Last weekend the Allied powers celebrated the 65th anniversary of victory in World War II. For the first time in the history of Moscow’s Victory Day parades, 10,000 Russian troops were joined on Red Square by wartime allies: soldiers from Britain’s 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, the US 2nd Battalion, 18th Regiment, the Normandie-Niemen squadron from France, and the Polish armed forces. The ceremony was solemn and dignified. Politics, for the large part, was missing, though not completely: the president of Georgia was not invited, an absurd démarche since Georgian Meliton Kantaria was among the three Soviet soldiers who placed the flag of victory on the Reichstag on May 1, 1945 (the other two were Russian Mikhail Yegorov and Ukrainian Aleksei Berest).
Most importantly, the celebrations were not spoiled by references to Stalin. Almost at the last minute the authorities, faced with an outpouring of public anger, cancelled plans to “decorate” the city with portraits of the dictator. These plans, originally announced in February, appeared in line with the creeping rehabilitation of Stalinism brought about by Vladimir Putin, with the restored Stalinist national anthem and new school textbooks claiming that mass purges were “adequate to the task of modernization.”
As well as insulting the memory of millions who perished under the communist regime, this initiative was an affront to veterans, who, as the authorities implied, fought the Nazis not to defend their country, their homes, and their loved ones, but to protect Stalinism, kolkhozy, and the Gulag. “We view this decision … as a personal insult to ourselves and to our entire people which has earned this Victory,” a group of Russian World War II veterans wrote to the Moscow mayor. “It is unacceptable to put up portraits of a butcher and a murderer.” Veterans recalled that Stalin’s true role in the war was shown not in the victory, won by the blood and toil of the peoples of the Soviet Union and its allies, but in the purges of army commanders in the 1930s, the pact with Hitler in 1939, the dismissal of intelligence reports about an impending German invasion in 1941, and the branding of Soviet prisoners of war as “traitors.”
“Our people won the war in spite of Stalin, not because of him,” read a statement from the opposition Solidarity movement. “This decision condemns hundreds of thousands of Muscovites to commemorate [Victory Day] with feelings of bitterness and hurt.” Yabloko, Russia’s only registered pro-democracy party, called the initiative “hateful” toward “the Russian people and other peoples whose genocide was perpetrated by Stalin.” The hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, usually hesitant to challenge the authorities, issued a strong statement declaring that Stalin’s “inhuman system” cannot be justified “by anything, not even by the Victory.”
Images of Stalin were displayed in Syktyvkar and in St. Petersburg. Within hours both were defaced: in Syktyvkar with ketchup, in St. Petersburg with paint. The authorities must have realized that this was a conflict they could not win. Days before the victory celebrations in Moscow, Deputy Mayor Lyudmila Shvetsova announced that plans for the installation of Stalin’s posters on the streets of the city have been cancelled. The reason she offered was fear of “vandalism.”
The peoples of the former Soviet Union should be rightfully proud of the defeat of Nazism. It was they who decided the fate of World War II: three-quarters of German casualties were borne on the Eastern Front. Their heroism and sacrifice (Soviet losses are estimated at 27 million; nearly half the total) saved millions of lives, including Jewish lives. It was the soldiers of the 322nd Soviet Rifle Division who opened the doors of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. Yet we owe it to victims’ memory to acknowledge the whole truth, including mass deportations, arrests, and killings in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which in 1945 exchanged one occupation for another; and the fate of the Russian victors themselves, who returned home from the front lines to the same dark fear and repression of Stalin’s totalitarianism.
The victory of 1945 can and should be honored without glorifying a dictator, no less murderous and brutal than the one who was defeated.