. More important, while over the years Putin has degraded the 9 May celebration to a militarized circus with toddlers wandering around in Soviet army uniforms, the last 30 years have also seen a more personal engagement with the war via initiatives such as the Immortal Regiment, in which people carry the pictures of their fathers and grandfathers in parades and approach the war as family history. That kind of commemoration does not lend itself well to a belligerent cause, since the overwhelming message for the relatives is one of grief and loss and promotes a type of pacifism. The fact that Zelensky is Jewish and hence would have been a victim of fascism rather than a perpetrator, underlies the absurdity of the charges against his government, even if this aspect is probably more noted in the West than in Russia.
There will be much blood spilled and many unsealable injuries created in the next few days, weeks or even months. As the Soviet Union never recovered from the outer and inner empire it created in 1945, Ukraine will be a festering wound on the Russian body politic. It will be litmus test of loyalty but also banner of resistance. And it has already marked Russia in the world. As a German I know what it means to be ashamed of the actions of one’s country long after they have happened and even without any personal involvement. As a child I begged my parents not to speak too loudly when on holiday. Military victory might go to Russia. But shame is a heavy price.