Russia’s ‘Cult of War’: Victory of the Great Patriotic Cover-Up?

“She will wait for me and I will return. I am not afraid of battle.

You gave birth to a son. Thank you, Mother. Thank you, Moscow…

Our victory awaits us”.

So, what do you think: an old Soviet victory hymn, perhaps? An example of Stalin’s rousing militaristic propaganda? Something promulgated at the height of the Soviet Union and reiterated out of fear? Now, re-read those stirring words. In fact, rap them. Because these words are part of a state-commissioned rap, made available for download, along with patriotic ringtones, in time for last year’s Victory Day, the annual celebration of the end of Great Patriotic War (that is, the Second World War).

Anyone who has studied the events of 1941–45 from a Russian perspective will be aware that, as a nation, Russia feels that it has a deep connection to the war, unmatched in spirituality. Although my lecturers here in Moscow have insisted that this is connection is organic and stems from the Russian soul, it seems more likely to be the aftermath of Brezhnev’s ‘Cult of War’, whereby militaristic and hero-centric culture was endorsed to unite the country under the banner of national pride. In referring to its own battles in a worldwide war as a ‘Great Patriotic War’ in itself, it seems that Russia considers its wartime suffering to be entirely separate from that experienced on an international scale. In fact, Moscow’s extensive Museum of the Great Patriotic War is dedicated to “our victory”, with no mention of allied success. Furthermore, the idea that the country owes an unpaid debt to those who fought continues to be pervasive, with privileges extending into the most banal everyday circumstances and, bizarrely, even to veterans being exempt from paying to use public toilets.

Since Putin’s inauguration, the Kremlin has attempted increasingly to instil this reverence in its youth via the aforementioned rap, amongst other things. However, when a young member of state-backed youth organisation ‘Nashi’ asserted, in phraseology reeking of stagnation, that their aim was “to preserve the memory of every veteran… in order to stop the distortion of history”, these attempts were cast in a somewhat more sinister light. One can only assume that the accusation of ‘distortion’ pertains to historians’ unprecedented investigation into the Red Army over the past decade, which has unearthed, most shockingly, long-buried revelations about an occupying army of merciless and undiscerning rapists who systematically abused German women, raping children, nuns, the pregnant and the elderly alike. However, it seems, the government is choosing to shun this opportunity to cleanse Russia’s past of its central myths and begin, afresh, with nothing to hide, instead investing in a convenient cult of untruths.

Clearly, the Kremlin does not yet feel strong enough to admit its war crimes; instead, the increasingly preservationist government is choosing to shield its population from the truth by sustaining and buttressing a four-decade-old cult, developed to bind people with a seemingly organic sense of militaristic pride. So, as Putin looks set to be in for the long-haul after next year’s election, we have to question: if, in 2011, Russia’s only real sense of national unity is entirely reliant upon the upholding of a heroic myth, can it really be said to have progressed significantly since the time of the myth’s inauguration? And, if this is the case, how long can this Cold-War-era Russia continue to exist, isolated from objective historical opinion and, thus, unified, in the 21st Century?

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