Russia’s Soft Power and the “Great Patriotic War”
As Ukraine burns under quasi-covert attacks from Russia, with the Kremlin now demanding that Kyiv cease its efforts to reestablish sovereignty in its own country – that constitutes “aggression” according to Moscow, and represents a danger to world peace itself – Putin and friends continue to howl gigantic curses at anything that smacks of dissent from the Kremlin-mandated version of events. It’s hard not to notice an obsession with World War II emanating from Russia in this, and Moscow-approved outlets, including those who just got a whole raft of medals from the Kremlin for their “objective coverage” of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, love to mention that war and Ukraine. All the time. Not a day goes by without Russian media complaining about Ukrainians daring to dissent from the narrative that Stalin’s armies “liberated” Western Ukraine in 1944.
focus obsession with events of seventy years ago strikes most Westerners as, well, a bit odd. We, too, have our WWII myths – we like ours starring Tom Hanks when possible – but in Russia there remains the legacy of Communism, which used that potent myth – they called it the Great Patriotic War – to validate pretty much everything about the Soviet Union. Many have noticed that the orange-black ribbon worn prominently by pro-Moscow fighters in Ukraine today is that of the Order of St. George, a top Tsarist medal for bravery that was resurrected by Putin in 2000. But, not coincidentally, it’s also the ribbon of the medal commemorating Soviet victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War, which was issued to tens of millions of Soviet citizens. You can’t swing a cat in Russia even now without encountering an elderly veteran wearing one; this medal’s easy to spot since it’s got Stalin’s image on it. Such things matter in collective memory.
Just how central the Great Patriotic War remains in Putin’s ideology was made clear in a recent piece by retired General Makhmut Gareyev, a prolific writer on issues of defense and strategy who happens to the head of Russia’s Academy of Military Sciences. Despite Gareyev’s advanced age – he’s past ninety (interestingly he’s also a Muslim Tatar) – he churns out lot of turgid writings on military matters, and can be considered an official mouthpiece of the Kremlin. His recent analysis deals with the problem of Western “soft power,” and advises what Russia should do about it.
A veteran of the Great Patriotic War, Gareyev makes clear that the world remains a scary and dangerous place, no matter what woolly-headed Russian liberals may tell you:
Some people assert that no external threats whatsoever exist for Russia, other than terrorism or internal conflicts. Expenditures for defense have increased. The ideas of the defense of the Fatherland and mandatory military service have allegedly lost their meaning. Society’s defensive consciousness is thereby being eroded.
Some scholars of the Higher School of Economics and other ultra-liberal organizations propose that Russia abandon the Arctic Ocean and transfer the Arctic to international control and call for giving back not only the Kurile Islands but also the entire Far East. If we back away from our national interests, then there actually will be no threats but there will also be no Russia as a sovereign state.
The problem, you see, is that Western countries are trying to destroy Russia through the use of “soft power.” It’s not NATO bombers or tanks that endanger the Motherland now, it’s the Internet and movies. Per Gareyev:
The first group of threats is associated with information and other subversive actions, the creation of controlled chaos with the goal of provoking various types of unrest in opposing countries, the overthrow of undesirable bodies of government from without, and the disruption of a state’s internal stability as this occurred in Libya and, recently, in Syria. Assumptions are made that the preconditions for the emergence of armed conflicts in Europe are small as never before. But in recent years more than ten countries of the Baltic region and Eastern Europe with their military potential have joined NATO and the European integration of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova is being prepared. Formally, it would be without armed conflicts but threats with regard to Russia are being realized in other forms.
It’s a plot, you see, and it goes by terms like “soft power” and “color revolutions.” In this, Gareyev is just parroting the usual Kremlin line on such matters, seeing conspiracies by NATO and the EU lurking behind every last tree in Latvia. These require robust defense and eternal vigilance from the Russian people since, as Gareyev makes clear, the West will never cease its nefarious plotting. What is Russia’s first line of defense, you may ask?
The formation of society’s objective historical and defense consciousness, first of all opposition to the falsification of the history of the Great Patriotic War, is extremely important in order to create a solid foundation for the patriotic indoctrination of citizens and the affirmation of the ideas of the defense of the Fatherland.
You will note the word objective again, prominently. Gareyev cites the need to maintain the Official Narrative about WWII before his mentioning nuclear weapons, his second point. In other words, if Russians start asking questions about what Stalin and Soviet leaders did between 1939 and 1945, they could start getting ideas, which would lead to dissent and, before you know it, color revolutions, “fascism,” and LGBT takeovers.
In the 1990s, after the Soviet collapse, there was a brief period where Russians actually began to ask questions about the genuine history of WWII – about the extent of Soviet crimes, enormously flawed Soviet generalship, and Moscow’s real agenda in the war – but that was all shut down once Putin came to power. Archives have been closed to non-approved researchers, and dissent from the Official Narrative has been criminalized. The Great Patriotic War remains the foundational myth of the Russian dictatorship, and presumably will remain so as long as Putin is in the Kremlin. Stalin once called historians “archive rats,” considering them troublemakers who only brought problems; Putin apparently holds a similar view. It will soon be May 9th, Victory Day in Russia, commemorating 1945, so get ready for a lot of celebrations of the Official Narrative, amidst troops, tanks, and aircraft, with extras added to hail the “liberation” of Crimea.
Thanks to regime policies, most Russians are wholly ignorant of the truths of the world’s greatest conflict. Namely, that Stalin partnered with Hitler to start the conflagration, in which the USSR was just as complicit as Germany. Together, the Nazis and Soviets raped and pillaged Poland, while Stalin stole not just half of Poland but all the Baltics, plus parts of Romania and Finland. Approved Russian histories mention none of this, and instead the Great Patriotic War begins, suddenly and mysteriously, on 22 June 1941, with the German invasion. Of course, the USSR was in no sense a victim of WWII, rather one of the two countries that caused the nightmare; inconveniently for Stalin, his partner in crime turned on him almost two years after their dirty deal to divide Eastern Europe between them.
Average Russians are emotionally invested in the potent lies of the Official Narrative and it’s hard to blame them, since most of them have never heard any other version of events. But it’s important to note that lies about 1939-1945 continue to serve as a justification for Russian crimes in Ukraine right now, and it’s unwise to expect Moscow to be honest about the present when the Kremlin continues to be deeply dishonest about events in the now-receding past.