The cult of WWII veterans was created under Brezhnev to instill the official version of the war into people’s minds and mask the fact that the state had neglected them in the first decade following the war
The consequences of the war, referred to as the Great Patriotic in the USSR, are mostly measured by the number of the dead – sometimes that of the crippled and the sick – the destruction of property and lost cattle. Some speak of broader frontiers. Living survivors are barely mentioned in this context. However, the more than 20 million war veterans that appeared in society, sharing a common experience in the global bloodshed that changed them for life, were probably the most significant and lasting consequence of WWII.
Paradoxically, the first academic study of veterans as a separate social group in Soviet society appeared in 2008, written by Mark Edele, an Australian historian of German origin with a US degree.
FROM STALIN WITH LOVE
In reality, demobilization brought an explosion-like burst of violence. On their way home, former soldiers frequently looted and raped – something they had grown used to in Germany, Austria and Hungary. They often stole war trophies from each other. Some got involved in armed clashes with NKVD units.
Soviet authorities had to act delicately during demobilization. Their strategy was to return former soldiers to industry as soon as possible, shut down any claims of reward for the military service, and prevent veterans from turning into a distinct social group.
During disarmament, the propaganda machine glorified the victorious warriors and celebrated them as model citizens while encouraging them to join the reconstruction campaign and attain new feats, but now on the industrial frontline. Sometimes, it reminded them of the Motherland’s gratitude to its saviours. The June 23, 1945 Demobilization Law was a manifestation of this gratitude. It guaranteed employment for veterans within a month of demobilization, in positions that were equal or higher than those they had before the war, based on their experience and the skills gained during military service. In addition veterans were allowed to keep their military uniforms and a pair of boots. For many years to come, these were the only clothes that millions owned, hence the forced military style of the 1940s. Veterans were also given food to last them until they got home and a small lump-sum of money, based on rank and length of service, plus the government covered their traveling expenses. The law required local authorities and directors of enterprises where former troops worked, to provide them with a place to live and any other affordable material support. A great bonus to this humble list of benefits was the June 14, 1945 decree exempting demobilized troops from customs control. As a result, they were free to bring home their trophies, often much more valuable than any bounties offered by the state.
Red propaganda tried to present this as Stalin’s father-like welcome of the veterans and the benefits of socialism over capitalist countries where demobilized troops joined the army of the unemployed. However, this was not the case in the US. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 known as the G.I. Bill guaranteed affordable mortgages, cheap loans to start a business, degrees – often government-sponsored, and other social benefits to over 15.7 million WWII veterans, i.e. almost 11% of the population – about the same percentage as in the USSR. The bill proved to be one of the most successful social reforms in US history. It allowed more than half the veterans to get a better education as 2.2 million gained college degrees. Meanwhile, of the funds allocated for unemployment benefits, less than 20% was used. Cheap mortgages allowed war veterans to move to the suburbs and raise the baby boom generation. US authorities clearly invested in its citizens – the nation’s key asset. Soviet strategy was quite different. Seeing the defeat of Germany as proof that the model chosen in the 1930s was efficient, Stalin launched the complete reconstruction of the pre-war social model. Once again, the USSR found itself in a global confrontation that drained its capacity to invest in human capital and forced it to rebuild and develop industry instead – a process always based on the overexploitation of the workforce in the USSR.
At home, the veterans were welcomed by the “joys” of Soviet bureaucracy. They had to exchange their temporary passports for permanent ones and get certificates for their war orders and medals. Those who were severely injured had to establish their disability. All this involved contact with Soviet red tape - inefficient, heartless and often absurd. They soon saw the real meaning of the government’s promises. Some veterans had to go through another war to return to peaceful life. The only thing the government provided eagerly was a job, but it was often far from what they hoped for. As for the rest, they stood in long lines and pleaded with local officials, mostly swivel-chair warriors disdained by those who fought.
From 1948, when demobilization was over and, despite fears, did not cause any serious political turmoil, the benefits and privileges guaranteed by law were stopped. The last group of demobilized veterans comprised of the conscripts born in 1925, received nothing but a lump-sum. In 1947, the government passed a decision to abolish all benefits and privileges for veterans who had been awarded state decorations. Bolshevik bureaucrats estimated the total amount needed to cover at least some of the benefits for decoration holders at almost 3.5bn karbovantsi. This proved too expensive, and the benefits were cancelled. Until 1978, veterans, other than the disabled, did not legally exist as a separate category in the USSR.
Writers later described frustration with this Soviet “gratitude” as war nostalgia. “They promised us a good life after the war,” Mark Edele quotes a veteran. “Instead, they are raising taxes and life is becoming more and more difficult. We have no idea what we fought for.”
A DANGEROUS CASTE
The reluctance of Soviet authorities to give a special legal status to WWII veterans was based on more than just economics. The desire to prevent the rise of a special privileged group – ideologically unpredictable and politically dangerous – was equally important.
The veteran community was too numerous and diverse. Historians, including Mark Edele, divide them into three or four generations. They had very different pre-war experiences, hence different perceptions of WWII and social adjustment. The least dangerous generation was the one born from 1923 to 1927, i.e. almost 25% of all veterans - the youngest conscripts. Growing up, they witnessed the “developed” part of Stalinism and had no traumatic firsthand experience of the campaign to crush the spirit of the people. For most of them, the famine and collectivization was a childhood memory or something they knew about from their parents. These young men went to Soviet schools and universities before the war, their mindset was shaped by communist propaganda. They had greater faith in Soviet myths and were more accepting of military patriotic rhetoric.
Soviet propaganda did not encourage veterans to feel as a separate, let alone privileged group. All efforts were focused on the glorification of Stalin’s role and making light of war losses and suffering, hence the role of average veterans. An important part of this was the decision in late 1947 to treat Victory Day as a regular workday. Some veterans, especially those who used their status to get into administrative offices, accepted the Stalin cult and the official bravado of the happy victorious return of war heroes to the duty of building socialism. Most stayed quiet as there were no other options.
The overall liberalization of the Soviet regime after Stalin’s death brought veterans new opportunities. Although the government did not change strategic policy towards them, it did introduce some innovations. 1956 was the turning point: the USSR congress of war veterans founded the Organization of Soviet Veterans chaired by the Soviet Committee for War Veterans, although it did not have the right to establish local branches. The pension reform of that same year unified legislation on different categories of the disabled, raising pensions for some, yet leaving the basic pension calculation formula unchanged. Pensions for disabled veterans increased two more times under Khrushchev, in 1959 and 1964.
In 1956, former prisoners of war underwent rehabilitation. 1.8 million one-time Soviet troops returned from German captivity. Their future ranged from reenlistment in the Red Army after thorough NKVD checks at filtering camps, to criminal sentences. Some, especially officers, were sent to penal units with little chance of survival. Others found themselves rebuilding Soviet industry.
During the Khrushchev thaw, the memory of war became more democratic. As veteran memoirs were published en masse, people began to develop their own opinions on the war. This had been unthinkable under Stalin. Regular meetings of veterans from different units became a new phenomenon – something that had not existed before.
THE PRAETORIAN GUARD
The reinstatement of the Victory Day holiday in 1965 symbolized a new era in the attitude towards veterans. Leonid Brezhnev is considered to be the most effective orchestrator of the veteran movement in the USSR. Changes in veteran policy are often referred to Brezhnev’s personal sentiments and his earlier military experience. He obviously liked seeing himself as a war hero, but this bonhomie of authorities towards veterans was largely based on rational motivation. Brezhnev’s “conservative evolution” needed a social foundation. The more years passed after the war, the better the community of former fighters suited the role. “The victors either died on the battlefield or drank themselves to death, crushed by post-war hardships,” wrote Red Army veteran Nikolai Nikulin. “It wasn’t just the war, but the rebuilding of the state at the expense of their life. Those who survived are crushed and quiet. Those who stayed in power and preserved their energy are different people: they sent people to concentration camps and pointless bloody battle. They did so in the name of Stalin, and still talk about it openly.”
In the early 1980s, the leaders of the Soviet Committee for War Veterans reported having nearly one million activists. However, the Communist Party watched this closely to keep the expansion of veteran groups under control. In 1976, with Brezhnev in charge, the Central Committee passed a strict resolution on the veterans’ very specific place in the Soviet system and their actual propaganda-oriented role. It disbanded some veteran communities, while others came under the direct control of party functionaries.
In 1965, pensions for disabled veterans were raised once more, followed by three more raises in 1967, 1973 and 1975. In 1975, on the 30th anniversary of victory, this category was granted new benefits for public transport, healthcare, housing and utilities, as well as access to specially equipped cars.
Veterans finally got their special legal status in late 1978. Many of them had died by then, and benefits and privileges would not overburden the budget. Besides, they were reaching retirement age anyway. By then, most surviving veterans represented the first “socialist” generation. Brought up at the peak of the cult of Stalin, they carried the worldview qualified as Stalin’s culture of the gift by Western researchers. Taught to view any preferences from the state as a gift and care rather than the execution of its function, these veterans were grateful. Moreover, Brezhnev’s care was far better than Stalin’s.
On November 10, 1978, the USSR Council of Ministers and the Central Committee of the Communist Party passed a decree to grant “participants of the Great Patriotic War” – the first legal recognition of their status – a number of humble privileges. They could travel to any destination in the USSR with a 50% discount once a year; take out an interest-free loan to build a private home; and take their annual leave at any time they wanted, plus two weeks of unpaid leave. Veterans also had priority access to treatment in sanatoriums, dachas, private telephones and once they retired, medical treatment based on where they worked. Meanwhile, their leaders took every opportunity to highlight their favours to the state, i.e. the role of veteran organizations in domestic and international propaganda and assistance to Soviet authorities in the enforcement of party and government decisions.
Initially, the veteran category was exclusively for servicemen in the army. Later, the state expanded the group of veterans entitled to more benefits. Virtually every Victory Day anniversary entailed additional preferences, such as pension raises, free use of public transport and the like. Gradually, almost all people who survived the war as adults gained veteran status. The climax came with the September 25, 1986 decision to establish the All-Union War and Work Veterans Organization. It was came into being in December that year at a conference in Moscow where the charter was adopted and the All-Union Council of War and Work Veterans was elected. Unlike the Soviet Committee for War Veterans, the new Council was designed as a vast network of local branches confirming the party’s limitless confidence in veterans. The 1988 constitutional reform essentially integrated the Council into the state system. It was one of the NGOs that delegated 75 deputies to the convention – the top authority in the USSR.
By the end of the Brezhnev era, veterans had turned into a major status group in the state, but Soviet society was not unanimous in its attitude towards them. The privileges veterans enjoyed – especially access to goods and services – irritated many, especially the young. This often led to conflicts of interests in a country with an extreme deficit of goods and inconvenient daily life. Most likely, this was a manifestation of social selfishness and ingratitude. However, it could also have been a rejection of the way in which tragic memory was exploited for political purposes and a reluctance to glorify people for being part of a social group rather than for personal decisions and deeds.