Tag Archives: world war II

Understanding today’s Russia

With President Obama in Moscow, America’s attention has been focused anew on its former cold war adversary. But nearly two decades after the fall of Communism, Russia remains an enigma to many Americans.

In an excellent example of explanatory journalism, Clifford J. Levy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, offers a simple six-step guide to “decoding Russia.”

Mr. Levy’s broad ideas about modern Russia are quite perceptive and accurate (no earth-shattering revelations), and should be read by every American who wants to gain a better understanding of the new Russia.

They reflect a strong understanding of what makes Russia tick – an understanding no doubt fed by Mr. Levy’s command of Russian and his efforts to reach out to Russian readers and sources.

Through all of Mr. Levy’s points runs a common thread – to understand Russia today, one needs to have an accurate understanding of Russia’s past. As I’ve written about before, this includes an appreciation for the massive toll of World War II – the Great Patriotic War – on Russia, and Russia’s perception that it bore the brunt of the conflict.

Beyond World War II, it’s important to acknowledge that Russians have a mixed view of their past – and that for many, the Soviet system had favorable aspects, while the current capitalist system has its pluses and minuses as well.

For more on what you need to know to understand Russia, including a brief overview of Russia’s take on former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (TIME Magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year), check out Mr. Levy’s piece.

Have your own questions about Russia? Leave them in the comments or send me an email, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

The Second World War—and in Leningrad, the 900-day siege of the city by German forces—was one of the defining events of Russian history (yes, I’ve written about the war a lot lately.).

To better understand the role of the Great Patriotic War and the blockade in St. Petersburg’s history, I went to the most tragic monument to the human cost of World War II: Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Click here for photographs from my visit to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I arrived at the cemetery, a half hour walk down Проспект Непокорённых (Avenue of the Unvanquished) in northern St. Petersburg, expecting rows of neat tomb stones marked with Russian names and tragic end-dates from 1941 to 1945. I expected Hammer and Sickles chiseled into stone monuments to brave soldiers alongside the graves of innocent civilians who perished in the blockade.

My vision of military cemeteries was shaped by places like Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.

But Piskaryovskoye is nothing like Arlington.

I entered the cemetery between two rectangular white-stone buildings. Inscribed on one’s wall: Пискарёвское мемориальное кладбище – Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I approached the eternal flame that burns red just beyond the entrance—it was hardly visible in the bright sunlight—and looked out over the cemetery in the small valley below.

At the far side, about a quarter mile away, stood a dark statue of Mother Motherland (The name of Mother Russia during Soviet times). Between her and me, I saw three parallel pathways, nearly empty of people, lined by grass and rosebushes. I did not see any tombstones, but thought they must be hidden behind the trees to the sides of the paths.

Descending into the cemetery, I suddenly understood the absence of tombstones.

The grass to the left and right of the paths covered rows of identical rectangular mounds, each marked by a stone inscribed with the year 1942, a Hammer and Sickle, and a leaf.

I had found my chiseled Hammer and Sickles.

But they marked mass graves, 186 in all, containing nearly 500,000 people—more deaths than the United States suffered in the entirety of the Second World War, more people than are buried in all the rolling hills of Arlington.

Never before had I seen mass graves. They struck me as somehow more tragic than traditional tombstones; a jumble of former lives, anonymously lying under green grass in the late June sun.

A few plastic flowers stemmed from the fronts of the graves—strange, bright contrasts to the sombre music playing from hidden speakers.

I made my way down the length of the cemetery, slowly passing the still mounds, til I reached the towering Mother Motherland.

On the stone behind her, there is a memorial poem (translation courtesy of my Lonely Planet guidebook):

Here lie the people of Leningrad

Here are the citizens – men, women, and children

And besides them the Red Army soldiers

Who gave their lives

Defending you, Leningrad,

Cradle of the Revolution.

Their noble names we cannot number

So many lie beneath the eternal granite

But of those honored by this stone

Let no one forget

Let nothing be forgotten.

After pausing to make out what I could of the poem in Russian, I began walking through the rest of the cemetery. (I’ll soon have photos online with more detailed information about the cemetery.)

The mass graves are numbered—I wanted find the last one, number 186.

This goal brought me to the far back corner, far from Mother Motherland, surrounded by trees and grassy mounds of dead.

After some wandering, I found the 186th mass grave. I stopped there a moment, and wondered. How many people were buried under the rectangular mound?

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

As I thought, I picked up a small stone and placed it atop the grave marker.

Over 2000, I figured. And then I made my way back, up, and out of the cemetery.

Click here for my photos from Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

A visit to the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Entirely by accident, I visited the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad on June 21, 68 years to the day after Nazi troops poured across the length of the Soviet Union’s western border in Operation Barbarossa, starting four years of blood-soaked conflict on the Eastern Front.

By the time Soviet troops reached Berlin in early May of 1945, about 27 million Soviet citizens (about half soldiers, half civilians) had died, just over 15 percent of the USSR’s pre-war population.

Over a million of those deaths occurred during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, widely considered the most deadly siege in world history.

So that the deaths of the siege (among civilians, largely of starvation, disease, and cold) will never be forgotten, monuments to and reminders of the siege stand throughout St. Petersburg, as I wrote about when I visisted The State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad.

Since that visit, I’ve run into many more of these constant reminders.

Near the Hermitage, a marker affixed to a wall during the the siege advises Leningraders that the other side of the street is safer when German shells rain down. Fresh flowers always lay beneath it.

At Isaaki Cathedral, a giant chunk of stone is missing from one of the 100-ton pillars that support the building. Near the wound, a plaque state it’s cause: Nazi bomb. Another similar piece of damage, on a bridge over the Fontanka Canal, is also marked by a plaque.

But the most visible, impressive reminder of the war is the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, located on Moskovsky Prospekt, the main road into St. Petersburg from the south.

Centered around a 48 meter high obelisk, the gray monument pays tribute to both the soldiers and civilians who contributed to the city’s defense and ultimate salvation.

Behind the large obelisk, one can descend into the center of the monument. Here, a smaller monument to civilians lies at the center of a large broken circle, symbolizing the breaking of the siege.

The center of the monument.

The center of the monument.

Music, quiet and somber, plays in this part of the monument, setting the tone.

A small museum of the siege is located beneath the monument. Electronic candles line the tops of the walls. Flags from the many groups of defenders hang from the ceiling. Artifacts from the war fill display cases. The only sound is the ticking of a metronome, played over the radio throughout the siege to let Leningraders know that the heart of the city was still beating.

The museum beneath the monument.

The museum beneath the monument.

Click here for more photographs from the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad.

The St. Petersburg Palace of Soviets

Lenin stands before the Palace of Soviets in St. Petersburg.

Lenin stands before the Palace of Soviets in St. Petersburg.

The Saint Petersburg Palace of Soviets was built by Josef Stalin in an attempt to relocate the city center away from the bourgeois downtown area. Stalin also hoped to have a magnificent building of his own to counterbalance all the Tsarist palaces in and around the city, such as The Hermitage and Tsarskoye Selo.

However, World War II stalled Stalin’s relocation plans, and the center of St. Petersburg remains in its bourgeois location. But even the area around the Palace of Soviets, on Moskovski Prospekt, is looking pretty upscale these days.

The massive statue of Lenin now glares at a Nike store and a Sberbank. Just down the road, hungry former party members can pick up a Big Mac and fries at McDonalds, and contemplate the massive hammer and sickle atop the palace while eating the best of American capitalism.

Even the palace fountains add to the upscale atmosphere. I mean, who ever heard of proletarian fountains?

Click here for more photos from the Palace of Soviets.

Kirov’s Apartment and the perils of Communism

Sergei Kirov's desk.

Sergei Kirov's desk.

Sergei Kirov’s apartment now stands as a memorial to the slain Leningrad Party Boss and as a reminder of the worst features of Stalinism.

At first though, the apartment, reconstructed to early 1930s form from photographs, seems to commemorate the early achievements of the Soviet system.

Click here for more photos from Kirov’s apartment.

Kirov’s desk is filled with reports on industrial output from factories in the Leningrad region, highlighting the impressive industrialization achieved under the first Five Year Plan and part of the second. Trinkets from these plants show off their successes—Kirov’s apartment contains the first typewriter made in the Soviet Union and models of many other industrial products, ranging from a steel bar to a tank. Photos show the construction of river dams and massive factories, and note Kirov’s inspection visits to some of these behemoths.

The explanatory text boasts of Kirov’s popularity among Leningrad workers and his closeness to other Soviet leaders. Stalin, it says, ate in Kirov’s dining room.

But Kirov’s dinner guest ultimately became his killer. And that same killer—after orchestrating Kirov’s assassination—embarked on a rampage of repression that resulted in the imprisonment and execution of millions.

The 1934 assassination of Kirov, likely on Josef Stalin’s orders, is generally considered to have signaled the beginning of these purges. During the purge period, several million people were killed (estimates vary widely, but many sources cite NKVD records stating that about 700,000 were executed in 1937-38 alone, at the height of the purges) and millions more were sent to labor camps, called gulags, where some died from starvation, disease, or cold.

I’ve written before about the conflict over Stalin’s legacy, which owes to the fact that the same Soviet leader who executed so many of his own also led his country to victory in the Second World War. But Kirov’s apartment is ultimately a memorial—not a monument—for a system that executed its most promising leaders and struck fear into the hearts of its citizens.

Russia tries to control interpretations of its past

For the Soviet Union, history was always a touchy subject. The state derived its legitimacy, at least in part, from a historical narrative that portrayed the Bolshevik revolutionaries as embodying the aspirations of the vast majority of Russians—not as a minority imposing their will through violence.

The Soviet Union couldn’t even stomach criticism that avoided the state’s founding myths. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev was harassed and expelled from the Communist party in the late 1960’s for writing a book critical of Stalin, for instance. There was one acceptable version of history—the one that suited the interests of the state.

And now, it seems the Russian government is working to shape the past once again. The St. Petersburg Times reports Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is creating a committee charged with “collecting and analyzing information about attempts to diminish Russia’s prestige by falsifying history.”

The initiative may simply be a piece in formulating a broader, more coherent national approach to Soviet-era history, particularly the Stalin era (sort of a curriculum standardization). Or it may be a political move, with little real effect. Of course, it could also have real consequences for the study of history in Russia.

Analysts quoted by the St. Petersburg Times seemed to have differing opinions. One believes that the committee may open more archives to researchers, making it beneficial in the long run. Another analyst, however, said the committee might lead to, “defense of the historical myth about Russia in the interests of the country’s rulers.”

Among Russians, memories of the Communist era are mixed.

While the horror of Stalin’s reign is acknowledged, there are still mixed feelings towards him here. Stalin embarked on massive purges and collectivized agriculture, killing millions, but also pursued large-scale industrialization and defeated the Nazis.

The text at the Museum of the Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg—a glimpse into how the state wishes to present its past—is quite critical of Stalin and his purges. But it does not mention some of the most undeniably evil portions of his reign. The Holodomor famine that occurred in the early 1930s in Ukraine, killing millions, is absent. Stalin’s aggressive collectivization of agriculture led to the famine, and Ukrainians consider the famine to be a genocide committed against their people. Russia rejects this claim.

In a related development, Russia’s parliament is likely to pass a bill that would criminalize criticism of the actions of the Red Army during World War II, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Penalties for such criticism, which is often made in former Soviet republics, could reach five years in prison. Foreigners who accuse the Red Army of atrocities (See: Katyn Massacre and Soviet War Crimes) could be punished upon entering Russia.

For a slightly different view of Medvedev’s committee, let’s turn to Pravda, the newspaper of Russia’s communist party. In a translated article headlined Russia will never let anyone falsify history of Second World War, Pravda celebrates the government’s effort to combat portrayals of Soviet soldiers as looters and rapists.

“As a matter of fact, we find ourselves in the situation when we must defend the historic truth and even prove the facts that seemed to be absolutely obvious not so long ago. It can be very hard and even disgusting at times, but we must do it. We must not turn a blind eye on the terrible truth of the war. We will never let anyone cast doubt on the deeds of our nation,” Medvedev said, according to the paper.

Neither Pravda nor the St. Petersburg Times made it clear exactly which “correct” version of history the government will promote.