Realpolitik dictates Russia-West feud over WWII memories

By Cui Heng Source:Global Times Published: 2020/6/25 16:33:40

Russian national honour guard soldiers march during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War on Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday. Photo: Xinhua

On June 24, 1945, former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin stood on top of Vladimir Lenin's tomb and watched Marshal Georgy Zhukov review the ground armored force that defeated Nazi Germany. That was the most glorious moment in the Soviet history. On the same day 75 years later, Russia held a military parade to commemorate the victory in the Great Patriotic War. 

Right before the parade, President Vladimir Putin discussed in an article in US Magazine National Interest the shady deals between the great powers of Europe before the outbreak of World War II. 

In recent years, Russia has received great pressure from the West regarding the historical assessment of WWII. The hardcore performance of the military parade added with Putin's opinion charm offensive deals a heavy blow to the West.

Indeed, the assessment of the memory of WWII has become the focus of disputes between Russia and the West, and also a staple game among great powers. 

The West collectively portrayed the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" during the Cold War. After the war, the West did not accept Russia's integration into its sphere. Nevertheless, Russia and Western countries have not had serious conflicts over the historical memory of WWII for a long time. Although Poland and the Baltic countries often accused the Soviet Union of invasion in the early days of WWII, the leading countries in the West always recognized the Soviet Union's contribution to winning the war.

The Ukrainian crisis of 2014 was a watershed, after which Russia drifted further away from the West in terms of ideology and understanding of history. 

In 2015, Russia held a military parade in Moscow to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. This was boycotted by the US and European powers. In 2019, Western countries excluded Russia from the commemorative event of the Normandy landing. They were inclined to list Russia with the Nazis as one of the initiators of WWII. Since the Ukraine crisis, there has been a collective demand in the West to "stigmatize" the Soviet Union on the historical evaluation of WWII.

For Western powers, the battle for a greater or overacting master narrative of history is actually about the battle of international status between the West and Russia. These historical disputes are deeply entangled with realpolitik. 

The West has adopted all-round measures to portray Russia as an authoritarian and autocratic pre-modern state. Although the Soviet Union had a disgraceful history in Poland and the Baltic Sea in the early days of WWII, the Western approach to this historiographical matter is to only amplifying Moscow's responsibilities and overlooking its contributions. 

Poland, the Baltic countries and Central and Eastern European countries are among the most critical of the Soviet Union's contribution to WWII. They accused Moscow of invasion and annexation of other countries' territories. They seek to criticize Russia out of nationalist sentiments. 

The denial of Central and Eastern European countries happens to meet the needs of Western powers. Therefore, it is easy for the West to reach a tacit agreement and collectively put pressure on Russia on the issue of historical evaluation of WWII.

The Western approach is unacceptable for Russia under Putin's rule. Since he came into power after Boris Yeltsin in 1999, the conception of history has undergone an evolutionary process, and his perception of the Soviet Union has also changed. At the beginning of this century, Professor Andrei Borisovich Zubov was commissioned to write A History of Russia: The 20th Century, a history textbook for Russia's high schools, in which he exposed unreservedly the dark side of the Soviet history. At that time, Russia held a paradoxical attitude toward the Soviet Union. From the perspective of international politics, Russia inherited the Soviet Union's international status and main hard power. However, Russia deliberately evaded its relationship with the Soviet Union. It instinctively eliminated Soviet memories from a historical perspective.

In the Putin era, especially after the Ukrainian crisis, the confrontation with Western countries had awakened and stimulated Russia's historical memory as a great power. Russia's mainstream view of history has gradually changed, and criticism of the Soviet Union has been diminishing. Instead, more emphasis has been placed on the Soviet Union's contribution to Eurasian nations and the world history. As a result, when the Russian Constitution was revised in 2020, the Soviet Union was included in the chapters as a stage of Russian history, making it clear with national will that the Russian Federation is the heir to the Soviet Union.

The commemorative activity is a feasible path connecting history with reality. On the issue of historical evaluations of WWII, there are reasons for Russia to vie with the West for the discourse power.

From the perspective of national cohesion, denying the Soviet Union's achievements in WWII hurts Russians' emotions. It directly threatens their national pride about their defeat of the Nazis.

From the perspective of realpolitik, Russia is still a world power today by virtue of the international status left over by the Soviet Union - including its permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. The Soviet Union's position in the postwar international system relied on its great sacrifices and contributions in WWII. Denying the Soviet Union's role is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of its high international status following the war. It also casts doubt over the international status Russia has today.

Looking at the commemorations from the 70th to the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, we can see the fierce fight between Russia and the West regarding the politics of WWII memories. Out of the need of realpolitik, the West can ignore historical truth, and in the post-truth era, the West can use its discourse power to hide the history. It is necessary to support fair evaluations of WWII.

The author is a post-doctorate researcher from the Centre for Russian Studies, East China Normal University.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

blog comments powered by Disqus