The Second World War as the second foundation of the Soviet Union

Literature Review 2007 15 Pages

History - Basics



1 Introduction

2 The Initial Silence

3 The Expected Armaggedon

4 The Memory Cult

5 Heroes and Victims

6 No More Blank Spots: the End of the Soviet Union

7 War Memory and Post-War Soviet Society

8 Bibliography

1 Introduction

"No one will forget, and nothing will be forgotten". This classical Soviet slogan about the Second World War conveys many of the meanings of the Soviet War memory. First, it simply describes a reality: no country which has lost so many of its citizens in the War as the Soviet Union can forget, and still today, almost every family in Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus and many of the other states of the former Soviet Union remembers parents and grandparents who were killed during the War. For a whole generation, the War was the formative experience of a lifetime, an unforgettable memory indeed, and although the number of veterans is diminishing, there still exist enough to tell their stories.

However, the saying also has political significance, as it crowns many of the countless War monuments which can be found everywhere in the former Soviet Union today. They were meant to set the memory of the Soviet victory in stone and to translate the lessons of the wartime experience to future generations. In order to achieve this, the state did not rely on the private memory of its citizens, but, especially since the mid-1960s, organized an all-encompassing cult to commemorate the victory and to make it, together with the October Revolution, the second defining historical event for Soviet socialism.

At the same time, "no one will forget, and nothing will be forgotten" was also a typical Soviet slogan: what it said was quite different from reality. Many aspects of the War were indeed forgotten or, at least, the state tried to make its citizens forget them. There were no monuments for the Soviet invasion of Poland, the deportation of millions of people within the Soviet Union, or the soldiers who were lucky enough to survive German concentration camps, only to be treated as traitors and sometimes even ending up in the GULAG after their return to the Soviet Union.

But Perestroika and Glasnost' finally added an ironic twist to this story of Soviet forgetting and remembering, because at the end of the 80s, the promise not to forget turned against the Soviet system itself. The opening of the archives has revealed most of the hitherto concealed aspects of the War. Newspapers were full of articles questioning the official narrative of the Soviet victory, thus undermining the political system as a whole.

These intended and unintended meanings of "no one will forget and nothing will be forgotten" show how intimately linked post-war Soviet history and the memory of the Second World War are. In fact, there are few aspects of Soviet society after 1945 that do not relate, in one way or the other, to the War: from new relations between the state and its citizens, between countryside and city to generational structure and the nationality conflicts within the Soviet empire. In this paper, I would like to sketch out some of these relations and ask how collective memory of the War was connected to social change in postwar Soviet society.

2 The Initial Silence

A Soviet soldier who returned to his home country after 1945 held very conflicting feelings: on the one hand, the War had brought the death of many loved ones, unimaginable destruction, and years of extreme material scarcity which even overshadowed the harsh experiences of the 1930s.[1] There had been few times in Russian history where human lives seemed to be of so little value. However, the survivors were often also filled with a tremendous pride for their achievements-- a feeling that they were the true saviors of the motherland. In Vyacheslav Kondratev's post-war novel, the hero remembers: "In the War we were the most necessary of the necessary."[2] There was a wide-spread feeling that this was truly a people's war, not the achievement of Stalin alone. At the same time, the War brought limited relaxation to many repressive policies, for example in the regime's relation to the Orthodox Church. For some, the disastrous year 1941 thus appeared as a spontaneous de-Stalinization and was even greeted as a period of relative freedom.[3]

A certain distance to the regime was especially common among the soldiers who had left their home country for the first time and experienced how much richer even the devastated Poland was than the Soviet Union. After returning to the Soviet Union, many soldiers expected to be rewarded for their sacrifices and hoped for political relaxation and fast economic recovery. A network of veterans emerged, i.e. in the so-called "Blue Danubes" pubs, where veterans talked openly about their War experience and cultivated the spirit of the front experience.[4]

However, these feelings did not translate into any serious political threat for the regime. The soldiers of 1945 did not become the new Dekabrists, as the wide-spread comparison between the "Great Patriotic War" and the Napoleonic Wars would have suggested. All political aspirations were overshadowed by the private concerns of the soldiers who had tremendous difficulties returning to civil life, restoring relations with their often decimated families, and finding work and housing. The last thing they were interested in was another period of violence and political instability.[5] In her study of post-war popular literature, Vera Dunham shows how the strive for a better material life replaced the original ascetic fervor of the 1920s and 30s and created an almost bourgeois pleasure for the good life.[6] The victory gave survivors pride and self-esteem, but only very few questioned Stalin's leadership or the socialist system in general which had, in many people's eyes, proven its superiority over capitalism in the victory.[7]

Although Stalin's government was not directly in danger, Stalin was anxious to renew his grip on society. The system of compulsory labor from the War years was not abolished, but used to speed up the reconstruction. Many of the soldiers were directly integrated into a system of militarized labor.[8] After the immediate post-war years, the Zhdanovshina brought a repression in the cultural realm; and although the mass terror of the thirties did not reappear, events like the Leningrad Affair or the so-called "Doctors' Plot", which was directed against the Jewish population, were clear reminders of the arbitrary nature of Stalin's leadership.

This repression was accompanied by a remarkable silence about the War. Whereas in Western Europe and the US, thousands of memoirs and books were already published in the mid 1950s, there was only a very small number of Soviet books and films on the War at that time; the publication of private memoirs was severely restricted.[9] After the anniversary of the German capitulation had been celebrated as a national, work-free holiday for the first time in 1946, by 1947 it was downgraded to one of the Soviet "working holidays".[10] Popular War heroes, most prominently General Zhukov, quickly fell into disgrace or even ended up in prison camps. Whereas in many of the new satellite states, for example in East Germany, the Soviet government was quick to build monuments to remind the population how much they owed the Soviet Union for their liberation from Nazism, this process did not start in the Soviet Union itself until the 1960s.[11] The official number of deaths, 7 million, was deliberately undercounted[12] and social services for war veterans were almost nonexistent. Perhaps the most brutal sign that the War was literally removed from public memory was the sudden disappearance of many disabled veterans from the streets of Moscow and Leningrad in 1947. They disturbed the image of the progressive, young and modern Soviet city, and were deported to special camps on the countryside.[13]

The potential of war memory to challenge Stalin's leadership became apparent in some of the hidden power struggles which took place in the post-war years. In Leningrad, the local party elite emphasized its own, independent role in the blockade of the city and used the War memory to increase its reputation in Moscow. Already in 1943, a local commission started to collect material to document the history of the blockade and a museum was opened in 1944.[14] This strategy was first successful, as the ascent of the Leningrad party leader Andrei Zhdanov showed, who gave post-war culture politics its name.[15] However, the Leningrad Affair of 1949, parts of which are still mysterious today, drastically reduced the influence of the Leningrad party committee which had become too powerful in Stalin's eyes. Remarkably, this change in the power structure was accompanied by an almost complete silencing of the commemoration of the blockade; even in 1954, ten years after the end of the blockade, nobody dared to hold an official celebration.[16] Only in 1956, Khrushchev gave a signal in one of his speeches that it was once again legitimate to commemorate the blockade in public, but this time as an achievement of the Soviet people in general. Ironically, one of the motives for Khrushchev's move was probably that he relied on the support of the Leningrad party officials, Malenkov and Beria, in his power struggle.[17]

3 The Expected Armaggedon

It seems that the War memory was, starting from the very end of the War, a highly ambivalent and delicate matter in the relations between the state and its people. The War could be taken as a victory for socialism, an affirmation of the existing social order, but it also offered a huge potential for opponents of the regime. Probably the most thorough study of this complex relationship between power and memory in the post-war years is Amir Weiner's book "Making Sense of War".

Weiner sees the War and its memory in the context of the larger Communist project to create an aesthetically ordered, harmonic Soviet society.[18] This transformation required violence on an unprecedented scale, because constantly new groups of external and internal enemies had to be fought, from the remnants of Tsarism and its European allies during the Civil War to the peasants, who resisted collectivization at the beginning of the 1930s, and finally the alleged enemies within the party itself in the second half of the 1930s. The convinced Stalinists of the 30s, therefore, perceived the War against Nazi Germany not as an accident which could have been avoided by means of a different foreign policy, but as an expected Armaggedon, the ultimate struggle between Communism and its ubiquitous enemies. Like in the 1920s and 30s already, external and internal enemies were seen as linked; thus, the fight against the enemy outside required political purification among the own population, above all in the party itself.[19]


[1] For an overview of the post-war years compare: Fitzpatrick, Sheila: Postwar Soviet Society. The Return to Normalcy 1945-1953, in: Susan Linz (ed.), The Impact of World War II on the Soviet Union, pp. 129-156. Zubkova, Elena: Obshchestvo i Reformy 1945-1964, Moskva 1993.

[2] Zubkova, Obshchestvo i reformy, pp. 21.

[3] Tumarkin, Nina: The Living and the Dead. The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia, New York 1994, pp. 65. This is especially true for the intellectuals, comp. Bonwetsch, Bernd: War as a ``Breathing Space''. Intellectuals and the "Great Patriotic War'', in: Robert Thurston / Bernd Bonwetsch (eds.), The People's War. Responses to World War II in the Soviet Union, Urbana 2000, pp. 137-154.

[4] Comp. Zubkova, Obshchestvo i reformy, pp. 28.

[5] Ibid., pp. 26.

[6] Dunham, Vera: In Stalin's Times. Middle-class Values in SovietFiction, Cambridge 1976.

[7] Zubkova, Obshchestvo i reformy, pp. 26.

[8] Comp. Filtzner, Donald: Soviet Workers and Late Stalinism, Cambridge 2002.

[9] Ibid., pp. 171.

[10] Bonwetsch, Bernd: Der 'Große Vaterländische Krieg'. Vom öffentlichen Schweigen unter Stalin zum Heldenkult unter Brezhnev, in: Babette Quinkert (ed.), 'Wir sind die Herren dieses Landes'. Ursachen, Verlauf und Folgen des deutschen Überfalls auf die Sowjetunion, Hamburg 2002, pp. 166-187.

[11] Ibid, pp. 172. Compare also Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, pp. 101.

[12] Ibid., pp. 173.

[13] Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, pp. 98. Compare also: Merridale, Catherine: Ivan's War. Life and Death in the Red Army 1939-1945, New York 2006, pp. 267.

[14] Ganzenmüller, Jörg: Das belagerte Leningrad 1941-1944. Die Stadt in den Strategien von Angreifern und Verteidigern, Paderborn 2005, pp. 327 pass.

[15] Ibid, pp. 325 pass.

[16] Ibid, pp. 342.

[17] Ibid., pp. 343.

[18] Ibid., pp. 21.

[19] Weiner, Amir: Making Sense of War. The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution, Princeton 2001, pp. 21 pass.


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University of California, Berkeley – USA: University of California, Berkeley - Department of History
1,0 (A+ in Amerika)
Second World Soviet Union Memory Sowjetunion Zweiter Weltkrieg Erinnerung Kulturgeschichte Stalingrad Leningrad Belagerung Weiner Amir Holocaust Denkmäler Stalin Entstalinisierung Perestroika Gesellschaftsgeschichte Zubkova



Title: The Second World War as the second foundation of the Soviet Union