June 22, 2016

WWII in Russian Cultural Memory

WWII in Russian Cultural Memory
June 22nd, as any student of Soviet history knows, is the day remembered in the official histories as the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. A popular song of the era opened with the lines, "Kiev was bombed/and then we were told/the war has just begun."
Of course, serial occupations began on the western borders of the USSR much earlier, in 1939, but these Soviet annexation of parts of Poland, southeastern Karelia and Salla in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina and the Hertza region of Romania remain outside of the gaze of the Russian historiography of WWII. 

A casual encounter with Russian popular culture may leave a Western observer puzzled at the insistence on recasting the past. While it was possible to see the final tableau of the Sochi Olympic games opening ceremony as a Russian version of "Mad Men" nostalgia, various observers and commentators have also pointed to this retro trend as a symptom of stagnation, a deficit of (at least official) national imagination.

But, in reality, there is a 70-year tradition of placing World War II, and sanctioned interpretations of it, at the heart of Russian popular culture.

A collection of recent war-themed TV productions on Rusichi is a continuation of this trend, with films ranging from Major Sokolov's Courtesans to Death to Spies. The wide variety of warriors in these films – White Guard officers, Red Cavalry men, infantry officers from the Belorussian front, NKVD and SMERSH agents undercover in the rear – appear to be united by the same ultimate goal of ensuring the greatness of their country, whether it entails expanding the imperial borders or retaking occupied territories. A continuity emerges: from the First World War, to the Civil War, to the Great Patriotic War.

A critic writes:

One may be left thinking that the veritable avalanche of historical TV series aimed not only to distract the Russian public from the country's everyday problems – corruption, unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse – but also to inspire a new pride. <...> Meaning, we may be experiencing temporary difficulties, because enemies are all around us, but we will rise again and return to our former glory.

Whether the heroes of the films are in Crimea to uncover anti-Soviet plots (SMERSH) or choosing to serve the government that had arrested their parents (Women Scouts), good is on their side, and the ultimate goal of defending the country justifies any sacrifice.

Romanticizing war appears to be fruitful TV turf; thus far, however, the enterprise has failed to yield works that engage moral dimensions of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian policies or that accommodate non-Russian narratives of WWII. For the time being, war is firmly ensconced in the Russian popular imagination as the one truly glorious chapter in the nation's past.

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Nina Shevchuk-Murray
Nina Shevchuk-Murray
Nina Shevchuk-Murray came to the US from Ukraine, where she grew up in Lviv. She earned a degree in poetry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her translations include Peter Aleshkovsky’s Stargorod and Fish, as well as Oksana Zabuzhko’s Museum of Abandoned Secrets. Nina’s poetry has been included in Untidy Seasons, an anthology of works by Nebraska women poets.
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