Russia’s Living History Of The Great Patriotic War: U.K. Defense Secretary Visits Memorial

When the United Kingdom Defense Secretary Ben Wallace arrived in Moscow on Friday to meet his Russian counterpart, his first official action was to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown soldier in the Kremlin Wall. The memorial is dedicated to the millions of Soviet soldiers who died in the effort to defeat Nazi Germany. To the Soviet Union, now Russia, this conflict was dated 1941 to 1945 and known as the Great Patriotic War. It holds a position of solemn reverence in Russian society that outstrips Western collective memories of the Second World War. The history is alive in memorials, discourse, and the annual holiday and military parade for Victory Day. Thus, Ben Wallace’s decision to preface his important diplomatic talks with a visit to the memorial is a notable engagement with the complex politics of Russian memory that lurk behind the crisis in Ukraine.

Although Wallace’s act was a mark of respect, the British government press release on the visit sought to subtly challenge Russia’s prevailing narrative of the Great Patriotic War. “Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the first Arctic Convoys, during which British ships helped supply the Soviet Union while it was bearing the heaviest burden of all Allied nations in the fight against Adolf Hitler,” it noted. To Russia and Russians, the greatest conflict of the twentieth century began in 1941 with Operation Barbarossa and over the following four years, the nation earnt an eternal special position in global politics by defeating the Nazi regime. Its right to act unilaterally today derives in part from the price it paid for doing so eighty years ago – or so the narrative suggests. In emphasising the cooperative effort that victory required, the U.K. seeks to contest this idea.

Another lesson the Russian regimes seeks to apply to today’s world through the enlivening of the past is that Russia faces constant threats. As Russia analyst Mark Galeotti has noted, this idea is used to justify the militarised authoritarian regime; a strong leader and large military are required to resist such threats, just as in the Great Patriotic War. Some take the analogy further, deploying the false caricature of Ukraine as a neo-fascist state on Russia’s border. They point in particular to the Azov Battalion, a right-wing extremist National Guard unit in Ukraine, but there is no evidence of broader state capture. Instead, the fears of today are projected backwards through the powerful prism of collective memory. If we seek to find Putin’s domestic rationalisation of Russia bellicose actions on the Ukrainian border, some of the answer must lie in this.

And yet despite that, Wallace was right to engage with and legitimize the narrative. To many Russians, be they in the Kremlin or Moscow’s many flea markets, criticism of the narrative presented above appears as an attempt to delegitimise their sacrifice. In turn, the need to stand strong and to stand alone are reinforced. It makes no difference that Ukraine, as part of the Soviet Union, lost a greater proportion of its population in the Great Patriotic War than modern-day Russia, for the Soviet narrative has become Russia’s narrative. If we seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis unfolding on Ukraine’s borders, it is important to recognise the role of collective memory in mobilising public opinion and shaping elite thinking. Rather than rejecting the narrative – though it may be at odds with Western ones – foreign actors should respect it and gently push back where necessary. In this, the U.K. press release regarding Wallace’s visit is an excellent example.

When attempting to understand Russia’s rationale for its increasingly menacing actions on Ukraine’s borders, focus is often placed on NATO’s expansion in the post-Cold War world. Although this is a significant factor, exploring rather than dismissing Russian narratives of its Great Patriotic War is also important. Of course, the historical narrative is in some ways a reflection of such contemporary concerns. But as Ben Wallace has shown, the politics of memory offers a less adversarial means of addressing them than deliberations over NATO troop movements.

Isaac Evans