The Regime’s Moral Defense: The Immortal Regiment as a Shield
May 9, 2016
On December 5, 1966, sitting as his dacha in Pakhra, Alexander Tvardovsky, an agonizingly conscientious and grimly self-reflective poet, recorded in his diary thoughts that nowadays would cause the higher-ups to stop inviting him to receptions at the Kremlin, and hired “patriots” to douse him, as is the custom nowadays, with brilliant green disinfectant.
First, Tvardovsky writes about the essence of Victory Day and its semi-official recension, including the myth of the Panfilov Division’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen, whose debunking now costs people their jobs.
“Those who perished in the war for the Motherland have a indubitable, sacred right to be remembered and honored. […] However, there is a considerable admixture of ‘educational policy’ in all this as well, considerations on how to manipulate the moods of the ‘masses’ […] such as the tomb of the unknown soldier organized recently (God forbid he should prove to be a known soldier), a lot of needless bother, like the five or six of the twenty-eight [Panfilov Division Guardsmen] who utterly embarrassingly turned up alive.”
Tvardovsky then goes on to write about what is totally and even furiously excluded from the national memory and reflections on the topic nowadays.
“No doubt those who perished on the eve of the war and during the war, not at the front, but in the mad regime’s prisons, camps, and torture chambers, also deserve to be remembered in this way.”
Half a century has passed since Tvardovsky penned this diary entry, but nothing has changed at all or has been reborn in circumstances reminiscent of the Brezhnev period in terms of ideology and political strategy. The regime’s legitimacy was then directly linked to memory of the war, moreover, the official memory of the war, with many of the unpleasant particulars concealed. Today, too, the regime feeds on the juices of the past, powerful evidence of the effects of path dependence in the vast nation’s collective consciousness. Back then, however, there were still a couple of things that brought people together like conquering outer space and romanticizing the 1920s. (Fidel Castro and Cuba reproduced the spirit of that era.) Our day and age parodies the things that consolidated the Soviet Union. But then again, Nikita Khrushchev would never have deigned to be personally involved in launching rockets from a cosmodrome, as did Vladimir Putin, a man who endeavors to inherit the Soviet Union’s achievements.
The current Russian regime’s final privatization of the Soviet victory in the Second World War and the amazing propagandistic transformation of each new war, including the Syrian campaign, into a direct sequel of the Great Patriotic War has divided the nation instead of consolidating it.
And the minority, who are not at all against remembering the great war, but are opposed to hysteria, official narratives, vulgarization, schematic renderings of the war, marking “friends” with Saint George’s Ribbons, and rejecting critical takes on historical events, have been virtually excluded from the ranks of citizens.
If you did not take a Saint George’s Ribbon foisted on you at a football match, and your kid was not involved in an Immortal Regiment event at school, you are a renegade, not a citizen. Everything the state gets its hands on immediately acquires an imperative and moralistic aftertaste and helps to identify an individual as friend or foe. Strangers have no place in this political system. People who think about the Gulag, for example, have no place. They are attacked, even if they are children, as happened during a Memorial school essay contest, and declared “national traitors.”
In our hybrid political framework, these prescriptions and nearly obligatory moral codes, sometimes reinforced by the Criminal Code, have been rented not even from authoritarian systems but from totalitarian ones. In this model, morality is immoral, Russia’s heroes are anti-heroes, and vice versa. The nation has repented of the repentance it felt thirty years ago. It turns out that iPhones can peacefully coexist with the most primitive variety of Stalinism, and supermarkets, with archaization of the mind.
The Great Patriotic War is used, including to sell nonexistent threats to the general public. These threats strengthen the authority of the man commanding the besieged fortress and expand the food supply of the military and security services elites.
Today’s Russian society is a society of people who have been insulted a priori and attacked before the fact. We were attacked in 1941, and we are attacked now. We are attacked, so we defend ourselves and conduct just wars. These wars are triumphal and victimless, and ennobled and sterilized by TV. They resemble computer games where the players have a big supply of extra lives.
You cannot die a hero’s death in such wars, although you can go as a tourist. (According to Christopher Coker of the LSE, modern war is often a continuation of tourism by other means.)
In the name of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, you can do anything whatsoever. You can even crack down on the opposition, conduct a wild goose chase for “national traitors,” annex Crimea, invade Syria, and do battle with “Banderites.” Ceremony, rather than real success, has become a ritual means of “consolidating” the nation. Anyone who has avoided being consolidated during collective rituals is an internal enemy.
The victorious official narrative is a set of rote answers in the absence of questions. It is the triumph of simplification, the refusal to understand that history is complicated. It is the refusal to imagine the war as a tragedy. The topic of the unnecessary sacrifices and wastefulness of the Stalin regime, which did not count soldiers and devalued their lives, has disappeared from the discourse. Simplifying complicated things has also ben a means of simultaneously justifying the current regime and Stalin’s regime at a single blow, of dividing the nation into right and wrong, moral and immoral, by tying the “right” folks together with a single Saint George’s Ribbon, by marketizing the war and making it fashionable.
Everything in Russia is hybrid: the wars in Donbass and Syria, the political system itself, and now the celebration of Victory Day. Sacred memory has been placed at the service of solving a single albeit blistering problem: preserving the power of the current leaders and current elites as long as possible. To do this, the regime takes cover behind the Immortal Regiment’s morally impeccable shield, which, however, makes it look even more immoral.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Leokadia Frenkel for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Roman Dobrokhotov and TASS. For more on this topic, see Peter Hobson, “How Russian Authorities Hijacked a WWII Remembrance Movement,” Moscow Times, May 6, 2016.