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Sunday, May 1, 2005


Memories are made of . . . history managed and manipulated?

Special to The Japan Times

Way back in 1964 and 1965 I made extended trips to and around the Soviet Union. Memories that are 40 years old are hard enough to relate to the reality of the present, let alone when they are of a country that has ceased to exist. This, though, is precisely what I aim to do.

Being able to speak Russian, I traveled about with considerable freedom from Moscow, Leningrad and Novgorod in the north to Kiev, Kharkov and the lovely Crimean port town of Yalta in the south. I found a country that was multiracial and multicultural, despite the efforts of the government's cynical technocrats to suppress such variety. But wherever I went, I was greeted with a singular, almost obsessive, barrage of opinion. Everyone seemed to feel obliged to talk to me about World War II and their own or their family's experience of it.

I was reminded of these encounters by the upcoming anniversary of the end of that war. On May 8, it will be 60 years since Germany's Nazi-led government surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces. But when I was racing about the USSR in the summer of 1964, only 19 years had passed since then. There wasn't a single person in their mid-20s or over who didn't appear deeply affected by the German invasion of their country.

Anniversaries, of course, come naturally with the passage of time -- but that does not mean they are unstaged or unmanipulated as events. The D-Day celebrations last year, marking 60 years since the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, provided, at least for the winning side, an opportunity for Americans, Canadians, British people and Australians, among others, to mark their massive and courageous contribution to the defeat of fascism in Europe. (Judging by the coverage of those celebrations in the U.S. press, however, with its scant mention of non-American troops at Normandy, you would not be blamed for thinking that the United States singlehandedly took on and defeated the Third Reich.)

Why, I remember wondering on those two journeys around the Soviet Union long ago, are these people so haunted by the war? It was almost as if the entire country was still gripped by a siege mentality.

It dawned on me as I spoke with teachers, coalminers, engineers, farmers, retirees. In my studies in schools in the U.S., I had never been taught about the stupendous sacrifices made by the people of the USSR. I, too, had thought that the country of my birth, the United States, had saved the day in a kind of Superman rescue for which all Europeans would be eternally grateful.

I learned on my trips that more than 25 million Soviet soldiers and civilians were killed as a direct result of the German invasion. This is more than the combined total of dead of all the other countries, on both sides of the war. I also learned that more than 70 percent of German soldiers who died during the war are buried within the borders of the former Soviet Union.

Hitler's war was primarily a war against eastern communism, not western capitalism. (Fascists and capitalists have always been in each other's pockets.) The Nazi-led government had little interest in wrenching colonies away from western European powers. The Nazis' goal was to "liberate" the peoples of the Soviet Union from the yoke of communism, which they considered a Russian-driven ideology used to secure a Russian-dominated empire.

Even as Germany's defeat became evident to Hitler and his remaining loyal generals, they would have gladly made a separate pact with the Allies invading from the west to repel the Allies invading from the east, namely the Red Army, to keep the latter from the gates of Berlin. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wouldn't have a bar of this, and on May 7, 1945, the document of surrender was signed. Fighting ceased the next day at 11:01 p.m. The German capital was duly partitioned, shaping the world order for the next 44 years.

But war anniversaries are meaningless unless we try to put them in a perspective that will help us prevent the reoccurrence of mass carnage. It is not enough to gloat over our heroism, however genuine, or to lord our victory over the defeated.

The Russian people, who bore the full brunt of the German invasion, were never again going to allow themselves to be surrounded by enemies. The siege mentality, with all of its distrust of outsiders, was a natural outgrowth of the war, and it was nurtured by the Soviet government long after the peace was brokered. The great majority of Soviet citizens accepted the Communist Party's hold over government because they felt it was the only thing that could protect them from another invasion from the west.

The country called the Soviet Union may no longer exist, but Russians, still mindful of the monumental losses they suffered in what they call the "Great Patriotic War," are anxiety-prone: they fear being surrounded by unfriendly governments. (This is something they share with Americans, who are ready to invade their neighbors to the south at the drop of a hat if they sense serious hostility there.)

This is what comes to mind at the time of this anniversary. A time for celebration, yes. But also a time to recall what really happened and use that recollection to inform the present.

Isolating Russia, rather than engaging it, will only feed the fears of the past.

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