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

This total tragedy and injustice cannot be the start of the Third World War

On Wednesday I was writing about ‘feeling the bass beat of impending war… The jungle drums of chest-beating bullies rutting for power, control, land… The thumping of panicked hearts packing, fleeing…’ By Thursday, as the thud of bombs landing on Ukraine came through our radios with shocking reality, such poetic imagery felt utterly misplaced. Now, as the horrors of Putin’s unprovoked advance to Kyiv to ‘de-Nazify’ and ‘decapitate’ the democratic Ukrainian government begin to unfold, the shattering idea that we could be witnessing the beginning of World War III has been gaining momentum. 

This is heart-breaking. So awful. So wrong. So utterly terrifying. My thoughts and heart are with the people of Ukraine.  

Outwardly, in our own tiny orbits, life continues. Just like it did for Franz Kafka when he noted in his diary on the outbreak of the First World War:

August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.’

Inwardly I feel sheer dread. 

Having immersed myself for so many years in the past darkness of the Second World War, trying to understand despots, trying to learn the lessons of history, I suddenly find myself emerging into a present filled with similar appalling scenes. And I feel utterly impotent. I think we probably all do. How are we meant to act? What does ‘reacting well’ to this situation look like, both in terms of our leaders and us as individuals? 

I don’t know.

The instinct is to rush to Ukraine’s defence, which, to some degree, various countries have. But for Ukrainians, it is clearly too little too late. Yet to use force risks the unimaginable outcome of a full-on war with Russia. That just cannot happen. I have lived vicariously through a war with Russia in my German grandfather’s letters from the 1941-2 Eastern Front. It is hell on earth. Nothing, surely, can justify risking a return to that. It is reassuring to hear the defence secretary and military authorities now warning the chamber of the extreme danger of putting British boots on the ground; of declaring war on Russia. Please Boris Johnson, don’t see this as an opportune moment to fulfil your wannabe Winston Churchill ambitions. The responsibility on leaders is huge and deadly serious. They need to tread carefully and with emotional maturity. The language is critical. Confronting a ruthless maniac takes skill. 

‘It is more important to understand the butcher than the victim.’ Javier Cercas

I don’t know how it’s done. 

All I do know from a multitude of life’s lessons, is that all sides involved will be feeling they are right. Just like back in the thirties, we in the West see ourselves to be indisputably on the side of good. We are protecting democracy. Our ways of life are the right ways. But while that all may be true, if I have learnt anything about the psychology of conflict and dictators, I feel pretty sure that that is precisely what Putin is also feeling. Because wars and violence are ultimately created out of a sense of threat to one’s position, values, people and way of life. Out of a fear of loss. Power-hungry dictators, such as Hitler and Stalin, were blind to the suffering caused in their pursuit of visions of a world that in their eyes was ‘good’. Same for criminals. With both sides believing they are right, nothing will persuade or force them to think otherwise. 

 ‘No one who either knows or believes that there is another course of action better than the one he is following will ever continue on his present course when he might choose the better.‘ Plato

It would be counter-productive to shame Putin into believing there is no way back without losing face. 

To do nothing would be an unforgivable betrayal of the Ukrainian people.   

To meet Russian aggression with further aggression would quite possibly provoke a Third World War.

That cannot happen. 

For those who have never experienced war first-hand or occupied themselves with the World Wars, it is almost impossible to imagine their sheer horror. For those with eyes trained on a victorious outcome, it can be easy to overlook the devastating impact on individuals. And not only the inevitable loss of life. What we have been witnessing in Ukraine – civilians signing up or arming themselves with guns and Molotov cocktails, getting stuck in traffic jams, huddling in makeshift bomb shelters – are the fight, flight, freeze responses of trauma. The terror of impending mass destruction, injury, homelessness, hunger and life-long psychological damage for generations to come. Just watch ‘Flee’, the brilliant new Danish animation that is well positioned to clean up at the Oscars, to witness the appalling cost of war on one child, one family. One among millions of others forced to flee their homes.

Still from the film ‘Flee’

Is Margaret MacMillan right when she said in her 2019 Reith Lecture:

 “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organized themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others.  Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”

If we accept, just for a moment that war is an inevitable part of our world and as integral to being human as, say, creating art, how should we react to it? 

I just can’t believe we are here… again. 

How do you reason with a man like Putin, who genuinely believes his demands and actions are reasonable?  How do we prevent this conflict from escalating into another deadly world war? How can we prevent our own rage and sense of injustice spilling over into a call for retaliation?

For now, I will attempt to keep my heart filled with love and courage to send to the people of Ukraine and those in Russia who do not want this war. To those fighting, resisting, defending. I pray that the whole world finds its way through this crisis to peace. 

Related links:

BBC series Rise of the Nazis: Dictators at War 

Trailer for ‘Flee’