The Immortal Regiment: The Regime’s Human Shield

Crimea Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonskaya leading the Immortal Regiment in Simferopol, Crimea, May 9, 2016. According to TASS, she carried a "wonder-working" icon of Holy Martyr Tsar Nicholas II.
Crimean Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonskaya leading the Immortal Regiment memorial procession in Simferopol, Crimea, May 9, 2016. According to TASS, she carried a “wonder-working” icon of Holy Martyr Tsar Nicholas II that had been sent to Crimea from Moscow for the event.

The Regime’s Moral Defense: The Immortal Regiment as a Shield 
Andrei Kolesnikov
Forbes.ru
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.

Yaroslav Leontiev: Open Letter to NOD

Prizewinners and mentors at the awards ceremony for the 2012 history research competition The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century.
Prizewinners and mentors at the awards ceremony for the 2012 history research competition for high school seniors, The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century.

Yaroslav V. Leontiev, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor, Moscow State University
Open Letter to the Headquarters of the National Liberation Movement (NOD)
Facebook
June 29, 2016

A year ago, a friend of mine joked on the topic of what the participants in its school program and their schoolteacher mentors would be called after the International Memorial Society was declared a “foreign agent”? Accomplices of “foreign agents” or what? He was joking, but the idiots have taken it at face value.

So, messieurs idiots, with your escapade [see article, below] you have insulted, first of all, the cherished memory of Sigurd Ottovich Schmidt, the longtime jury chair of The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century, a nationwide historical research competition for high school seniors. The son of a Hero of the Soviet Union, the legendary polar explorer and scientist Otto Schmidt, Sigurd Ottovich Schmidt was a Teacher and a Historian with a capital “t” and a capital “h,” a man who educated many generations of professional source studies experts, archivists, and local history specialists. Schmidt was the founder and chair of the Russian Union of Local Historians.

At the same time, you have insulted the memory of the son of another Hero of the Soviet Union, a man decorated with the Gold Hero Star for the Berlin operation, Gennady Demyanovich Kuzov. Kuzov and I handed out the awards to the young participants of a previous competition onstage together.

For many years, I, a pupil of Sigurd Ottovich Schmidt, served as an expert for the competition The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century. I personally pored over hundreds of submitted works, and I detected no “national treachery” or “rewriting of history” in any of them.

The competition was a ticket into big-time scholarship for Lyosha Rakov, a wonderful boy from the Ural backwoods who was a winner of the first contest. While still a high schooler, he did a serious research project on the dispossessed kulaks and exiled special settlers who built the manufacturing plants in Chelyabinsk. Nowadays, Alexey Rakov has a Ph.D. in history and is an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics.

It was at the competition that I met a magnificent educator from the town of Kashin, history teacher Tatyana Mikhailovna Golubyova, who now heads the local history society. Along with her and her pupils, I walked hundreds of kilometers during historical hiking trips to study the military campaigns against the Polish-Lithuanian invaders during the early seventeenth century.

The same competition was the occasion for several encounters with Nikolai Makarov, a village schoolteacher from Voronezh Region who had compiled a genuine encyclopedia of the local villages and towns along with his pupils. The anthology We Are All from the Same Village, written by schoolchildren from the town of Novyi Kurlak in the Anna District, has been one of the best works on the history of everyday life published by Memorial.

And how can I forget the mother of a large family from the town of Likhoslavl, capital of the Tver Karelians, who herself served as a mentor for the competition, and her children, who were winners several years in a row? Or the girl from the Old Believers trading post of Sym? On the map of our immense country there is such a town on the Yenisei River, reachable only by helicopter. She wrote what is perhaps the only documentary history of the most remote and northerly point of the Yeniseysk District of Krasnoyarsk Territory.

Today, you gave these already-grown children a slap in the face, just as you gave a slap in the face to the hundreds of other children who visited Moscow for the first time thanks to this contest, and then went on to enroll in universities and become friends for years. You have insulted the dozens of teachers from the Russian hinterland, including those who went on to become winners of the nationwide Russian Teacher of the Year contest. (Such as Tatyana Mikhailovna Golubyova, whom I have already mentioned, but she is not alone.)

It is not for you idiots to teach them and me love for the Motherland and the graves of our ancestors. I happen to have spearheaded the raising of a monument to the heroic military commander of the Time of Troubles Prince Mikhail Vasilyevich Skopin-Shuisky in the town of Kalyazin, the second and most famous such monument in the country. In many respects, I spearheaded the raising of the first monument to the heroes of the First World War in Tver Region, the unveiling of a memorial plaque on the anniversary of Sergei Yesenin’s visit to Tver, and a number of other memorials honoring the heroes of the past in Tver, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl Regions. My ancestor was awarded the highest military honor for regimental priests, a gold pectoral cross on a Saint George’s Ribbon. The heroes of the First World War were later “awarded” arrests and exile. Our common ancestor had been decorated for the capture of Paris in 1814. My grandfather was awarded the main decoration for soldiers, the Medal for Valor, and two holes in his body, made by fascist bullets and shrapnel, that never did heal over.

Lazar Lazarev, the longtime editor-in-chief of the journal Problems of Literature, and father of Irina Shcherbakov, head of educational programs at Memorial and coordinator of the School Competitions project, was the highly decorated commander of a reconnaissance company. It is not for you idiot mummers to teach us patriotism. Authentic Saint George’s Ribbons are soaked in blood, while the sham ones you wear smack of bad slapstick or, to put it in Russian, of baboonery and buffonery.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Memorial

__________

Human Rights Event Attacked in Moscow
Anastasia Bazenkova
Moscow Times
April 28, 2016

Photo courtesy of @MemorialMoscow/Twitter

Guests at an event organized by Russia’s leading human rights group Memorial have been attacked by nationalist activists, the organization’s executive director told the Moscow Times Thursday.

Participants at an award ceremony for high school history students were sprayed with disinfectant and ammonia, said executive director Yelena Zhemkova.

“Memorial was holding a very important event at Dom Kino in central Moscow, but the guests and the participants were attacked by a group of aggressive protesters who threw green disinfectant and ammonia at them as they tried to enter the building,” Zhemkova said.

The protests in front of the Dom Kino building were organized by the National Liberation Movement (NOD), local media sources reported.

Roughly twenty NOD activists congregated outside Dom Kino, holding banners reading, “We don’t need alternative history,” and shouting, “Fascists!”

Among those attacked was acclaimed Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya. The writer, who headed the jury at the competition, was sprayed in the face with a green disinfectant.

A number of international guests were also present, including the German ambassador to Russia Rüdiger von Fritsch, Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported. The activists also attacked a delegate from a similar school history contest in Norway.

NOD’s youth wing coordinator, Maria Katasonova, denied the attack on Ulitskaya in an interview with Govorit Moskva radio station.

“We don’t know who sprayed Ulitskaya,” she said. “I only saw her turn around and she was already covered in green disinfectant.”

The high school competition, The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century, is an annual event held by Memorial. Students from around the country are encouraged to research local history by studying historical archives, interviewing witnesses, and examining newspapers and other sources.

Winning students are then invited to Moscow, where they visit a number of places and attend events organized by Memorial. The culmination of their Moscow program is the awards ceremony.

Police arriving on the scene said the protest was a one-man picket and took no action.

“Usually, even if it is a real one-man protest, the police will come and put everybody in the back of a van. This time the police did nothing, even though our college suffered an eye injury,” Zhemkova said.

Zhemkova said that although there had been protests during previous Memorial events, it was the first time counter-activists had been so aggressive.

There had been a picket in front of the Sakharov Center, where Memorial held an exhibition dealing with the First Chechen War last month, but no one had been attacked, she said.

NB. I edited this article, because no one at the Moscow Times bothered to do it before publication, thus making it practically unreadable. TRR

Maxim Kantor: Colorful Ribbons

Maxim Kantor
Colorful Ribbons
April 22, 2015
Facebook

Tell me, what you are proud of?
You didn’t fight, not even your fathers fought.
You basically did nothing at all.
That was seventy years ago, in another country.
And it was completely different people who fought, and they fought for something else.
Ukrainians, Russians, Americans, British, Jews, French, Belarusians, and Tajiks fought shoulder to shoulder then against an empire that wanted to devour the world.

pobeda
And now you are fighting for an empire against the Ukrainians. You are killing your neighbors.
You want to destroy their country.
And you want a decoration for this?
What do decorations from someone else’s victory have to do with this? What does someone else’s war have to do with it?
You are looters. You are bandits. You are imperialists.
Colorful ribbons are pinned to bandits. You think it looks nice?
Take the ribbons off now, don’t disgrace yourselves.

Maxim Kantor is a well-known Russian painter, writer, and essayist.

Photo by The Russian Reader