In Russia, a Fixation on Fascism ; Country's Leaders Invoke Wartime History to Define Their Political Agenda

By Macfarquhar, Neil | International New York Times, May 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

In Russia, a Fixation on Fascism ; Country's Leaders Invoke Wartime History to Define Their Political Agenda


Macfarquhar, Neil, International New York Times


A national obsession with fascism is playing down the darker aspects of Soviet history and obliterating objective debate over current foreign policy issues, critics say.

As many Russians spent a holiday weekend reveling in the annual display of military might that commemorates their victory over Nazi Germany, the tension in Ukraine has fueled a passionate debate over how to exalt the country's history without distorting it.

The issue took on greater urgency with a new law, signed last week by President Vladimir V. Putin, that mandates up to five years in jail and heavy fines for anyone who tries to rehabilitate Nazism or denigrate Russia's World War II record.

The Kremlin has long enshrined the history of the war against Hitler as a heroic, collective victory. But skeptics argue that the victory itself is too often used to promote what they consider an excessive obsession with fascism abroad -- vividly played out over the past two months in lurid coverage on Russian state television of the Ukraine crisis.

Some argue that the fixation distorts history, playing down the darker aspects of the Soviet Union's role in World War II and obliterating honest discussion of foreign policy issues.

Those critics -- an array of historians, analysts and commentators -- trace the obsession with defeating fascism to Mr. Putin's determination to burnish the Soviet past and restore Russia's role as a global power. For the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, Moscow was festooned with giant red stars, the symbol of the army and the entire World War II victory, just as it was in Soviet times.

The current debate about fascism erupted with the publication of an article comparing Russia's incorporation of Crimea to the Anschluss, Hitler's annexation of a receptive Austria and other German lands in 1938. That prompted a defender of Mr. Putin to respond with an article suggesting that Hitler before 1939 might be considered "the good Hitler."

Then came the new law. Historians assailed it as dangerously vague and an attempt more to make a cult of the past than to protect it.

"The victory has replaced the memory of the war," said a historian, Nikita Sokolov. "The real experience of the war and the history of the people's war has been squeezed out of the collective memory."

The Communist Party may no longer rule, but on the 69th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat, the myth the party formulated - - that once upon a time the Russian people and its leadership saved the world from fascism through virtually superhuman sacrifice and struggle -- lives on, he said.

"It was the great victory achieved through the great effort of the people of the country, under the guidance of the Communist Party," Mr. Sokolov said. "With certain modifications this ideology is being used by the modern leadership of Russia. It is not an accident."

There is historical consensus that the Soviet defeat of Hitler was indeed a turning point in the war. Germany's downfall was also the apex of the Soviet Union's showdown with Western power, even if Moscow fought the same enemy as the United States and Britain.

So as Mr. Putin seeks to rebuild his and Russia's reputation, historians said, every foreign policy issue is reshaped to resemble the fall of the Third Reich. No matter what the conflict, Mr. Putin's government links itself to that 1945 victory by proclaiming that the defeat of fascism is Russia's raison d'etre.

Sergey V. Lavrov, the foreign minister, made that very point at a memorial service on Wednesday.

"The day which is celebrated all over the world as Victory Day is sacred for us," he said during the ceremony to lay a wreath at the Foreign Ministry's monument to its World War II fallen, and used the occasion to take a swipe at Ukraine. …

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