Stalingrad, the battle for memory

The historian Xosé M. Núñez Seixas recounts in a remarkable essay how the Second World War has become a tool to strengthen the different national identities in Eastern Europe

World War II ended in 1945, but the battle for its story is still open. For 80 percent of Russians it is the greatest event in the history of their country, while 44 consider it a conflict that was waged for “the survival of the homeland” and another 27 maintain that it was a conflict “against fascism and for freedom and democracy in the world” , which is not without irony, bearing in mind that they hardly have a democratic past. But that does not matter. The Great Patriotic War is currently one of the greatest cohesive elements of modern Russian identity and forms part of an essential chapter in the mythology of its nationalism.

“This has been so almost since those very days. Stalin knew that he would not succeed in mobilizing the population in defense of the regime. It only remained to invoke the homeland, the invader who wants to destroy the ancient culture of the Russians. In fact, Soviet propaganda during this period included references to ancient heroes , the confrontation against the Turks and the Napoleonic invasion. The allusions to the communist system were actually small”, says Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, who reflects in “Back to Stalingrad” (Galaxia Gutenberg), winner of the Walter Benjamin International Essay Prize, how the memory of the Second World War has been incorporated into current political discourses, what narratives are built around them andhow it survives today in the memory of the different peoples of Eastern Europe.

Mariupol, as the Russians have left it in this invasion

Mariúpol, as the Russians have left it in this invasion

«As of 1946, the appeal to the Soviet sacrifice with Stalin and then also with his successors sought to insist on two main questions: to point out that the war waged had been the forging deed of the USSR, an idea that had more capacity to create points of consensus that the October Revolution of 1917 itself, which was already considered as the prehistory of the USSR, and, later, very importantly, to legitimize the sacrifices carried out in the decades of the 20s and 30s together with the excesses of Stalinism . It was argued that thanks to this, a system capable of withstanding the tensions of a war economy was erected. Although the accent was always placed on the heroism shown by the people, “says the author.

This approach still enjoys enormous validity and has not become obsolete. In fact, as the historian reveals, the defeat of Hitler is one of the unifying elements of the current Russian soul, something that most of the polls reflect. «For the Russians the great deed of the 20th century is the victory in the Second World War. They take great pride in it.». The question is whether it is observed in the same way by other nations in this same environment: «For the Baltic States or Ukraine, this event is seen from a quite different prism. They see themselves as martyr countries, where many of their patriots did not have a chance to choose sides. For the Ukrainians it meant being between the fire and the frying pan, and elsewhere it is claimed that they could never fight under their flags due to the circumstances of that moment.

For Ukraine, which had suffered the horrors of the «Holodomor», considered by them a genocide induced from Moscow, the Second World War is seen as a double invasion: first at the hands of the Germans and then by Stalin. Putin , who is trying to recover the halo of superpower that the USSR had, has returned to this speech to legitimize the occupation of Ukraine and convince his fellow citizens of the need to wage this fight. «The Kremlin plays with memory on the internet, on Twitter… there is a recurring appeal to Soviet sacrifice, to rhetorical anti-fascism. We have experienced it with the invasion of Ukraine. On May 9, 2021, he was talking about hands stained with Russian blood, he was talking about the Nazis who are reviewing history and it could be deduced that he was referring to Poland, the Baltic States, but, above all, he was addressing Ukraine ».

Defensive lands

For the historian, all this is nothing more than a “smoke screen” by Putin, who intends to rebuild the area of ​​Soviet influence or the tsarist empire. He aspires to recover these defensive lands “from docile regimes dominated by friendly leaders, such as Belarus.” He seeks, according to Núñez Seixas, external and internal legitimation. “This has worked well for him so far, as long as it did not become an indiscriminate war and the soldiers were people from other, more marginal parts of his territory.and not the children of the middle classes of St. Petersburg». And he explains: «He has failed in his objective. In various public pronouncements, he pointed out that Ukraine was an artificial country, that its identity was also a fabrication, and that the Ukrainian republic was a Bolshevik mistake. He believed that the majority who supported Russia would greet his troops as liberators and that the government would collapse like a house of cards….but he was wrong. The city of Kharkov worshiped the resistance that planted the German forces. They thought that his supporters in this city would support him, but he did not take into account that they too are Ukrainians and do not want anything to be imposed on them from outside. These seven months of war with Ukraine have cemented the national consciousness of Ukrainemore than thirty years of educational policies directed from kyiv. Today Kharkov is more Ukrainian than ever.

What could happen if Russia stayed in Ukraine or invaded it? For Núñez Seixas there are no doubts about this and he assures that «if Putin were to annex Ukraine he would have a very big problem, a Chechnya multiplied by twenty. This war is bad for everyone. My impression is that he is preparing the ground for a dignified exit. He wants to force Ukraine to sign a peace out of fatigue and accept peace talks. He aspires to consent to keep Crimea, Lugansk and Donetsk, and that these territories become part of the Russian federation ».

The reason, for Núñez Seixas, is that “he cannot withdraw troops. It would mean the downfall of Putin.” A possibility is there. “In the last thirty years, the elites have become Westernized. The oligarchs send their children to schools that teach in other languages. They have Swiss and German passports, and they don’t want to go to war. The recent capture of the recording of a son of these oligarchs makes it clear. They have been called up and he says that “this will have to be solved at another level…”… There is a possibility that the Russians will strengthen ties with China and consume Chinese products, but, as a correspondent from Moscow told me, the Russians like Netflix too much .In addition, there are some elements of the mass youth subculture that are already too much assumed. Young Russians are familiar with the Anglo-Saxon world, which is going to be hard to break. In reality, this conflict represents a setback of thirty or forty years. It’s back to the 20th century.”

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