The Great Patriotic War Myth
by Dr. Roman Serbyn
As Nazi Germany capitulated to the Allies on May 8, 1945, a wave of celebrations swept across the Western world, and the date became known as V-E Day, for Victory in Europe. In the East, the Soviet government ordered official festivities for May 9, and it was this subsequent date that entered the Soviet calendar as "Victory Day." Under Leonid Brezhnev, on this pseudo-anniversary of their pseudo-victory, Ukrainian citizens of the Soviet Union commemorated their participation in the pseudo- "Great Patriotic War."_1_ Ironically, the old holiday survived the collapse of the "Evil Empire," and the government of independent Ukraine continues to honor this leftover from the country's colonial past as part of its own national celebrations.
President Leonid Kuchma is particularly attentive to this year's 55th anniversary of the Soviet Union's first Victory Day celebrations. Veterans will be issued special medals with inscriptions "For Bravery," "Bohdan Khmelnytsky" and "Defender of the Fatherland." Scholarships set up in honor of war heroes will be made available to students of military establishments. A new Memorial Book will list the names of war combattants, their military units and awards; preparatory work will begin for the construction of a memorial complex to honor the victors, and a prize will be awarded for the best historical work on the war. A contingent of Ukrainian veterans will be sent to join in a united Victory Parade in Moscow. Since Ukraine has 500,000 combattants of World War II and another 5.5 million veterans of non-military war service, the cost of the medals alone is estimated at some 90 million hrv (roughly $10 million). In view of the economic difficulties in which Ukrainian veterans find themselves today, one wonders why the government didn't deem it more beneficial to spend the money and energy on improving their living standards rather than on commemorations built on myths - and on anti-Ukrainian myths, to boot?
The second world war gave rise to many political myths, three of which have survived the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Empire and continue to be revered in Ukraine to the present day. The terms "Great Patriotic War," "Liberation" and "Victory" appeared in the Communist party newspaper Pravda in the first days of the Germano-Soviet conflict, and were used as propaganda slogans until the war ended. The accompanying battle cry - "For Fatherland, for Stalin" - was discarded after Stalin's death, but the other three slogans became the main pillars of a new consolidating myth.
Under Brezhnev the cult of the "Great Patriotic War" was promoted as a means of propping up the fading founding myth of the "Great October Revolution" and the waning interest in Lenin. Gradually, "the Great Patriotic War" acquired a new stereotyped image and this engineered vision of the war was passed to the Soviet people as their compulsory "collective memory." It constituted obligatory axioms for Soviet history books and became a focus for the annual celebrations during the work-free Victory Day.
The American political scientist John Girling defines myths as "emotionally charged beliefs, expressing the way people experience formative periods in their history." These beliefs can be derived from a combination of facts and fantasies, they may be constructed for a good or an evil cause, but they are always fashioned with the interest of the mythmakers in mind.
"The Great Patriotic War" was always bad history, but as myth it proved an effective tool in the hands of the Soviet propagandists and educators. It bound generations of Soviet citizens to the empire and mezmerized the subjected nations to such an extent that they were unable to perceive the empire's inherent hostility to them.
Since the myth is Russocentric it can still be useful to present-day Russia, but what benefits can Ukraine gain by adhering to it? In the hope of strengthening its fragile independence, Ukraine has opportunistically and quite unwisely latched on to a cult that by its very nature is inimical to Ukraine's existence as a free state.
Contrary to what generations of Soviet children were taught, the slogan of the "Great Patriotic War" was not of popular origin. One day after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Pravda published a long article under the title "The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet People." In that piece we also find references to the country's "liberation" and "victory" over the enemy. To achieve that victory, each Soviet citizen is asked to sacrifice "his energy, his will, his knowledge, and, if necessary, his life." The article concluded: "Victory will come all that faster and will be all the more complete, the tighter we bind the great family of the peoples of the USSR around our Soviet government, our great and famous Communist Party, and our wise leader, the head of the Soviet government - Comrade Stalin." From the very start, it was not the Soviet people but the Party and the "Red Führer" who led, inspired and drove their subjects to inhuman sacrifices, in order to save the Eurasian empire.
The notion of a Russian "patriotic war" was not invented by the Communists - they borrowed it from Napoleon's 1812 attack on Tsar Alexander. The Party only added the adjective "great" and applied it to Stalin's struggle with Hitler. The patriotic character of the war allegedly revealed itself in the fervor supposedly expressed by the Soviet citizens in defense of their fatherland. How strange for a people - abused and brutalized like no other - to display so much enthusiasm to save the Communist paradise for their persecutors. Could a true Fatherland treat its children like slaves and cannon fodder, and condemn them as "traitors" when they fell into enemy hands, as Stalin's empire did? Even Hitler did not dare go that far.
During the war, Ukrainians could have hardly considered as their fatherland a country that threw hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian teenagers, untrained and often unarmed, against a seasoned and well-armed enemy. This is precisely what the Soviets did when they returned to Ukraine in 1944, telling the youngsters: "acquire your weapons from the enemy with your hands." Did Ukrainians consider as a "war for the fatherland" the defense of an empire that starved to death millions of their relatives and kept the rest of the nation in slavery? The alleged upheaval of the Ukrainian population in defense of their merciless Soviet fatherland was a fabrication imparted into a collective memory, concocted by means of falsified history books and artfully staged public holidays. Milovan Djilas, Marshal Tito's envoy to the USSR, gives us a more authentic picture of Ukraine during the war. Visiting Uman in 1944, after the region was retaken by the Soviet forces, Mr. Djilas observed:
"It was not possible to conceal the passive attitude of the Ukrainians toward the war and toward Soviet victories. The people seemed to me sombre and reserved, and they paid no attention to us. Although the officers with whom we were in contact concealed the Ukrainians' behavior, or pretended it was better than it was, our Russian chauffer cursed the Ukrainians' mothers because their sons had not fought better, so that now the Russians had to liberate them." (Milovan Djilas, "Conversations With Stalin." London: 1962, p. 48.)
It is precisely this "liberation" by the Russians, that exposes the sham of the "patriotic war" and the hoax while begging the question of "liberation." To liberate is to set free. Western allies freed the half of Europe from which they drove out the Germans. Foreign occupation gave way to national independence, and totalitarian regimes were replaced by democratic ones. This happened in France, Belgium, etc. Even defeated Germany was freed from her own totalitarian regime and eventually granted complete national independence (at least in the case of West Germany).
Central and East Europe received only partial liberation. A certain amount of national sovereignty and civic liberties was recovered by the new satellites of Russia. Partial liberation came to Russia, cleared of German occupation but remaining under a totalitarian regime. As for Ukraine, it was not liberated in any sense at all - all Ukraine did was to change one foreign totalitarian master for another. There is a fundamental difference between what the end of the war with Germany brought to Russia and to Ukraine: Russia regained national freedom; Ukraine for a while continued its uneven struggle against Russian imperialism and then lost all freedom for another 40 years.
When one considers all the atrocities committed by the Soviet regime against the Ukrainian people during the six long years of World War II, the mind boggles at the thought that Ukraine today can celebrate the bogus "victory" in the sham "patriotic war." This is not to say that the Soviet empire was not a major victor in the European war, or that Ukrainians did not contribute to this victory. But the victory belonged to Stalin and the party - and not to the Soviet citizenry, not even to the Russian people, and certainly not to Ukrainians.
Some 5 million to 6 million Ukrainians fought in the Soviet Army, and about half of them lost their lives in the struggle. Many of them were honest, brave and patriotic; they may have wished to bring freedom to Ukraine, and they may have been true heroes. But they did not liberate Ukraine, for that was beyond their power. It is time that Ukrainians face the tragic fact that the Ukrainian military in the Red Army were only a cog in the great totalitarian machine, and instruments cannot be victors.
In his poem "Victory Day," Maksym Rylsky spoke of May 9 as "the day that Marshal Stalin gave us." The perceptive poet understood that the holiday was Stalin's to give because victory itself belonged to him - and not to the people. What the poet could not foresee was that the final Soviet victory would come in Ukraine only after another famine, another deportation of innocent victims and the destruction of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) had taken their toll of countless victims. The Red Army's final victory in the "Great Patriotic War" was its victory over Ukraine and not for Ukraine.
World War II was one of the most tragic events in Ukrainian history. Ukraine lost over 8 million people - both military and civilians - more than either Russia or Germany. Coming on the heels of the horrific Famine-Genocide, and followed by the new Stalinist post-war repressions, the war years stunted the growth of the Ukrainian nation, and the effects of this calamity are still felt today. The hype of the "Victory Day" celebrations and the hoax of the "Great Patriotic War" served the Soviet regime in drawing the people's attention away from the misery of the war, giving them a false sense of self-importance and binding them to the vicious regime that oppressed them. It was an effort to turn a vale of tears into a mountain of joy, a Roman circus in its most cynical form.
The countless victims of the war and the veterans who have survived the ordeal deserve a more authentic and dignified remembrance from an independent and democratic Ukraine. Western democracies remember their war victims and honor them on Remembrance Day, on November 11, the day the first world war ended. That date has no significance in Ukrainian history, and so another date (even May 8 or 9) could be chosen by Ukraine as a day to honor the men and women who throughout Ukrainian history gave their lives for Ukrainian freedom. But it must be a dignified Remembrance Day.
1 The usual translation of the Russian expression "Velikaia Otechestvennaia Voina" (Ukrainian: "Velyka Vitchyzniana Viina") as "The Great Patriotic War" can be misleading. "Otechestvennaia" is an adjective derived from "otets" (father), through "otechestvo" (native land, fatherland, i.e. motherland). A more accurate translation would be "the great fatherland war" or "the great war in defense of the fatherland." [Back to Text]
Dr. Roman Serbyn is professor of history at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
"Telling it like it is"