AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
As the invasion of Ukraine continues, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the podium in Red Square in Moscow on Monday to celebrate Victory Day, the annual commemoration of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. In his speech, Putin drew numerous links between the war in Ukraine and the fight against the Nazis, underscoring just how much the Russian leader is relying on false narratives about both conflicts to maintain his control over Russia, a country rapidly descending into economic and cultural ruin.
In the speech on Monday, Putin told Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine that they are “fighting for the same thing their fathers and grandfathers did,” alluding to his use of “de-Nazification” as a pretext for invading the country. Putin further claimed that Russia was “forced” to invade Ukraine by NATO, drawing on another familiar trope in Russian history of the Soviet Union being the victim of Western aggression.
Though some leaders feared that Putin may use the speech as an occasion to declare an escalation of hostilities, no such announcement was made. However, neither was there any indication that Putin intends to call off the assault anytime soon. The fact that Putin was so adamant about drawing parallels between this conflict and the Second World War suggests that he views the war in Ukraine as an equally existential crisis.
Putin’s gross rewriting of history this week was not altogether surprising, given his past statements. At a meeting with young historians two years ago, Putin claimed that there was nothing wrong with the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which allowed the two countries to carve up Poland and commit mass atrocities against its population. He also blamed Britain and France for Hitler’s assault on Europe, claiming that the ill-fated Munich Agreement destroyed any chance for a united anti-fascist front.
For Putin, it is essential to pass on to future generations a memory of World War II that has Soviet Russia as the central hero, overcoming the shortcomings of the Western powers to defeat Hitler essentially alone.
This narrative ignores the truth of the matter, which is that Soviet Russia was kept alive in the months following Hitler’s invasion, thanks in large part to massive quantities of supplies shipped from the United States through the Lend-Lease Act. Moreover, the Soviet liberation of Berlin, a central tenet of Putin’s assertions about Russian predominance in World War II, was only accomplished as a result of a plan agreed upon by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945. While it is feasible that the Western Allies could have reached Berlin first, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to slow their advance, thus delivering Stalin his much-coveted propaganda victory of raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag.
According to Dr. Earl Ziemke, a historian with the United States Army, the Soviet contribution to the victory in Europe was important but not overwhelming. Far from “liberating” countries from Nazi rule, the Red Army’s march through Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945 only traded one tyrant for another, as the countries within the Soviet sphere were forced to endure another five decades of persecution. In Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, the Red Army staged sham battles to justify their invasion and occupation, meeting no actual German resistance.
But despite a long list of verifiable inaccuracies, the myth of Soviet predominance in World War II has been upheld by successive generations of Russian leaders and scholars and is now being used to sell another lie – the Kremlin’s stated rationale for the invasion of Ukraine. Having found no other way to mask his territorial ambitions, Putin has turned to stoking fears about fascism.
But whether or not Putin’s gamble will pay off remains to be seen. In a world of instant communication and 24/7 news coverage, videos and images undercutting Putin’s narrative and showing the wanton destruction wrought on the Ukrainian people by the Russian Army are widespread.
Worse for Putin, the false narrative about the Soviet Union in World War II and the lie underpinning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may now be codependent on one another. Should either come crashing down, the other may soon follow. For a people who have been raised to believe the official government narrative on every aspect of Russian history, facing this reality would be absolutely devastating – and may leave Putin with an even more tenuous grip on power.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.
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