Long Live the Soviet Motherland?

Review of Motherland in Danger: Soviet Propaganda during World War II, by Karel C. Berkhoff (Harvard University Press, 2012)

In a small Ukrainian village last month I toured a school history museum. The principal and her museum director proudly showed us the one room exhibition in which the history of the region was displayed in objects, images, even a diorama.

Cover of Motherland in Danger: Soviet Propaganda during World War II by Karel C. Berkhoff
Cover of Motherland in Danger: Soviet Propaganda during World War II by Karel C. Berkhoff.

The major part of the exhibition was about World War II. Local villagers had contributed memorabilia, including weapons, bullets, mines, uniforms, helmets and posters, but also photographs, letters, and personal mementos. The director – herself born sometime in the seventies – began to speak passionately about the Soviet experience of war and to describe the "German-fascist aggressors" as if they were charging the border still today.

That term, and those passions, remain an important legacy of the Soviet war experience and the media and propaganda programs of the Stalinist regime. In his new book Karel Berkhoff uses published and archival sources to document the goals and rhetoric of the state media system across the years of the "Great Patriotic War." Seeking to set the historical record straight, Berkhoff tempers the impression that Soviet propaganda was all-powerful by exploring it from the inside. He does so firstly by pointing to its limitations and secondly by placing it in the context of wartime propaganda in Great Britain and the United States, particularly as regards the Jewish victims of the war. Though the Soviet Union has been accused by scholars of ignoring the Holocaust, Berkhoff shows that all three governments chose to tiptoe through the mines of anti-Semitism in their own cultures. While we may now wish that saving Europe's Jews had been a high priority during the Second World War, as Berkhoff shows, for the leaders of the Allied forces highlighting Jewish suffering would have meant combatting anti-Semitism among their own population. Instead, they used various other means to mobilize their citizens for the war effort.

For Stalin, the essential tactic for mobilization was total control. Berkhoff calls this the main goal of the media and propaganda system during the war: there was no such thing as too much censorship, and in many cases the media preferred to publish nonsense – such as production records with no data, lacking locations and the names of factories and workers – rather than risk revealing anything that might harm the war effort or the country's or Stalin's reputation. In addition, small press runs and poor distribution of both print and radio journalism (radio receivers were actually confiscated during the early years of the war) guaranteed that even this censored news was not accessible to the majority of the population. Most importantly, Stalin and his closest officials monitored the press themselves, stepping in whenever some editor or author was out of line.

In the Soviet Union, the concept of heroism was essential to both Soviet war literature and propaganda, and Berkhoff identifies a continuity during the war with prewar celebrations of heroes; the inherent contradiction of unique feats made to represent mass heroism had been present since the dawn of the literary doctrine of Socialist realism in the 1920s. Everyone was expected to be an individual hero, even a sacrificial martyr – and the state awarded medals to glorify those heroes, especially posthumously. The stories are familiar and have been shown to be mostly fictitious, but Berkhoff describes how they played out in the public and military arenas at the time. He concludes that despite falsified numbers and unreliable data, these stories probably had a considerable effect on Soviet morale, even when citizens suspected that they were not entirely true.

One of the important ways in which Berkhoff explores the Soviet war era is in looking at the "tyl," the rear, or what he calls the "hinterlands." In effect, all Soviet citizens were mobilized for the war, whether at the front or in the rear, and Berkhoff calls that rear "a single forced labor camp," reminding us of the ways in which the state controlled the activities of every Soviet man and woman – and in many cases child – workers and peasants alike. Stalin himself referred to "a single camp," and the enforced model of utter obedience meant that all efforts had to be directed against the invading enemy. Again in this sense the Soviets were not that different from the British, who according to some reports thought of themselves as "soldiers" in the rear and "heroes" on the home front. Letters published in the Soviet press – though often warped by censorship and perhaps in many cases fictional – described obedient and diligent workers and peasants who gave their all for the Motherland.

Both in the media and on the ground, the primary emotion of the war period was hatred. Famous poems and articles by Ilya Ehrenburg and Konstantin Simonov, among others, aimed to galvanize the Soviet people. Berkhoff withholds final judgment on whether the Nazi atrocities were more influential on efforts by the Soviet populace than those glorifications of murder that found their way into letters, songs, and fiction, but as he notes, total extermination of the German occupiers was the goal, and sometimes that bled into total hatred and extermination of the German people as a whole.

Thus ethnic hatred was a major part of the "Great Patriotic War," which was ironic, given that the Soviet "Motherland" encompassed numerous nationalities, including peoples who would have preferred not to be part of the empire. Stalin created a hierarchy of nationalities, with Russians at the top as "elder brother" and Georgians not far behind, but regardless a kind of "imagined community of Soviet people" was supposed to be fighting off the enemy. As Pravda had it in 1942, the definition of Soviet patriotism was the "subordination of one's whole life to the fight for the motherland" (121); here we have heroism and willingness to believe propaganda and hatred all rolled up into one, with no real acknowledgement that there was no "Soviet" motherland, that the peoples of the Soviet Union continued to speak different languages and even read newspapers printed in those languages (including Yiddish and German). Stalin's view of "national unity," Berkhoff argues, might in fact have done something toward saving the Jews, as the propaganda campaign against them was blocked in the name of that "unity."

On Russian radio recently I was listening to a program called "Songs of the Soviet Motherland," "Pesni sovetskoi rodiny," which was broadcasting folk music, children's songs, and popular tunes of the 1930s and 1940s. The very concept of nostalgia about a "Soviet" motherland in the twenty-first century seems almost fantastic, but in fact it has emerged from wartime propaganda that in turn built on earlier tropes to highlight the heroics of the Soviet people. Calling to that sense of patriotism again two decades after the fall of the Soviet regime shows us that Soviet propaganda lives on. As Berkhoff shows, during the Second World War Stalin forged the sense of the Soviets against the world that endured throughout the Cold War and for many people still endures today. Motherland in Danger gives readers a terrific tour through the scholarship and statistics of that wartime effort, presenting the debates and contradictions in reasoned and readable prose.