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Friday, September 18, 2020

Stalin’s cathedral and other controversial Russian World War II memorials

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Vladimir Putin’s Russia had great plans for today, May 9th 2020, the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany in World War II, or as it is called there, in the “Great Patriotic War”. It’s an event of special importance for a country that sometimes has struggled since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, especially under former President Boris Yeltsin. Distinguished foreign guests, like French President Emmanuel Macron, were expected for the big celebration, but due to the coronavirus pandemic the traditional military parade through Red Square had to be postponed. However, the air show and fireworks took place.

To emerge as the clear winner of the bloodiest conflict in human history, fought mainly between two authoritarian states, whose ideologies sought to control Europe, if not the whole world, is of decisive importance for a nation whose current status is somehow hard to define. It’s clearly neither the superpower it used to be nor just an average country. In any case, meaningful events of the past help to deal better with the present situation. Relations with the West turned sour after the Crimean Peninsula, ceded to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev for domestic political reasons in 1954, was incorporated by force into the Russian Federation in 2014.

Furthermore, Russia took offense at a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on September 19th, 2019, called “On the importance of European remembrance of the future of Europe.”  Brussels blamed the Soviets (alongside the Nacional Socialists) for starting World War II and accused the successor of the Soviet totalitarian regime of whitewashing its crimes. This is more than understandable, as both of them are the mayor culprits of a war that devastated huge parts of the Old Continent. At the same time, the call to remove Soviet war memorials across Europe seems quite derogatory, if not downright offensive.

At an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Sankt Petersburg in December 2019, a visibly annoyed Putin stated that those monuments were erected to regular Red Army soldiers, mainly farmers and workers killed in battle. Although I personally dislike those bombastic, often overwhelming, if not pathetic structures, like the one in Berlin-Treptow, I would find it disrespectful to have them removed. In return I expect the Russian authorities to continue to take care of German graveyards in the former Soviet Union, located mostly in what is now their territory, were 2.2 million soldiers found their final resting place.

Besides that, it would add insult to injury, particularly as many Red Army veterans are still living in poor circumstances, while quite a few of their defeated enemies are driving around in luxury cars. In 1991, I saw Russian troops off, and was very glad that they were finally leaving not only Berlin, but Germany. In contrast, diehard German communists also attending the farewell event feared a “return of Fascism”. My friends and I found that very amusing. Spontaneously,  a rookie and I exchanged watches. The one that I got didn’t last long, though I never cared much about that. He looked so happy!

From my visits in the now defunct German Democratic Republic I knew about the unbearable living conditions those poor devils had to endure. Conscripts were basically barred from leaving their barracks, and once in a while one of them went crazy and escaped. Sad stories about deserted Red Army soldiers shot dead by military police were circulating.

That demand also seems very contradictory. If the Western Allies have the right to remember their fallen comrades, why would anybody want to mess with the graveyards of those whose involvement was also crucial? America’s material superiority and Russian manpower finally brought the Germans to their knees. This no communist propaganda, and although the horrendous Soviet casualties were also due to their completely reckless warfare, a coordinated Western effort to belittle Russia’s contribution to the rout of National Socialism  is definitely objectionable. Trying to deny their former allies the glory that their forefathers earned on the battlefield by asking to alter historical sites, regardless of their rather unpleasant Stalinist architecture, is questionable at least. What if suddenly there is a comparable proposal coming from the other side? You can’t have it both ways!

On the other hand, no matter that he was the unquestioned leader at the time, it is indeed a bizarre idea to include a mosaic of mass murderer Joseph Stalin alongside God, the Virgin Mary and various saints in the newly build Cathedral of the Armed Forces in Patriot Park outside Moscow. Critics have noted the irony of an Orthodox Church for the first time featuring an image of the dictator, who clamped down mercilessly on religion and brutally purged the clergy. They also called it an outright “mockery of Russian history and statehood”. Stalin had the Cathedral of Christ the Savior torn down in 1931 to make room for the megalomaniac Palace of the Soviets, which at the end was never realized. Instead, the original sacral building was rebuilt on the site between 1995 and 2000.

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