Remembering Russia’s past as a way to understanding its present

The Remembrance Sunday of 2022 will be one of thankfully few since 1945 that sees another war in Europe raging. As we remember those who lost their lives in past wars, fellow Europeans will be losing theirs in the all too real conflict fighting itself out in Ukraine.

In my last blog I wrote about travelling the Berlin Wall Way, itself a form of 100+ mile-long memorial remembering both a repressive episode in history and those who lost their lives trying to escape it. Well, a little off that route in what was central East Berlin is Treptower Park, the largest Soviet military memorial outside the Soviet Union. Opened on 8th May 1949, it is a 10-hectare cemetery for 7000 of the more than 22,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the battle to take Berlin in the final months of the Second World War and contains the world-famous symbol of the role played by the Soviet Union in destroying National Socialism: the 13-meter towering statue of a Soviet soldier holding a lowered sword over a shattered swastika and cradling a rescued German child in his arm.

The Soviet Warrior Monument built by Yevgeny Vuchetich

To experience this place is to experience a sense of the enormity and profundity of the impact WW2 had on the Soviet / Russian people. For a start it is vast. And the extensive layout is designed to take you through a process of mourning and remembrance to honouring the victors as heroes and liberators. 

‘Heroes and liberators.’

We too use those words in relation to our own soldiers. But how often have we – or do we – actively honour the decisive role the Soviet soldiers played in defeating Nazi Germany? And how often do we include the mind-boggling numbers of Russians murdered or killed in the process (25 million to give a rough/round figure) in our process of remembrance? We don’t really, is the only answer I can find. And yet they were our allies in a war that we, as a nation, have made central to our national identity. Could our slightly introspective leanings and lack of acknowledgment of the Soviet sacrifices and achievement (among many other factors, not least the horrors of the Stalin era) have contributed to the attitudes of subsequent regimes and politics towards the West? Just a question… but one that walking through Treptower Park certainly made me ask.

‘Mother Homeland’

Entering through one of two avenues, the (tiny) visitor is led first to the statue of a grieving “Mother Homeland.” 

From there a promenade lined with weeping birches – incredibly moving witnessing trees seemingly crumpled in grief – you arrive at two sphynx-like kneeling soldiers that act as guardians to the cemetery section below. 

Looking back to the avenue of weeping birches
Looking ahead to the cemetery

Beautifully executed stone reliefs illustrating scenes from the ‘Great Patriotic War’ decorate the sixteen marble sarcophagi flanking the graves, while gold-lettered quotes by J. Stalin, the commander in chief of the Soviet armed forces, underscore the importance of the Communist Party and the Red Army under his leadership. Though clearly outdated, these quotes survived Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalinist rule in 1956 with the subsequent cull of Stalin-statues and effective banning of any mention of his name in public. 

The sarcophagi tell the story of the Second World War in Russia…
…through extraordinary imagery and craftsmanship.
Dedicated to the ‘heroic dying’ of the Russian people

At the very far end, you climb a stepped hill to a mausoleum supporting the aforementioned bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a small German girl.

Turning around to descend, you get an overview of the whole dramatic panorama that reflects the historical narratives and artistic concepts dominant in the Soviet Union under Stalin and to a degree still exist today: monumentality, hero worship, a personality cult, and a claim to exclusivity.

Treptower Park has been and continues to be a frequent venue for commemorative events. Since 1990, with the signing of the German-Soviet treaty on neighbourly relations and the German-Russian agreement on the upkeep of war graves in 1992, the Federal Republic of Germany committed itself to the care, renovation and maintenance of all Soviet military graves and war memorials in Germany. 

The evident meticulousness with which the whole site continues to be maintained (and patrolled by German police) is another of Germany’s visible expressions of understanding and reconciliation that have been extended to the Russian Federation and other countries brutally destroyed in the Third Reich’s expansionist and ideological wake. Does this reaching out in friendship make it easier to understand Angela Merkel’s unpopular (certainly in retrospect) policy relating to the Nord Stream pipeline? And the apparent weakness of Olaf Scholz’s initial reluctance to break Germany’s practice and permit the transfer of lethal weapons to areas of conflict… in this case, to Ukraine?

If the premise of my book is true and unresolved traumas of one generation can impact the lives and behaviour of subsequent generations, then the extreme collective traumas experienced by the Russian people over the past century are part of what we are seeing playing out in the attitudes, politics and actions of Russia today. Trauma responses such as emotional numbness, low self-esteem, acceptance of poverty might go some way to explain the apparent passivity and gullibility of large swathes of the population. Likewise, trauma responses such as shame might be producing the violence, megalomania and greed of those in power. Is this then, by extension of the idea, the natural destiny of all traumatised nations? After all we can see similar dysfunction and violence in Africa, South America and plenty of other nations once brutally colonised.

Psychohistory‘ – a new but exciting term to me that I appear to have already been practicing – seems to offer a way forward in thinking about these things. It combines history with psychology/psychoanalysis and social sciences/humanities to understand the emotional origin of the behavior of individuals, groups and nations, past and present. In other words, the ‘why’ of history.

I don’t have any answers, nor even the right questions yet, just an ever-growing sense of discomfort in simple, black and white narratives of good and bad, right and wrong. And an increasing belief that we are still very far from seeing, let alone comprehending the fuller picture. But we need to become more trauma-informed in all areas of life. For to neglect trauma is to leave people in a state of emotional numbness. And when you don’t feel, you become capable of overriding humanity and care for fellow living beings and life itself.

Further Reading / Viewing: 

These questions are explored more deeply in my book: In My Grandfather’s Shadow. Published by Penguin Transworld and Bantam Press in July 2022 and available in most bookshops and the usual online outlets

The brilliant BBC documentary ‘Russia 1985-1999: Traumazone’ by Adam Curtis is made up of multiple film snippets taken in those years. As a fly on the wall experience and from the comfort of an armchair, it doesn’t get much ‘better’ in terms of an experience of Russia. To have lived through those years of extreme deprivation, corruption and hunger must have been little short of appalling.

Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone review – ingenious, essential viewing from Adam Curtis

‘Generations of hurt’: Children and grandchildren of war survivors fear ripple effect of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Russia has yet to recover from the trauma of the Stalin era – The Guardian

10 thoughts on “Remembering Russia’s past as a way to understanding its present

  1. Dear Angela,
    Your profound reflections are always thought-provoking; this one even more so than most.
    Thank you.
    Your analysis seems to me especially relevant in the Ukrainian context where the history and complex legacies of WW II echo and resonate to such devastatingly sad effect.
    We all know that “Two wrongs don’t make a right” but humanity seems so often to revert to acting as if they do.
    We must fervently hope that it will some day prove possible to build a kinder, more thoughtful World despite our present crumbling foundations. It’ll take generations, but surely it can be achieved.
    Your advocacy of understanding is a hugely positive contribution.
    Thanks again.
    Kindest regards,
    David

    • Thank you David. I agree we have a very long way to go, but it is a journey that will reap huge benefits for all if we can begin to undertake it. Not easy, not in our lifetime but little steps… my most valuable lesson walking the Camino de Santiago. Each little step brings you a little closer to the destination…

  2. A wonderful explanation of this WW2 memorial park Angela – thank you!!. It certainly makes me wonder about the meaning of the current war in Ukraine. I am reading your book at the moment Angela and even at only 2 chapters in I can see already it will be a tour de force!!

  3. As you know I have never forgotten Treptow since visiting it in 1960 – unless you see it, you can’t really understand the vastness of it and the reasons for building it. It is so little known and I am glad you all saw it on your bicycle trip,

  4. Angela, having been with you on that visit to Treptower Park, I have to thank you for the profound and moving way you have described it. One could not fail to feel something there which makes the last sentence of your blog all the more poignant. I can only thank you for helping me open my eyes to these urgent issues and hope that the importance of your book, talks and blogs will be recognised by many, many more people particularly those in power.

  5. Thank you Angela for a very thought provoking piece. I have no doubt your proposition that inherited national trauma impacts on individual and national psyche carries much weight. I also suspect in the right conditions that beliefs (both individual and collective) can be manipulated by elites and political leaders to suit their own ends. This in turn may be linked with a nation’s ‘strategic culture’. A concept defined as:

    The set of beliefs, assumptions and modes of behaviour, derived from common experiences and accepted narratives (both oral and written) that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups…(Johnson, Kartchner and Larsen, 2009, p. 9).

    There are also arguments that strategic culture may be manipulated by elites and subject to change. Putin appears to be particularly adept at this and we’ve also seen it here with Brexit: underpinned by the need to believe in Britain as a major global power despite the evidence to the contrary. I think we’re also seeing the strategic culture of the U.K. change and diversify. Scotland is a good example with its growing split with Westminster – it seems to me to now be a very different nation with a different political philosophy shared by a significant proportion of the population. A good example I think is the UK’s (Westminster’s) commitment to retaining nuclear weapons largely as a symbol of global power status. This is completely contrary to the Scottish view and represents a major bifurcation with Westminster’s perception of ‘national self’….

    Best wishes

    Mick

    Ref: Johnson, Kartchner, Larson (2009) ‘Strategic Culture and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Culturally Based Insights into Comparative National Security Policymaking’

    • Thank you (belatedly, my apologies) for your very interesting comment Mick. I have never heard of ‘strategic culture’ but I agree with all you say about it and how it can be used. I don’t think any country is immune. And it seems to be both very self-selecting and arbitrary (in terms of real importance vs. emotion) which narratives make it to form the national identities relating to pride, victimhood, triumph etc. All very interesting… !

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