How Soviet myths about the “Great Patriotic War” and the “Great Victory” were created and what they concealed
Every time we approach another anniversary of the Victory in the Soviet-German war, we see escalating political confrontation over this page in our history. Instead of toning down protests and promoting reconciliation in society, the government has caused controversy as it returns to the commemorative practices of the Soviet era. The Ukrainian parliament has approved the Communist Party-initiated statement “Toward the 65th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trial of fascist criminals” which essentially condemns attempts of Ukrainian scholars and politicians to objectively portray the role of the USSR in fomenting war and its involvement in crimes against humanity. Several days later the Verkhovna Rada passed the Law “On Commemorating the Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45.” Under this law red flags will have to be hung out by government and other agencies across Ukraine on May 9. In its attempts to revive and put into circulation a set of Soviet ideological clichés about the Second World War the government, no doubt, looks like a bull in a china shop and makes clear its views on Ukraine's role in the Soviet-German war. These views are a replica of the stale Soviet myths about the “Great Patriotic War” and the “Great Victory” inculcated in the minds of the population over a long period of time.
THE MYTH OF THE “GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR”
When the Soviets came to power in Ukraine their ideologues set about constructing a new value system with specifically Soviet heroes, holidays and myths. Traditional Ukrainian holidays were replaced with International Day, International Women’s Day, and Paris Commune Day and Soviet "creation" holidays and so on. In the course of the Soviet-German war, a new powerful myth named “the Great Patriotic War” emerged in order to feed faith in the government and its leaders, mobilize the population to fight the enemy and, after the war, create a nationless identity and a unified “Soviet people.” Over time this myth acquired wide popularity and replaced another fundamental Soviet myth, one about the “Great October Revolution.” It was accepted in scholarly literature, presented in school textbooks and embodied in the state holiday, Victory Day. Filled with jingoistic rhetoric, it diverted people's attention from the tragic consequences of the war for Ukraine and the crimes committed by the Communist regime.
On the first day of the German-Soviet war, June 22, 1941, Soviet Foreign Affairs Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov spoke on the radio and compared Hitler's aggression to Napoleon’s campaign and assured the listeners that just like the Russian people responded to Napoleon with a patriotic war, this time around “the Red Army and our entire people would again wage a victorious patriotic war.” Pravda published the speech the next day. The same issue of Pravda included an article by Soviet Academy of Sciences member Yemelian Yaroslavsky titled “The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people” which offered, arguably for the first time, the “correct” interpretation of the war and introduced the key clichés later used by Soviet propaganda: the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people, the liberation of the country from fascist invaders, and the great victory over Germany. Two days later, the article was published as a separate brochure, and many thousands of copies were distributed. The definitions voiced by ideologues in the first days of the war were presented by Soviet propaganda for decades later as definitions crafted by the people, and no historian at the time dared question them.
The designation Great Patriotic War was an allusion to two previous wars that involved the Russian Empire: the First World War – the Great War which was still present in the collective memory in 1941 – and the French invasion of Russia of 1812 which was known in Russian historiography as the Patriotic War.
Intensive mythmaking continued for years as the Ukrainian territory was being liberated from the Nazis. Historian Vladyslav Hrynevych says that in order to pay tribute to the liberation of the Ukrainian capital (November 6, 1943) and Ukraine (October 28, 1944 ), the CC CPU made plans to erect monuments to the liberators: “the pantheon to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War,” busts of generals, the Glory Monument, the Victory Monument, and obelisks honoring partisan heroes. A separate memorial, called Victory was to be constructed in Kyiv to represent “the struggle of the Soviet people against foreign invaders and the help provided to the Ukrainian people by the Russian and other peoples of the USSR and by Great Stalin in liberating Soviet Ukraine.”
THE MYTH OF THE “GREAT VICTORY"
The end of the “Great Patriotic War” and the apogee of the Soviet war myth was the so-called Great Victory of the Soviet people over fascism. Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945, in Rheims and signed its capitulation before Soviet representatives on May 8 in Berlin. That same day the Presidium of the Soviet Supreme Council set May 9 as the day of "universal celebration" evidently to single out the role the USSR in crushing Germany and to claim the victory for the Soviets. This is how the tradition to celebrate a distinctly Soviet holiday, Victory Day, began. Unlike the USSR, the West marks the fall of the Third Reich and its allies without extra pomp, commemorating the fallen heroes, rather than victory.
The first huge Soviet parade to mark the Victory took place in Red Square in Moscow on June 24, 1945. The parade included trenchant images of soldiers throwing German flags to the ground. Marshal Georgy Zhukov took the parade, because the Soviet Supreme Commander Joseph Stalin refused from this honorary mission as he did not consider the war victorious, according to Viktor Suvorov. Indeed, the myth of the "Great Victory" was promoted for only a short span under Stalin. After 1945, Victory Day was celebrated in 1946, while in 1947 it ceased to be a holiday. A secondary school textbook in history, published in 1947, put the "unconditional surrender of Germany" under May 8, 1945, while May 9 was not mentioned at all.
By 1947, all large Soviet cities were cleansed of those disabled in the war – the living eyewitnesses of the tragedy. At official events and solemn ceremonies, the same set of veterans took the floor. They had been carefully selected for the role and trained to speak the standard "truths" about the war. Looking at this large-scale theatrical farce, Oleksandr Dovzhenko wrote in 1946: "Lights are beaming. Music is playing. Blood-red Victory flags are waving in the wind. Red Square is roaring under the burden of rusty superhuman divine glory. Tanks are piercing the air with their tracks and radio poets are howling panegyrics to marshals, horses, iron and the insignia of the great events. Fireworks. Ambitious plans. International influence. Victory Day. Meanwhile, in the field, harnessed widows and cows were pulling plows, straining their muscles, bending their heads in exertion, and washing with tears their most binding and precise rights and duties – sufferings. Oh the evil world! What do you care? (...) Let anyone be cursed who drinks, feasts and laughs as he writes of well-being today. Let the pompous lies on his lips be cursed, too."
The Victory was reevaluated under Nikita Khrushchev. The feat was no longer attributed to Stalin but to the party, government, Red Army and the Soviet people. May 9 remained an ordinary working day.
It was only in 1965, under Leonid Brezhnev that the Soviet leadership revived the myth about the "Great Victory." By then most real war veterans had passed away, while the new generation had no experience of the wartime atrocities. Victory Day was transformed into a national holiday to be marked with great pomp. A special medal was minted for combatants. Moscow, Kyiv and Brest were declared hero-cities. Monuments and museums to the real and invented war "heroes" and unknown soldiers sprang up across Ukraine. Brezhnev personally unveiled the Mother Motherland monument and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kyiv.
The "Great Victory" myth remained robust after the demise of the USSR. Its anniversaries are marked in all of the post-Soviet countries except the Baltic States.
The myth of the "Great Victory" portrayed Ukrainians in the role of a younger brother liberated by the Russian people. In 1943-44, Soviet Ukrainian figures and government agencies heaped praise on the "elder brother" for "liberating" Ukraine. The struggle of the Ukrainian people was not given due recognition.
Stalin also recognized the Russians as victors in the war. On May 25, 1945, at an official reception to mark the "Victory" in the Kremlin, he raised a toast to the good health of the Russian people, the "most outstanding nation" and "guiding force of the Soviet Union," a people with "clear thinking, firm character and patience" and a decisive force that "secured the historical victory over the enemy." Stalin did not highlight the fact that other peoples of the USSR, above all Ukrainians, also fought in the war and suffered losses. The price at which "Victory" came was horrible: 4 million servicemen and 4.5 million civilians were killed; 3.5 million people were evacuated to the East; 2.4 million were moved to Germany as Gastarbeiters. In Ukraine, 714 cities and towns and 28,000 villages were completely or partly destroyed. Ukraine's economy was in ruins.
After the war, our country found itself in its pre-war status. It failed to create an independent state and remained an administrative-territorial unit of the Soviet Union controlled by the Kremlin. The Ukrainian government was appointed from Moscow; natural resources and products were taken to Russia; Soviet law-enforcement agencies brutally crushed any manifestations of dissent; members of the national liberation movement were repressed. Ukraine's membership in the UN, as well as the People's Commissariats for Foreign Affairs and Defense set up in Kyiv at the end of the war were an illusion designed to show that Ukraine functioned as a state.
Historians claim that one of the advantages of the "Victory in the Great Patriotic War" for Ukraine was that all Ukrainian lands were gathered together. However, this is not true. Outside the Ukrainian SSR were traditional Ukrainian lands densely populated with Ukrainians: Pidliashia and Nadsiannia; Khelm, Lemko, Priashiv, and Berestia regions; Marmoroshchyna and part of Bukovyna. Soviet leaders were not in the least guided by the idea of gathering Ukrainian lands as they set the borders of Ukraine. Stalin used "the unity of Ukrainian lands" for rhetorical purposes, while at the same time they were to him as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with the leaders of "people's democracies," while large Ukrainian national minorities in these regions were additional leverage with which to influence the governments of the respective countries.
The myth about the "Great Victory" left out issues uncomfortable to the Soviet government: mass executions of prisoners in the first weeks of the war and rejection of the Soviets by a large part of the Ukrainian population; using penal units and untrained, unarmed recruits as cannon fodder; and inhuman orders from Stalin and the General Headquarters. Instruction No.270 of August 16, 1941, put military commanders and Red Army servicemen who were captured by the Germans in the category of "vicious deserters" and subjected their families repression. Instruction No. 227 of July 28, 1942, pronounced any retreating person a traitor subject to military tribunal. Retreat-blocking detachments were ordered to "shoot panic-mongers and cowards on sight." Commanders sacrificed, for no good reason, thousands of their subordinates in battles only to capture some object by a certain holiday or anniversary and thus achieve glory and make a career. There were also mass deportations, looting, terror against the population of Western Ukraine, crimes committed by Soviet partisans, and many other atrocities.
The official version of WWII history is silent on the scorched-earth tactic used by the government to destroy everything that could not be evacuated. The Communists blew up the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station in Zaporizhia without notice to the civilian population or the military. Nearly 20,000 Red Army servicemen, many civilians, and tens of thousands of cattle died in the resulting flood, according to some sources. In Dnipropetrovsk, a bakery was blown up together with its workers. As the Red Army retreated from Odessa, the residential districts along the coast were flooded together with their residents, while wounded Red Army men were thrown into the sea together with medical vehicles. There are dozens and even hundreds of such facts. However, as they wrote about Nazi crimes, Russian historians were silent about the murderous actions of the totalitarian Soviet regime.