Bandera

Hands Off Russia’s Sacred Cow

WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

Soviet WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

This week the Russian Duma passed a law forbidding the expression of disrespect for “days of Russian war glory and memorial dates tied to the defense of the Fatherland,” as well as “publicly dishonoring symbols of Russian war glory.” Anyone who spreads “well-known false information about the USSR’s actions during World War II” could be fined up to $6,000 and spend up to 3 years in prison. Using the mass media to spread the “lies” would result in harsher punishment. The bill also outlaws any “rehabilitation” of Nazism or denial of Nazi crimes.

If the law goes into effect, it will be risky for Russians to contradict the Kremlin’s official version of what happened during World War II or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Or the wars in Chechnya. Or events from the 13th through the 19th centuries, according to some sources. Russia has a lot of history to protect.

World War II in particular has long been a very sensitive subject. It’s Russia’s sacred cow. The Soviet army (which included more than just ethnic Russians) defeated the Nazis on the war’s eastern front at an immense cost. That’s reason to feel proud, but silencing any criticism of that history is just one more sad sign of where things are headed in Russia. With some exceptions, the country is still unwilling to publicly discuss and come to terms with the ugly parts of its past, a lot of which happened before, during, and after WWII while Stalin was in charge.

In 2009 a push for this kind of law failed, but this time the law’s sponsor, Irina Yarovaya, has the support. Why now? The government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said her colleagues were convinced by “recent events that show that attempts to rehabilitate Nazis or reconsider the outcome of WWII impact the global interests of international security and pose a threat to international peace.”

That means this is about Ukraine, and it’s no coincidence that Moscow’s been using words like “fascist” and “Nazi” lately to criticize Ukrainians it doesn’t like. It’s not a shock that Moscow recently revealed so-called “formerly unknown classified documents” showing that Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era Ukrainian hero whose name has been circulating again, collaborated with the Nazis. That’s propaganda, not news. Bandera’s partisans fought at one point with the Nazi army against the Soviet army, hoping to regain independence from Moscow, so he’s been a controversial figure for a long time already.

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9. Photo by author

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9 in Moscow. Photo by author

I’ll bet remembering WWII makes Russians feel stronger, as well as proud. Taking back Crimea and menacing eastern Ukraine must also make some of them feel like they once again live in a powerful country. (Read my post on the subject of Russia’s “great power” status if you haven’t already.) One journalist made a good point when she noted that the “law on glory” had its first reading on “April 4, on a wave of patriotism stemming from the annexation of Crimea and the propaganda war with Ukraine and the West.”

Wouldn’t you know that VTsIOM (the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), found in a March poll that 42% of respondents said they considered “having powerful armed forces” a condition for being a great power, up from 35% in March 2013. Last year, 33% thought “providing citizens a high level of material well-being” was a necessary ingredient. This year only 25% thought so. Hhhhmm.

If Russians were free and able to rely on the rule of law, if the leaders actually prioritized the country’s interests over their own, then it could do so much more than grasp at the glory of its military past. But until Russia can create a more benevolent reason to be proud about now and optimistic about the future, it will hold on to the past like a former jock whose life has gone nowhere since he peaked during high school.