World War II Memory in Putin's Russia

About this Episode

Guests
David Hoffmann

Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone to extraordinary lengths to commemorate the Second World War. Even though the war ended over 77 years ago, Putin has made World War II memory central to contemporary Russian national identity.

This talk explores how war remembrance serves Putin’s interests, including with regard to his war in Ukraine.

Panelists:

David L. Hoffmann, College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor, Department of History, The Ohio State University

Nicholas Breyfogle (Moderator), Associate Professor of History and Director, Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, The Ohio State University

Cite this Site

Nicholas Breyfogle , "World War II Memory in Putin's Russia" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
December, 2022
https://origins.osu.edu/listen/history-talk/world-war-ii-memory-putins-russia?language_content_entity=en.
December, 2022

Transcript

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Hello, and welcome to World War II Memory in Putin's Russia, brought to you by the History Department, and the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University and by the magazine Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. My name is Nick Breyfogle. I'm an associate professor of history and director of the Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, and I'll be your host and moderator today. Welcome to everyone. And thank you so much for joining us. Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone to extraordinary lengths to commemorate the Second World War. Even though the war ended over 77 years ago, Putin has made World War II memory central to contemporary Russian national identity. Today, we're privileged to welcome Dr. David Hoffmann, who will explore how war remembrance serves Putin's interests, including with regard to his war in Ukraine. Let's take a moment to get to know our speaker. Dr. David Hoffmann is College of Arts and Sciences distinguished professor in the history department at Ohio State. His most recent publications include an edited volume, entitled, "The Memory of the Second World War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia", and a monograph entitled the "Stalinist Era". With that introduction, let me mention the plan. Dr. Hoffmann will begin with a presentation on the ways in which World War II is remembered and memorialized in Russia, and then he'll take your questions, and we'll open things up for discussion. If you're interested in asking a question, please write it in the q&a function at the bottom of your screen on Zoom. We'll do our best to answer as many questions as we can in the time that we have, and we've received several questions already in advance. Also, we'd like to acknowledge that the land The Ohio State University occupies is the ancestral and contemporary territory of the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Delaware, Miami, Peoria, Seneca, Wyandotte, Ojibwe, and Cherokee peoples. Specifically, the university resides on land ceded in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, and the forced removal of tribes through the Indian Removal Act of 1830. We want to honor the resiliency of these tribal nations and recognize the historical contexts that have and continue to affect the indigenous peoples of this land. Now, let me pass you over to Professor David Hoffmann, who will take us on an exploration of World War II Memory in Putin's Russia. Over to you, Professor Hoffmann.
 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Thank you, Nick. Several years ago, I actually began to study the Soviet commemoration of the Second World War. At the time, I had no idea how relevant this topic would become. Its relevance, of course, stemming from the fact that Putin uses World War II memory to try to justify his invasion of Ukraine. As I'll talk about today, for some time, Putin has actually been promoting World War II commemoration in Russia. He's done so for a variety of political purposes. So, let's go ahead and get into that. I'll start by sharing my screen.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

On May 7, 2000, Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as Russia's new president, he was 47 years old. Two days later, he addressed a massive parade on Red Square that marked the 55th anniversary of the victory in World War II. He said this, quote, "Glory to the soldiers. They have passed on to us a heroic tradition and have willed that we should celebrate this victory as our own. The years may pass, but the memory of the Great Patriotic War will remain just as great a lesson for all of us." For the next 22 years, right up to the present, Putin has marked the anniversaries of every major battle of the war. He's presided over annual Victory Day parades on Red Square. He's met with veterans and made visits to memorials. He's emphasized his own personal connections to the war. Now this is something of a stretch, because he was not even alive during World War II, he was born in 1952, seven years after the war ended, but he has highlighted the fact that his father was wounded in fighting during World War II, and that his elder brother died during the siege of Leningrad. So in every possible way, Putin has presented himself as the protector of the memory of World War II, and simultaneously, he's made World War II memory a pillar of Russian national identity and patriotism. So why is this? Why has the Putin government placed such enormous emphasis on the memory of the Second World War, and why have these appeals resonated with the Russian population? To answer the first question, I'll examine the political utility of war memorialization. In other words, I'll look at how War Commemoration serves the Russian government. And on the second question, why these appeals resonate. I'll describe how a particular narrative of the war became deeply ingrained in the minds of Russian citizens. This will involve analyzing continuities between Soviet and Post-Soviet War Commemoration, Soviet meaning the period up to 1991, post-Soviet, the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In many ways war memory in Russia today draws on Soviet era narratives and symbols, but there are also significant discontinuities, and in the second half of the talk, I will take time to show how World War II memory under Putin is different from War Commemoration of the Soviet era. Hopefully this will shed light on Russian politics today, including how World War II memory informs Putin's propaganda about his war in Ukraine. So, why has Putin put enormous emphasis on World War II commemoration? It has to do with a political utility of war memory. Almost all studies of War Commemoration show this, regardless of the country or the time period. The memory of the war reflects not just the events of the past, but the political needs of the present. In the case of Post-Soviet Russia, World War II memory filled a political need. The collapse of communism in 1991 left a large ideological void, and during the 1990s, Russia experienced not only economic decline, but a crisis of national identity. Having rejected the communist past the Russian government's search for alternative traditions to unify the population. Here, the czarist era did not offer very much, particularly under the last Czar Nicholas II, Russia had been weak and divided. What stood out as the finest emblem of national pride was the historic victory in World War II. So, the Putin government fastened on World War II memory to try to build Russian patriotism and unity. Putin in a ... 2011 speech, even called War memory, quote, "excellent cement to unite people into one indivisible Russian nation". World War II memory also served a need in the realm of international politics. The early 2000s were a moment when Russia had diminished international standing, and the Putin government found it politically useful to recall and celebrate the World War II victory. World War II, of course, had been a time when the Soviet Union played the leading role defeating Nazi Germany. It was a time when the Soviet Union emerged as a superpower that would rival the United States for world domination during the Cold War. So, recalling the World War II victory bolstered Russia's international prestige. Also, with NATO expansion taking place. This map shows two rounds of NATO expansion 1999 and also in 2004. This second round of expansion included adding all the countries ... that are in dark green here, including the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This brought NATO right up to Russia's border. So with NATO expansion, Putin found it advantageous to recall a time when Russia had triumphed over a Western aggressor. It was a way to emphasize past Russian military glory at a time of perceived military threat. War Commemoration also allowed Russia to amplify its version of World War II. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania increasingly condemned the 1939 Nazi Soviet Pact. In response, the Putin government emphasized its own periodization of the war. This periodization ignored the Nazi Soviet Pact entirely, instead focused on the years 1941 to 45 and the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. As we know, the Putin government has also tried to use World War II memory to justify its invasion of Ukraine. This is, sort of, the most blatant use of World War II memory for political purposes. Putin has sought to portray Russia's war in Ukraine as a continuation of the struggles of World War II. This slide shows a poster in Crimea prior to the 2014 referendum, that is just after Russia had seized Crimea, when a referendum was held, and Ukrainian citizens had to vote on whether to join the Russian Federation or remain part of Ukraine, this poster portraying Ukraine as a Nazi state. I'll come back to this issue later when discussing Holocaust remembrance, but clearly the Putin regime was attempting to use World War II memory to legitimate its invasion of Ukraine. First, though, I want to address a broader question, and that is why does World War II commemoration still hold meaning for the Russian population? It has now been over 77 years since the end of World War II, there are very few Russians still alive who lived through the war. This photograph, in fact, shows a picture of what they call "the immortal regiment". It used to be that Russian, or sorry, Soviet veterans of World War II would march in Victory Day parades. There are very few of them left alive today, those who are alive can't march in the parades anymore, so they've been replaced by this so-called "immortal regiment" - Russian citizens holding photographs of their ancestors who fought during the war. This was originally a grassroots movement, but it's been co-opted by the Russian government. In fact, you can see here at the bottom in the middle Putin marching with the immortal regiment holding a photograph of his father. So the vast majority of Russians today have no personal memory of the war, and yet it's clear that World War II commemoration does resonate with at least many Russian people. The Victory Day is the most popular holiday in current day Russia. And to try to understand the continued appeal of World War II memory, we need to look back to the Soviet period. Soviet commemorative culture surrounding the war was pervasive in education and public life. For decades, people were immersed in World War II memorialization and official narratives about the war. You can see this perhaps most clearly in the realm of education. Soviet school textbooks from the 1940s through the 1980s emphasize the importance of the war. All editions relied on the same World War II periodization - the same stories, the same heroes. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the same war narratives continued to be used in Russian schools. Book learning in Soviet schools was augmented by school museums, field trips to monuments and ceremonies to honor veterans. That's what's shown in this photograph - Soviet school children honoring World War II veterans in a ceremony. The speeches at the ceremonies all use the same phrases about ruthless invaders, heroism, unity, and self-sacrifice, the same phrases that are used in speeches in Russia today. So, the pervasiveness of this commemorative culture meant that it became deeply ingrained in many people's thinking. And the result was that there are strong and continuities between Soviet and Post-Soviet war memory. Current Russian war memory draws extensively on Soviet myths, symbols, and rituals, the master narrative of the war is largely the same, minus the leading role of the communist party.  During the Soviet era, the Communist Party was always credited with a victory. That's no longer the case. But the master narrative still tells of a fascist invader that was vanquished by the People's unity and the vet army's heroism, all suffering is attributed to the enemy, while leadership failures and popular panic are not mentioned. It's a story of heroism and sacrifice that resulted in triumph, with an emphasis on Popular Unity as the key to victory. To illustrate the degree to which this official narrative came to permeate popular consciousness, I'll use the example of how it influenced even the memories of those who fought in the war. As I said, today, almost all veterans have passed, but in oral history interviews 25 years ago with Soviet World War II veterans, scholars found that these veterans could not recall much beyond the official history of the war. It's kind of a curious fact. They seemingly had forgotten all the negative aspects of the war, the blunders, the repression. Instead, they simply repeated platitudes about the Red Army's bravery. So why was it that personal memories were so influenced by official commemoration? This is an interesting dimension of memory studies - the relationship between individual and collective memory. Maurice Halbwachs, who was the founder of studies of collective memory, posited that all memory is essentially social. In contrast to Sigmund Freud, Halbwachs argued that people's memories cannot be purely individual because they are formed through communication with others. And recent neurological research tends to support Halbwach's ideas. The process by which information is stored in people's long-term memory involves physiological changes in neural networks, changes that require rehearsal and meaningful association. So, in other words, this fundamentally associative nature of human memory means that people's recollections are shaped by the narratives that they have heard. That was certainly true for Soviet war veterans. For those who did not live through the war, the official narrative holds even more sway. The Soviet government monopolized all ideological resources and presented one official account of World War II. Censorship prevented alternative accounts from circulating. The same is almost true in Russia today, a 2014 law prohibits, quote, "the dissemination of false information about the Soviet Union during the Second World War". So this official story of the war as a moment of national unity has been the dominant narrative, and it continues to resonate with Russian people. Well, let me now shift to talk about some of the discontinuities between Soviet and Post-Soviet war memory. Because in addition to continuities, there also are important differences, and these differences tell us a lot about the use of war memory by the Putin government. During Soviet times, as shown in this poster, the war was remembered as a Pan-Soviet victory, not an exclusively Russian victory. The many nationalities of the Soviet Union, including Ukrainians, were given credit for the victory, and it was this quote unquote "brotherhood" of Soviet peoples that was shown as having defeated the fascists. That is no longer true in the post-Soviet era. This idea of a brotherhood of peoples has been dropped. The war is now portrayed as Russia's victory alone. In fact, Putin even stated that because Russia had the most casualties in the war, it deserves sole credit, saying, quote, "We are the country of victors". Connected with this is another discontinuity, and that is the prominent role of the Russian Orthodox Church in War Commemoration. This had not been the case during the Soviet era, when the Orthodox Church was largely prohibited from operating, and organized religion was persecuted. In Post-Soviet Russia, the Orthodox Church has been given a prominent place by the Russian government, including a prominent role in World War II commemoration. This photograph shows the recently opened cathedral of Russian Armed Forces. It was opened and consecrated two years ago in 2020. The photograph shows the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, consecrating this new cathedral. It's an enormous cathedral, it has murals depicting battles of World War II, the floor of the cathedral is made of metal from melted down Nazi tanks. Even beyond this Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox Church is included in many ceremonies commemorating the victory in World War II. Let me shift to another discontinuity between Soviet and Post-Soviet war memory, and that has to do with representations of gender in World War II Commemoration. During the war, a large number of women enlisted in the Soviet military. There were some 800,000 women who served in the Red Army, including 120,000 in combat positions. So there were female snipers, bomber pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, and so forth. And one would expect that there would have been some recognition of women's military service after the war. Instead, in the post-war Soviet period, women's military contributions were mostly ignored. Soviet war memorials depicted soldiers exclusively as men, there were no statues of female soldiers. Now there were a few female figures in these monuments. This photograph here shows the Battle of Stalingrad Memorial and the central figure, in fact, is a statue of Mother Russia. But this of course, is an allegorical figure. The other statues in Soviet war memorials show women only in traditional feminine roles, that is as mothers in mourning, as nurses, or as victims. This post-war erasure of women's military contribution extended to other forms of cultural remembrance as well. It's true for literature, films, history books - all these downplayed or ignored women's military contributions. So we might ask why that is. Why women's military contribution to the war victory was not recognized, was forgotten in the post-war Soviet period. War for any society marks a rift, a disruption of normal life due to wartime mobilization and loss. This was particularly true for the Soviet Union, due to the enormous scale of death and devastation during the war. The way the war was remembered served to repair that rift to reestablish societal norms. In the Soviet case, war memory acted to reestablish the pre-war gender order. Of the 27 million Soviets killed in the war, 20.5 million were men and ... this meant for an enormous demographic imbalance after the war. Women greatly outnumbered men, particularly in the sort of, age 20 to 40 cohort. Many male veterans who survived the war were disabled due to war injuries. All of this created the potential for a crisis of masculinity after the war, but official Soviet culture, including war monuments, served to try to buttress male authority by portraying men as strong, heroic, and courageous. This slide shows a photograph of another statue at the Battle of Stalingrad Memorial shows a male soldier bare chested and muscular, a machine gun in one hand, and a grenade in the other. Meanwhile, women in Soviet war memorials were often portrayed in traditional female roles and as subordinate to men, particularly, they were presented as mothers. Here is a photograph of a statue of a mother in mourning, holding her fallen son. Memorialization always involves not only remembering but also forgetting. One thing forgotten in Soviet war monuments was the combat role of female soldiers. And this of course, had real consequences in that it reinforced traditional gender roles, an opportunity to further the goal of gender equality was lost. Instead of presenting women as comrades in arms. post-war commemoration presented them as victims, nurses, or as mothers in mourning. Interestingly, that has actually changed in the post-war Soviet period. The role of female combatants is now being remembered, even highlighted. This is a poster from a 2012 Russian television series called "Night Swallows", it was based on the true story of a squadron of female bomber pilots in World War II. So here we see seven decades after the war, female combatants finally being widely acknowledged. The same was true ... with a 2015 Russian film, "The Battle for Sevastopol". This film was sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Culture, which at the time was headed by Vladimir Medinsky, one of Putin's right-hand men. The film tells the true story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, sniper in the Red Army who had over 300 confirmed kills during World War II. In the post-war Soviet Union, female soldiers had to leave military service, today, Russian women can volunteer for the Russian military. In fact, they make up about 10% of the Russian Armed Forces, though they are not placed in combat roles. So the memory of female soldiers in World War II, in some sense, can provide a role model to help recruitment into the Russian military. Okay, let me turn now to one more discontinuity between Soviet and Post-Soviet World War II remembrance, and that is the remembrance of the Holocaust, which is quite different today than it was in Soviet times. In the Soviet period, the Holocaust was entirely left out of World War II memory. Soviet officials did not recognize Jewish suffering as distinct. They did not want the Holocaust to overshadow the losses of the Soviet people as a whole during the war. So in Soviet accounts, any mention of Holocaust massacres was described as the "fascist murder of civilians", with no acknowledgement that these civilians were Jewish. Here is a statue at Babyn Yar, which is a ravine outside of Kyiv, where Nazi SS troops machine gunned to death tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children in the fall of 1941. For decades, there was no monument at this site at all. Finally, in 1976 a monument was erected, but it made no reference to the fact that the victims of this massacre were Jewish. But recently, there's been a change under the Putin government, the Holocaust has become an important part of Russian war memory. Here is a poster from a Russian film, 2008 film, "Sobibor". The title of the film takes its name from the Nazi death camp. This film tells the true story of a Jewish Red Army soldier, Alexander Pechersky, who organized a successful revolt at Sobibor and escaped from this death camp. So, why is it that the Putin government has made the Holocaust a prominent part of World War II remembrance? Initially, the Putin government began doing this to use the Holocaust as a weapon in foreign policy to criticize the Baltic countries. Beginning in 2004, the Russian Ministry invoked the Holocaust to condemn Nazi collaborators in Latvia. The Russian delegation to the UN has even sponsored resolutions condemning fascists in Latvia for participating in the Holocaust. And then with a 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea and involvement in the war in Donbass that occurred with separatists there, also 2014, the Russian government began to focus on the Holocaust in Ukraine. At the time, Putin explicitly referred to World War II history condemning Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera for collaborating with the Nazis. He then began to talk about Neo-Nazis in present-day Ukraine. This rhetoric of course, ultimately providing Putin's justification for his invasion of Ukraine. In Putin's speech of February 21, 2022, just on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin said the invasion was necessary to protect ethnic Russians from Neo-Nazis. He said that Ukrainian Neo-Nazis will, quote, "kill innocent people, just as members of the punitive units of Ukrainian nationalists and Hitler's accomplices did during the Great Patriotic War." He also went on to say that the purpose of Russia's invasion was to prevent genocide and to, quote, "demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.” So, in other words, Putin invoking Ukrainian collaboration in the Holocaust, to then claim the presence of Neo-Nazis in Ukraine today, and in turn justify his invasions. Of course, there's no truth to Putin's claims. The fact that the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, this belies the idea that Ukraine is under the control of Neo-Nazis. Some of Zelensky's ancestors were killed in the Holocaust. His grandfather, in fact, fought in the Red Army against the Nazis during World War II. Well, all this leads me to a fight question, and that is, how effective are Russian attempts to use World War II memory to build support for the current war in Ukraine? This is very difficult to gauge, I can only give a sort of speculative answer to this question. We don't have reliable information about public opinion in Russia today, there's no reliable public opinion polling. Of course, any sort of open opposition to the war can lead to imprisonment for Russian citizens, so it's not as if we can get a sense based on open demonstrations against the war. There have been government rallies to show support for the war, that's what is pictured in this slide, though these, of course, are staged rallies, they're not a genuine expression of support for the war. We have other evidence indicating a lack of support for the war. This slide shows the scene at Russia's border with Georgia in September of 2022, young men fleeing Russia to avoid conscription into the Russian army. So this indicating, certainly, a lack of support for the war effort. So World War II memory may help build support among some segments of the population, but certainly not everyone in Russia. And the problem is, I think, not so much that World War II memory lacks meaning for the Russian population, I think it does have a lot of meaning. The problem is that World War II is a poor analog for Russia's current war in Ukraine. Not only do these attempts to try to portray Ukrainian leaders as Neo-Nazis seem ridiculous, World War II was always portrayed as a defensive war. In official depictions, Soviet aggression from the early years of the war, 1939 to 40, was entirely forgotten. The war instead was remembered as a defense of the motherland against fascist invaders. And the invasion of Ukraine is so clearly a war of aggression, it's very difficult to recast it and say that it's a defense of Russia, even though, of course, that is what Putin is trying to do. Let me give you one final slide here, which juxtaposes two images. On the left, Putin laying flowers at a cemetery in St. Petersburg, a cemetery where victims of the siege of Leningrad are buried. And on the right, a photograph from the siege of Mariupol, where Ukrainian civilians are trying to flee Russian artillery strikes. In conclusion, let me say this. William Faulkner famously wrote, quote, "The past is never dead. It is not even past." Looking at World War II memory we can certainly say that is true in Russia today, but that is not the whole story, because most events of the past are, in fact, forgotten. That makes it all the more important to ask why certain events are remembered, and to analyze how those events are portrayed. World War II in the Soviet Union was an event of enormous trauma and loss. It was also a military victory of great historical importance. So it's not surprising that World War II is commemorated. But that does not dictate how the war has been remembered, or the fact that even today, 77 years after the war ended, that war memorialization would be a central pillar of Russian national identity. Putin has emphasized World War II, because it's politically useful to recall this moment of Russian military glory. It's also a way to try to promote Russian patriotism. Putin has also used Holocaust memory for political purposes, especially focusing on Nazi collaborators and the alleged presence of Neo-Nazis in Ukraine today, using this fiction to try to justify his invasion of Ukraine. So this is sort of an extreme example of using war memory for contemporary political purposes. But the effectiveness of World War II memory may be limited when it comes to mobilizing popular support for the war in Ukraine. It simply is difficult to portray a war of aggression as a defensive effort, and commemoration in both the Soviet and Post-Soviet eras had always portrayed World War II as a defense of the motherland. Thank you very much.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

David, thank you so very much for that fascinating talk, and that exploration of the way in which World War II has been remembered and memorialized and discussed across both the Soviet era and now the Putin era. No, it's just marvelous. As a reminder to everyone who's with us today, if you have questions for Dr. Hoffmann, please write them in the Q&A, and I'll do my best to ask them. We had one come in while you were talking, David. In fact, we've had several questions that are interested in thinking across different chronologies or looking at different subgroups or generations within Russia to kind of question whether there's a consistent understanding of World War II across the population, and across time. But let me let me start with this one, which asks, so what did World War II memory look like during the Yeltsin years? Was it more of more of a continuation of Soviet tropes, or do we see shifts more closely resembling what we have in the Putin era? Or are we able to tell, given just the sort of short number of years that Yeltsin was in power?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yes, that's a good question. There was something of a decline in World War II commemoration during the Yeltsin years, you know, the World War II memory had been so closely associated with the Soviet regime. It was something that, especially during the Brezhnev era, the Soviet government had used as a way to sort of legitimate its rule. And so it actually was the case that there was, I think, a bit of a reaction against that immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's not that World War II memory was completely forgotten. There were some efforts in the Yeltsin years to complete a World War II Memorial in Moscow itself, and that essentially tried to emphasize the role of Russians, and to use it to promote patriotism, the same way that the Putin government has done, but certainly not to the same degree. You know, what we see under the Putin era was a real effort to try to promote the memory of World War II. Victory Day parades, which even in Soviet times were only held every five years, they began to be held every year during the Putin era. During the Yeltsin era, they were not held at all. So that may give you a kind of an answer to this question. The Yeltsin years, not a complete discontinuation, but a decline in efforts to commemorate the war. And then under Putin that's reversed, intensified efforts to try to promote World War II memory.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Kind of following up on that, we've had several questions that are interested in thinking about are there differences in the ways in which different, sort of, quote unquote, "generations" understand the war. So Gen Xers versus millennials, I mean, given that there's been so much time since the war itself, and we've gone through successive types of generations. Those labels may not fit particularly well in the Russian case or may not fit as well in the Russian case as the American one, but there's sort of interest in understanding, yeah, how this has changed across generation. And also there were similar questions about the ways in which World War II is understood by different sort of subgroups in contemporary society. Different nationalities, men versus women, rural versus urban, are we able to get any kind of a sense of those differences as well, in terms of how this war has been understood in Russia, or is understood in Russia today?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah, yeah. Those are all good questions as well. I think there is a real difference if we look at different generations, and different groups within Russian society today. I mentioned the fact that we don't have any reliable information on public opinion since the war began. Prior to the war, there was quite a bit of public opinion polling in Russia, and what it tended to show was that older generations were more supportive of the Putin government, they were more likely to accept Putin's propaganda, including his efforts to try to promote Russian World War II memory. Younger generations were more skeptical, tended to be more critical of the Putin government. So I imagine that continues to be true today, again, we don't have any data to show that, but I would guess that it is. The other divides that existed prior to the war in Ukraine were between rural and urban Russians, and between educated and less educated Russians. So that we see, according to that data, there was greater support for the Putin government among Russians in rural areas or small towns. Those in the large cities tended to be more critical, more skeptical about Putin and his propaganda, including his emphasis on World War II memory. And educated Russians, also, as you might guess, more critical of the Putin government. So, you know, the best that we can, sort of, infer is that those differences have continued, or perhaps, even widened during the war, since the war in Ukraine began this past February.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

We also have some questions regarding, sort of, other attempts to memorialize other wars, or how other wars have been remembered in comparison to World War II. So we've had questions about, so were there attempts to memorialize any other Russian conflicts that failed to gain any traction? We had another question that asks about, sort of, nostalgia for the Cold War era. Does that still exist, and has there been efforts to try to engage the Cold War as a time of, kind of, communal memory? And what about wars, like Afghanistan, or Chechnya, or other more recent ones that Russia's been involved in? I know that's a sort of hodgepodge of different questions all thrown together, but they're all kind of related to this idea of, how does the memorialization of World War II fit into the larger understandings of Russia's relationship to wars across the past few decades?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yeah, yeah. So, the short answer is that World War II memory just far outweighs all the other wars put together. You know, the Putin government certainly did not want to commemorate, or bring attention even, to the Russian Civil War, for example, because Putin's entire emphasis is on Russian unity. He didn't want to recall a time of disunity and civil war. There hasn't been much from the Russian government about the war in Afghanistan, that certainly was seen as, you know, a war that did not bring the Russian military any glory at all. The war in Chechnya, that, of course, is what made Putin's reputation, because what's sometimes called the second Chechen war in 1999, is when he had just become prime minister in Russia. He sent the Russian military back into Chechnya to brutally suppress the independence movement there. And yet, there's not a lot about that either, I think partly, once again, because it sort of shows internal divisions within Russia. Instead, you know, World War II is the event that showed all people coming together to defend the motherland against the external invader. Now, on the question of the Cold War, that's sort of interesting, because there had not been a lot about that previously, but just within the last year with the war in Ukraine, in a sense, we can see Putin making allusions to that. Because, he increasingly has emphasized that this war in Ukraine is not just against Ukrainian Neo-Nazis, it's against the West, it's against NATO, it's against the United States, you know, those are all once again the enemy, just as they had been during the Cold War. So without really invoking the Cold War explicitly, we can, perhaps see that Putin is invoking it, with all his references to the menace posed by the West and by NATO in particular.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Wonderful. We've had a couple of questions too about, well, so how people remember things and how the sort of ideas about the past are embedded or created. Well, I'll give them to you one at a time. So one asks, you know, to talk about the, kind of, collective memory after World War II. The question is, isn't it possible that some veterans were intimidated or afraid to discuss any negative experiences about the war because of the context of the Soviet environment in which they were in?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yes, yes, that's certainly true. You know, there were some accounts that actually came out only after the end of the Soviet era, so in the 1990s under Yeltsin, where Red Army veterans actually criticized the way the war had been remembered and said that no, it was not all glory, there was enormous loss, there was enormous suffering. There were veterans who even recalled that there had been popular panicked soldiers, you know, fleeing the front lines, all these negative things that had been covered up, you know, for decades. The fact that the Soviet government had made the war such an important symbol, it meant that any negative aspects of the war were not really allowed to be portrayed. So it certainly is true that Red Army veterans in a sense were not allowed, at least publicly, to express any negative experiences of the war. And that certainly contributed to the fact that over time, their personal, their individual memories were in fact shaped by this, sort of, master narrative of the war that only emphasized unity and heroism on the part of the Red Army.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

We have another question which asks, well, and I'll quote it here. It says, "I wanted to ask about alternative sites of memory. You mentioned Soviet Russian state's attempts to monopolize the memory of World War II, were there or are there alternative sites where various non-official forms of popular memory survived? In my own work about the memory of World War One in post-Ottoman Middle East, for instance, I found that folk songs constituted some of these alternative sites of war memory. Are there any similar examples in the Russian context?"

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Yes. So there are, this hasn't been well studied, and it's actually hard to get sources on it, but this actually is a very important point because when you talk about collective memory, to some extent conflated here official memory and collective memory, official memory being what the Soviet and Russian government put out, but you can have sources of collective memory that are non-official. You can have, for example, Red Army veterans who would gather, reminisce about the war. Elena Zubkova's book on Russia after the war actually talks about the fact that there were taverns where Red Army veterans would gather. That could be a site where you would have an alternative history of the war, where actually, people were able to recall their own personal memories, have those validated by others who had participated in the war, and essentially have, you know, an alternative memory to what the government was putting out. You know, the same could be true with folk songs or other ways to remember the war. You know, it's not the same as a pluralistic society where people could write and publish books, produce films, you know, there wasn't that possibility, and there is not really that possibility in Russia today either, unfortunately. There was some important work being done by Russian historians, scholars, who were studying World War II, and actually really trying to take a more honest look at it. Unfortunately, you know, with that 2014 law I mentioned earlier, the Russian government has prohibited any attempts to try to write an alternative history of World War II so that it's really impossible to pursue that option now. But hopefully, in the future, will be become once against a possibility.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Speaking of alternative, kind of, visions of World War II, I mean, you mentioned the ways in which, for example, the independent Baltic states have written their own histories of World War II and ones that really focus on the ways in which they were ingested into the Soviet Union and the difficulties of that whole process. Have we seen similar types of revising or rethinking the history of World War II from other former Soviet republics that are now independent states, whether in in Central Asia or in the caucuses, in Belarus, for that matter, or Ukraine, has there been that kind of rethinking of World War II that's come along with independence for those various peoples?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

You know, that's a good question, and I don't really know the answer, in the case of Central Asian countries, or South Caucasus countries, either. Certainly, it is significant in Belarus and Ukraine. Not so much that, you know, Belarus is not a free society either, but in Ukraine, prior to the war, and, you know, continuing presumably, there was an attempt to look at World War II in a different light. Among the efforts to examine World War II history in a new way, was an effort to shed some light on Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, and the fact that the, you know, there was this effort to, on the part of some Ukrainian partisan units to resist the reimposition of Soviet control at the end of World War II, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fighting against the Soviet forces and so forth. That was, you know, a page of history that had been suppressed under the Soviet era that was then rediscovered in the post-Soviet era in Ukraine. So yeah, certainly, we see that in Ukraine, possibly other countries too, though I'm less aware of those, most notable is really the Baltic countries in Ukraine, trying to present an alternative history of World War II.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Thank you for that, and kind of related to this question. Sort of, two questions we've had come in that are that I think connected. So one asks have there been any moments in which this focus on World War II and this champion of World War II on the part of the Putin government has backfired for, has not worked in the way that it had hoped it would for its political purposes? And, well, no, I'll ask that question first, and then I'll leave you with that one to start with.

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Right. Yeah. So, you know, I don't think that it has is backfired in the sense that people have, kind of, rejected the master narrative of the war that the Putin government has promoted, I think partly because of what I mentioned in the talk, the fact that this story of the war had been so deeply ingrained through decades of Soviet education, and so forth. Now it is, as I also mentioned in the talk, a different story to say, does this effort to promote World War II memory actually translate into support for the invasion of Ukraine? You know, there I think the answer is much more mixed. Those Russians who support the war effort, of course they've been subjected to a lot of propaganda on Russian television. Propagandas, you know, that portrays Russian-speaking Ukrainians as the victims of these efforts, the shelling of Donbas region by Ukrainian forces and so forth, so it's not as if they have a clearer picture of what's going on. But I think, for a lot of Russians, you know, it simply is impossible for them to see this as a defensive war. This invasion of Ukraine is so clearly a war of aggression, that it means that these efforts to try to make parallels with World War II simply did not work very effectively.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

We've had a question come in that connects with this whole, the sort of, a link between history and the justification of the war in Ukraine. It's going to take us a little bit out of World War II, but hopefully not too far. The question is, Putin had referred to the expansion of the Russian Empire by Peter the Great when promoting his views on the war on Ukraine. ... Is Putin promoting this as a type of memory based on historical teaching of the past to strengthen his own image in Russia and internationally? Are Russians influenced by this?

 

Dr. David Hoffmann 

Right. Yeah, that's an interesting point. You know, the great emphasis not only in my talk, but in Russian propaganda has been on World War II, but there have been other historical parallels that Putin has made. And certainly, Peter the Great is the one that probably stands out the most. Supposedly, Putin has a portrait of Peter the Great on his wall of his office in the Kremlin, and that he's had that ever since he became Russia's president. So he, in some ways, you know, looks back to Peter the Great as a hero or role model. And, you know, this, I think, accounts for the fact that he has talked in this invasion of Ukraine, ... in terms of making a parallel with what Peter the Great did. He said these are lands that Peter the Great fought for. You know, Peter the Great, the victories that he won the territory that he claimed for the Russian Empire, this was something that added to the greatness of Russia. So Putin apparently envisioning himself as some sort of Latter Day Peter the Great, where he is conquering lands that will be part of Russia forever. You know, it's too bad that these memories of Peter the Great have been sort of twisted and manipulated in this way, but obviously as I've indicated, Putin, in a similar way, trying to twist the memory of World War II and talk about Neo-Nazis in Ukraine to justify his war. So it is a kind of blatant use of war memory to try to legitimate current political goals.

 

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 

Thank you, David. I always wish we had more time to be able to ask all the questions that we've had come in today, but being respectful of everybody's time, we're coming up on 1:00, and so I just wanted to conclude by thanking you all so very much for joining us today, and for your excellent questions. I'm especially grateful to David Hoffman for sharing his expertise and his passion for history with us today. And I hope you will all join me in giving him a virtual round of applause in thanks for his time. Thank you, David, very much. And we'd also like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences, especially Alex Stacklane, the Department of History, the Goldberg Center, and Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective for their support today. Stay safe and healthy, and we'll see you next time. Thank you so much for joining us. Goodbye.

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