May 9 is a special holiday for Russians. The close attention they pay to this date often seems strange to people from other countries and cultures. To say that “for the Russians, World War II ended only yesterday” is not far from the truth.
A commentary by Yevgeny Norin
77 years after the Second World War, Victory Day is considered the country’s most important holiday in Russia. For Russians, Victory Day is literally a celebration of victory over death – a victory in which everyone participated. Almost every family in Russia and the former Soviet republics has their own stories about what their ancestors did and what happened to them during the war.
Yevgeny Dering was a vet who treated horses. He lived in St. Petersburg, which was then called Leningrad. On June 22, 1941 he went to war. Before leaving, he asked his wife Regina to take their children – two daughters and a son just born in April – with them and head into the depths of Russia. As it turned out, this request saved their lives.
A few days later, Regina took her children to the village of Makarevo in the Nizhny Novgorod region (then Gorky) and settled in a 15th-century monastery set up as a refuge for refugees like her.
More than 600,000 Leningraders died of starvation during the great siege of the city. Regina survived along with her children, but she never saw her husband again. In October 1943, Yevgeny Dering was killed by artillery shelling on a small swampy bridgehead on the Dnieper.
These stories vary widely, but they are almost always dramatic, and many of these stories end with ancestors who have fallen. The Soviet Union lost more than 27 million people during World War II. About 12 million were soldiers and officers, while the rest were civilians who died either at the hands of the Nazis or of starvation. When Berlin was taken and after Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in 1945, the USSR was a country where almost everyone was mourning someone in the family. A person who “only” lost acquaintances was considered happy.
The Nazis waged the war with the utmost brutality. Jews were never spared, but nothing good awaited the others either. A Belarusian government archive lists the names of 9,000 villages burned by the invaders during the war – and this is a number that relates to just one of the Soviet republics.
In many of the destroyed villages and hamlets, the death toll was often equal or nearly equal to the number of inhabitants at the time. The most common method of extermination was to herd the population into a barn and set it on fire. People also died from artillery fire and starvation, or were just ruthlessly shot. Crimes against the civilian population were exempted from responsibility by a special decree issued by Hitler. No Red Cross offered protection during this war. Ambulances and hospital ships were often destroyed by direct fire. The age of the victims was also not taken into account – children were killed in the same way as adults.
For Russians, however, this great war is not just a story of outrageous atrocities. He is also a legend of incredible national unity, in which a humble worker and a world-renowned composer came together in a volunteer fire department; and a young bon vivant from Moscow shared his bread with a miner from Donbass and an Asian conscript from the Kazakh steppes in a trench.
It’s the story of the remarkable ability not to give up even when all odds seem to be against you and resistance seems futile. After each lost battle, the surviving officers would analyze their mistakes and try to figure out what they had done wrong and how to change the situation. It’s a story of amazing self-sacrifice.
And it’s a story of military triumph. The Third Reich was a deadly enemy. The five-million-strong invading army advanced to the Caucasus mountains and threatened to take Moscow and Leningrad, but was defeated nonetheless. For Russians, it is the story of how rivers of blood were shed, but they completely destroyed the army that came to kill them, took the enemy capital by storm; a story of how the dictator who ordered the invasion committed suicide and how the captured standards of the defeated army were thrown to the ground outside the walls of the Kremlin. The Russian people paid a terrible price, but their triumph was absolute.
In Russia, you rarely hear the term “World War II”. The term “Great Patriotic War” formulated at that time is still used today. This is not an attempt to somehow ignore what WWII was for others, but a wish to emphasize that for Russians to this day it is a special event that went beyond mere armed conflict.
For Russians, this war is truly an epic of heroism, like Homer’s Iliad, whose heroes are still alive and walking among us. They are now very old and few, and yet some are still with us. Even today, the Russian “Ajax” sometimes goes out into the courtyard of his house in the evening, his medals on his chest, to sit on a bench, while the Russian “Diomedes” can be seen walking his dog every morning.
The memory of the war influenced many aspects of life in Russia. You can hear it in personal stories, see it in culture and feel it in politics. The Russian government’s doggedness over the security of Russia’s western borders is a consequence of that very catastrophe in World War II, when the Russians found themselves with their backs to the wall and had to retreat to the very edge. This memory seriously affects our relationships with our neighbors and is almost impossible to erase.
But perhaps the most important thing we have learned from the upheavals of this period is a simple truth: We can endure any adversity, stand our ground, and rebuild our country after each new fateful test. It is not only a reminder of a dance of death, but also a reminder of life’s triumph.
Gennadi, the son of Yevgeny Dering, never met his father. He did not return to Leningrad and spent his childhood and youth in Makarevo. Fifteen years after the war he met a girl named Albina whom he married. These are my grandparents. You are still alive. Your daughter is my mother. Historical events are often surprisingly close to us today.
more on the subject – Putin: Communist ideology resembles Christianity – Lenin’s body holy relic
Yevgeny Norin is a Russian historian specializing in Russia’s wars and international politics.
RT DE strives for a broad range of opinions. Guest posts and opinion pieces do not have to reflect the editor’s point of view.