However, the Soviets declared that General Ivan Susloparov, who signed the treaty with the Allies, had not been authorized to do so. Russians demanded that the Reims act be treated as a preliminary document and the final surrender be concluded in Berlin. And so on 8 May, at 10:43 PM, in Berlin-Karlshorst, Germany once again signed its capitulation. The Soviet side was represented by Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Since it was half an hour past midnight in Moscow, the Soviets decided they will celebrate the occasion one day after the rest of the Allies.
The end date of the war is not the only difference. Western Allies refer to the conflict World War Two and take its starting day as 1 September 1939. The Soviet Union had always attached more importance to the date it was attacked by Nazi Germany, 22 June 1941. This was the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, where Germany was the aggressor and the USSR sacrificed millions of its people for freedom of Europe. Today, 70 years after the victory, we must remember what caused the greatest butchery in human history.
The go-ahead for the war was given in Moscow on 23 August 1939, when German and Soviet foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Viacheslav Molotov, signed the secret protocols of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. These sealed the fate of many nations, including Lithuania. One week after the pact, on 1 September, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. As the country was defending itself from the Germans in the west, on 17 September the Red Army stabbed it in the back from the east. Poland was divided along the pre-agreed terms.
On 30 November, the USSR attacked Finland. The Winter War saw the Finns defend themselves heroically, but lose large sweeps of territory. In April 1940, Germany took its own bite in the Nordics by occupying Denmark and Norway. As Hitler was holding a parade in Nazi-occupied Paris that summer, Stalin occupied the Baltic states and eastern Romania, Besarabia, which was to become the Moldavian SSR.
The two most terrible dictators of the twentieth century, both marching their armies under red flags, divided up Europe. The difference between them was the shape of their moustache. One led the National Socialist Workers’ Party, the other, the Communist Party. One proclaimed the supremacy of his nation, the other, of his system. Both lost. Germans admitted, to themselves and to the world, that they had hit a dead end, while Russians still try to whitewash their tragic history – by silently justifying Soviet aggression and friendship with Hitler and shifting all the focus onto victory in 1945.
That point in history has been made into a quasi-religious truth. If someone raises inconvenient questions – “how, why?” – the highest echelons of the Russian leadership start sounding accusations of attempts to distort history. When Europe was burning witches, it was equally forbidden to doubt that one could fly on broomsticks.
The Allied contribution gets understated, while the focus is on the masochistic pride in the fact that Soviet people make up the biggest share among war victims. Shame on you, Europe, for failing to properly appreciate that.
Ten million Germans died compared to 27 million of the Soviet people. There could have been fewer casualties, had the Soviets attached more value to human life. It wasn’t the case then, it still isn’t the case in Russia today, so most Russians see nothing criminal in using soldiers as bullet shields.
A telling example was a competition outside Berlin between two marshals. On 20 April 1945, Marshal Ivan Konev issued an order: “Marshal Zhukov’s army is 10km from the eastern outskirts of Berlin. I order to invade Berlin tonight so that we are the first ones.” On that same day Zhukov told his own troops: “To enter Berlin at any cost no later than 4 AM on 21 April and immediately notify comrade Stalin and the press.” The competition resulted in a loss of thousands of lives that could have been spared.
The dead were officially proclaimed heroes, but in fact no one cares about them. Some 20,000 soldiers died in Livny, Russia, during the war, but no one knows where over 18,000 of them are buried. In 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev promised to provide apartments to veterans. Back in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin said the government had overestimated its resources. Instead of apartments, on the 70th victory anniversary those veterans who are still alive will be presented with one-off payments of 7,000 roubles, or 120 euros.
The first Victory Parade was staged in the Red Square on 24 June 1945. Viktor Suvorov aptly notes that something was amiss in this triumph of victors. The parade must have been received by the commander-in-chief, the father of nations, the sun of the working class, by Joseph Stalin himself. However, he watched the procession from a tribune at the Lenin Mausoleum, among other state leaders, and the parade was received by Marshal Zhukov.
For Stalin, this was not the victory he wanted. His goal had been to rule the world, while what he had gotten was a smaller half of Europe. The Soviet state emblem – featuring a globe and the motto ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ – seemed vacated of its inspiring meaning. Even though I was still taught at school that the global victory of socialism was a historical inevitability, no one took it seriously any more.
Under Stalin, there was no celebration of Victory Day. Nor did Nikita Khrushchev introduce it. Only 20 years later, in 1965, did Leonid Brezhnev declared 9 May a national holiday. In the Soviet Union, it focused on remembering suffering and loss and the main message was: it cannot happen again.
Victory Day in modern Russia has a different tone. War is no longer seen as a tragedy but rather revered as a proof of national glory. There are claims made here and there that Russians took a stroll in Europe back then, they could do it again. In Kaluga, there is a poster this year saying: “Today Crimea, tomorrow Rome. Happy great 9 May holiday.”
Pro-Putin motorcycle club Night Wolves decided to celebrate the occasion by taking a ride, accompanied by Russian diplomats, across the EU with a telling banner flying above their bikes: “To Berlin”. It is the same slogan that Soviet soldiers wrote on their tanks.
The new symbol of Victory Day is the Saint George ribbon. Today, though, it more readily calls up associations with Russia’s current aggression against Ukraine – having become the mark of the separatist fighters – rather than with World War Two. In the war years, the Saint George ribbon adorned the Order of Glory, a decoration for merits in battle. Today, it has been devalued to comic uses. It is put on vodka bottles, used in sandal design, there are crab sticks wrapped in black and yellow. Even sex shops offer special Victory Day discounts written on Saint George ribbons.
Ideologies in decline unwittingly turn into their ow parodies, depleted as they are of any content. Thus once awe-inspiring curses turn into nursery rhymes.
The overall atmosphere of this holiday, however, is ominous. Comparisons abound between war on fascism and current realities, where Russia is allegedly threatened by ill-meaning fascist led by the United States. The centrepiece of this year’s parade will be the T-14 tanks that get dubbed the assault weapon of world war three. Nor is there any taboo in displaying BUK-M2 rocket launchers. Even the Russian military-industrial engineers have come to admit that this very system was used to fire the rocket that downed the MH17 passenger airplane over Donbass.
There is a shuttle bus in Uryupinsk that bears a sign forbidding Barack Obama onboard. Everyone who does not support aggression against Ukraine is a fascist. With a little more effort, Russians will soon start burning US and EU flags. At least the bonfires will open the eyes to politicians who still want to conduct “business as usual” with such a regime.
There are, however, people immune to brainwash in Russia who continue to work for the future relations of our two nations. The famous journal of literary translations, “Inostranaya literatura” (“Foreign Literature”), dedicated its May issue to Lithuanian literature. We are the first former Soviet nation to be given such an exclusive presentation in the prestigious publication which does not seem unnerved by the mass militaristic psychosis. There are few places in Russia left where we are presented as a creative people rather than fascists. These few places, however, are of quality and authority to cure the Russian consciousness of its temporary obsession.
Our neighbour from Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, once again, uses the moment to show his ingenuity. Minsk will also host a victory parade where Belarussian soldiers will be joined by divisions from Russia. They will march to the beat of an American military band invited to Minks by Lukashenko, that persistent master of the balancing act.