“Why does life almost come to a halt on June 22? And why does one feel a lump in the throat?”
This how Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to address the fateful day in 1941, when Germany invaded Russia, with an extraordinarily detailed article on June 19: “75th Anniversary of the Great Victory: Shared Responsibility to History and our Future.”
Citing archival data, Putin homes in on both world wars, adding important information not widely known, and taking no liberties with facts well known to serious historians. As for the “lump in the throat”, the Russian president steps somewhat out of character by weaving in some seemingly formative personal experiences of family loss during that deadly time and postwar years. First, the history:
“On June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union faced the strongest, most mobilized and skilled army in the world with the industrial, economic, and military potential of almost all Europe working for it. Not only the Wehrmacht, but also Germany’s satellites, military contingents of many other states of the European continent, took part in this deadly invasion.
“The most serious military defeats in 1941 brought the country to the brink of catastrophe. … By 1943 the manufacture of weapons and munitions … behind the lines exceeded the rates of military production of Germany and its allies. The Soviet people did something that seemed impossible. … the Red Army. no matter what anyone is trying to prove today, made the main and crucial contribution to the defeat of Nazism … Almost 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives, one in seven of the population … the USA lost one in 320.” [Emphasis added.]
Somber factual recollections. Significant, too, is Putin’s explicit criticism of “crimes committed by the [Stalin] regime against its own people and the horror of mass repressions.” Nor does he spare criticism of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, denouncing its “secret protocols as “an act of personal power” which in no way reflected “the will of the Soviet people.”
Putin notes that he asked for “the whole body of materials pertaining to contacts between the USSR and Germany in the dramatic days of August and September 1939,” and found facts “known to very few these days” regarding Moscow’s reaction to German demands on carving up Poland (yet again). On this key issue, he cites, “paragraph 2 of the Secret Protocol to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 23, 1939”, indicating that it throws new light on Moscow’s initial foot-dragging and its eventual decision to join in a more limited (for Russia) partition.
Look it up. And while you’re at it, GOOGLE Khalkhin Gol River and refresh your memory about what Putin describes as “intense fighting” with Japan at the time.
The Russian president points out, correctly, that “the Red Army supported the Allied landing in Normandy by carrying out the large-scale Operation Bagration in Belorussia”, which is actually an understatement. ( See: “ Who Defeated the Nazis: a Colloquy and “Once We Were Allies; Then Came MICIMATT.”
“No matter what anyone is trying to prove today,” writes Putin, who may have had in mind the latest indignity from Washington; namely, the White House tweet on V-E day this year, saying “On May 8, 1945, America and Great Britain had victory over the Nazis.”
Lump in Throat
And why does one feel a lump rise in the throat? Putin asks rhetorically.
“The war has left a deep imprint on every family’s history. Behind these words, there are the fates of millions of people … Behind these words, there is also the pride, the truth and the memory.
“For my parents, the war meant the terrible ordeals of the Siege of Leningrad where my two-year old brother Vitya died. It was the place where my mother miraculously managed to survive. My father, despite being exempt from active duty, volunteered to defend his hometown. … He fought at the Nevsky Pyatachok bridgehead and was severely wounded. And the more years pass, the more … I treasure in my heart the conversations I had with my father and mother on this subject, as well as the little emotion they showed.
“People of my age and I believe it is important that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren understand the torment and hardships their ancestors had to endure … how their ancestors managed to persevere and win. … We have a responsibility to our past and our future to do our utmost to prevent those horrible tragedies from happening ever again. Hence, I was compelled to come out with an article about World War II and the Great Patriotic War.”
Putin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) eight years after the vicious siege by the German army ended. Michael Walzer, in his War Against Civilians, notes, “More people died in the 900-day siege of Leningrad than in the infernos of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki taken together.”
Putin notes that the “human truth” of war, “which is bitter and merciless, has been handed down to us by writers and poets who walked through hell at the front. For my generation, as well as for many others, their … piercing trench prose and poems have left their mark on the soul forever.” He calls particular attention to a poem by Alexander Tvardovsky, “I was killed near Rzhev,” dedicated to those who fought the formidable German Army Group Center.
Putin explains, “In the battles for Rzhev … from October 1941 to March 1943, the Red Army lost 1,342,888 people, including wounded and missing in action. For the first time, I call out these terrible, tragic and far from complete figures collected from archive sources. I do it to honor the memory of the feat of known and nameless heroes”, who were largely ignored in the postwar years.
The Germans were hardly the first to invade Russia. It was occupied for more than two centuries beginning in 1240 by Mongols from the east, after which its western neighbor was Europe, the most powerful and expansionist region in world history into the 20th century. After the Mongols were finally driven out, in came invaders from Lithuania, Sweden, the Hanseatic League, Napoleon and, 79 years ago today, Hitler.
“The Poet of Russian Grief”
Out of this history (and before the Nazi attack on June 22, 1941) came the deeply compassionate 19th century poet Nikolay Nekrasov, who, after Pushkin, became my favorite Russian poet. His poem, “Giving Attention to the Horrors of War”) moved me deeply; I have carried it with me from my college days when I committed it to memory.
I visited Moscow in April 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the meeting of American and Russian troops on the Elbe at the end of WWII. It was a heartwarming observance of the victory of our wartime Grand Alliance … and a reminder of what might be possible seven decades later. I was asked to speak at the ceremony celebrating the meeting on the Elbe, and was happy to be able to feature Nekrasov’s poem to compensate for my out-of-practice Russian.
On June 22, 2016, the 75th anniversary of the Nazi attack on Russia, I was in Yalta, Crimea, with an American citizens’ delegation and was again asked to speak. It was an even more appropriate occasion to recite Nekrasov’s “Giving Attention to the Horrors of War,” and I shall never forget the poignant experience of personally witnessing, and feeling, just why Nekrasov is called “the poet of Russian grief.” There were several people in the audience old enough to remember.
Finally, I recited Nekrasov again, in Brussels, at the annual EU Parliament Members’ Forum on Russia in early December 2015. My talk came on the second day of the Forum; until then, almost all of the talks were pretty much head-speeches. So I tried a little heart therapy and called my presentation “Stay Human.” The late Giulietto Chiesa, one of the Forum moderators recorded my speech and posted it on his website.
The poem can be heard from minute 11:00 to 17:00. There is some voice-over in Italian, but I spoke mostly in English and some of that is intelligible – audible, I mean. There is no voice-over for the Nekrasov poem. I shall provide a translation into English below:
Heeding the horrors of war,
At every new victim of battle
I feel sorry not for his friend, nor for his wife,
I feel sorry not even for the hero himself.
Alas, the wife will be comforted,
And best friends forget their friend;
But somewhere there is one soul –
Who will remember unto the grave!
Amidst the hypocrisy of our affairs
And all the banality and triviality
Unique among what I have observed in the world
Sacred, sincere tears –
The tears of poor mothers!
They do not forget their own children,
Who have perished on the bloody battlefield,
Just as the weeping willow never lifts
Its dangling branches
Suffice it to add that I confess to being what the Germans call a “Putin Versteher” – literally, one who understands Putin. (Sadly, most Germans mean no compliment with this appellation; quite the contrary.) As one who has studied Russia for half a century, though, I believe I have some sense for where Russian leaders “are coming from.”
That said, like almost all Americans, I cannot begin to know, in any adequate sense, what it is actually like to be part of a society with a history of being repeatedly invaded and/or occupied – whether from East or West. In my view, U.S. policy makers need to make some effort to become, in some degree, Putin Verstehers, or the risk of completely unnecessary armed confrontation will increase still more.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). This originally appeared at Consortium News.