Vera Vasilieva: The lessons of memory. On uncomfortable recollections

23 April 2020

Vera Vasilieva, a freelance journalist, presenter of Radio Liberty’s Freedom and Memorial project, and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s Human Rights Award in 2018

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Liberty]

The seventy-fifth anniversary of victory in the Second World War is approaching. Back in June last year, Vladimir Putin decreed a jubilee medal for the occasion. The country was being prepared for large-scale celebrations. But see, after the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, first in society and then in the corridors of power conversations began about the inappropriateness of holding a parade on 9 May, and still more of inviting veterans when Moscow is under a ‘high alert’ regime. It would seem to be obvious: the health and life of war veterans, who are very elderly, who we thank so fulsomely and loudly on memorial dates, should be held dearest of all by the state.

But for some reason the essence has long been lost behind the form. There doesn’t seem like much to be proud of at the moment, and the mood of citizens is, to put it mildly, not the happiest thanks to mass morbidity and the colossal financial losses that go with it. And the authorities need grandiose public holidays to erase from society’s memory all the mistakes they have made and the lawless actions they have taken. It is necessary to constantly remind us of the great victory (and, it would appear, it doesn’t matter what the cost, even if the lives of veterans who are being glorified are at risk). And it’s not only veterans – almost a hundred cadets of the Nakhimov Naval School and students at the St. Petersburg Kirov Military-Medical Academy have become infected with coronavirus as a result of participating in rehearsals for the Victory Day parade.

Putin probably expected to see world leaders on 9 May, including representatives of Western powers, in the stands on Red Square in Moscow. He hoped for their recognition, thanks to the contribution of the USSR to the victory over Nazism and fascism, he wanted to strengthen the importance of Russia in the contemporary world. Alas, reality has turned out otherwise. And not because someone is denying the selflessness of the Soviet people in defending the world from fascism, but because humanity has been struck by a pandemic. Putin evidently really needed this parade. So he left the cancellation of the event to the very last. Formally – until a letter from the representatives of the veterans’ organisation appeared, with the corresponding request. Lacking any information on the subject, I have to assume that Putin first made the principled decision to postpone the celebration, and only then did the letter appear in public.

It is good and proper that reason prevailed over ambition, but the pressing problems of the veterans still remain unresolved, and attempts to start a conversation about the unparaded, dark side of war might entail, amongst other things, criminal charges in the course of reviewing its results.

The chair of the Karelian chapter of Memorial, Yury Dmitriev, a researcher into the history of Stalinist repression who has been in Petrozavodsk Detention Centre No. 1 for four years on charges that human rights activists and other independent observers consider false, writes to me about the difference between appearance and essence, about the fact that there can be no future without understanding the past, and about the wartime memories of his father. In these stories, as the historian stresses in his letter, ‘these are not the kinds of memories with which tribunes regale their contemporaries from on high in “the Lessons of courage”.’ Below is an excerpt from a letter by Yury Dmitriev about the 9 May holiday.

Easter was a quiet time in our family, but on Victory Day a lot of people got together, the whole family: my father- a front-line soldier, the husbands of my mother’s sisters… Everyone went through the war: some served as anti-aircraft gunners, some as signallers, others in the tank regiments. In January 1942, my father, then a 17-year-old boy, was brought to Leningrad, and he didn’t get out until the autumn of 1943. He fought in the infantry, he was a mortar man. He earned an Order of the Red Star and two Orders of Glory. He didn’t run from the Germans. He was wounded twice: once from shrapnel, and once by a bayonet. He had shell-shock.

When the blockade was broken, he got to Riga. There, the senior commanders took pity on him and sent him to study at the Omsk infantry school. Then he was sent to serve in Karelia, where in 1946, in a military trade store, he met Claudia, whom he later married. God did not grant them children and in August 1957 they took me from the orphanage: small, ill and screaming… They are the ones who cured me with the kindness of their parents’ hearts, raised me and brought me up, so that now every day I ask God to send them to His Kingdom, where the righteous rest…

Front-line soldiers did not like to recall the war. We were little brats and pestered them with questions, but the men kept silent. It was a dirty business, they said, bloody and vile… Even once I was a little older, I still begged my father to tell me the “most vivid, most memorable” parts of wartime life. I thought he was going to tell me about how he went on the attack, how he struck a German tank with a mortar, how he was given awards, but he always spoke about something else entirely. The most striking event of front-line life was when the mortar crew caught a rat, cooked it, and made a whole pot of meat broth from it. They ate it for almost three hours…

Much later, I learned how to extract from front-line soldiers their most intimate memories of the war. Not those memories that are retold as lessons of courage, but those that come from the soul and form the soul. Many of them, who went through unspeakable things and were wounded several times, have a sense of shame that prevails in these very personal memories. The shame of having to fight, kill, and – to be honest – loot and pillage. As if the war would excuse everything. But it doesn’t. You can temporarily erase these things from your memory with vodka, but you can’t free your conscience.

Translated by Anna Bowles and James Lofthouse

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