Fascism exploited and distorted in Putin’s Russia for propaganda’s sake

Troops in armoured personnel carriers salute during the Victory Day parade. Photograph: Grigory Dukor/Reuters

Troops in armoured personnel carriers salute during the Victory Day parade. Photograph: Grigory Dukor/Reuters 

2015/03/14 • Analysis & Opinion, Featured, History

Article by: James Oliver

The idea created by the Marxist-Leninists that Russia is the great enemy of world-wide fascism is still deeply embedded in Russians’ consciousness

Where the image of anti-fascist Russia comes from

Fascism, according to the traditional Marxist-Leninist analysis, was a tool of Capitalism to crush the proletariat

Russia’s “anti-fascist” credentials were solidified by its seminal role in defeating the Nazis in World War II. Russian WWII historiography is replete with notions of “sacrifice” against the fascist enemy. There is of course no denying the Soviet Union’s sacrifice: between 1941-45, approximately 27 million Soviet citizens and soldiers died in the “fight against Fascism” [1]. When many in the West read of the Red Army, they naturally think of Russians. That is how it was presented in the West at the time, from Winston Churchill’s declaration that “the guts of the German army have been largely torn out by Russian valour … [under the] warrior leader, Marshal Stalin” [2] to General Douglas MacArthur’s praise that “[t]he scale and grandeur of the Russian effort mark it as the greatest military achievement in all history” to Stalin’s own remarks in May 1945 that the “Russian people … earned general recognition as the leading force of the Soviet Union among all the nationalities of our country.”

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Still from Frank Capra’s 1943 film “Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia.” This movie, part of a series of films attempting to depict the course of WW2 for American audiences, was pure Stalinist propaganda in the English language. No mention of Communism or any Soviet crimes. The Soviets were depicted as freedom loving peoples and Ukrainians were depicted as “Little Russians”, among other things.

Now it is certainly true that it was on the eastern front that WWII was ultimately decided, but those who view this conflict through the prism of a simplistic “Russian vs German” clash will overlook critical aspects of history, history that still resonates today and has an impact on events and relations in the 21st century.

1) Ukraine’s Forgotten Contribution to Red Army Victory and Losses

WWII’s eastern front was not exclusively a Russian victory. Often you will hear the words “Russia” and “USSR” used interchangeably as if both mean the same thing. After all, that is what Putin wants you to think it is. In reality, the Russia that we know today is a successor state to the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, RSFSR. Although the RSFSR was the largest and most populous republic of the former USSR, it was not the only one! In fact, the second most populous republic in the USSR was the Ukrainian SSR, and Ukrainians were the largest ethnic minority in the Soviet Union. Of the 197 million Soviet citizens in 1941, the total Ukrainian population of the USSR was estimated to be around 40-42 million people. [3] And of those 40-42 million, at least 7 million served in the Red Army between 1941-45. In addition, the total amount of Ukrainian civilian losses in WWII has been estimated to be about 5-8 million, and possibly higher. [4] Proportionally, then, Ukrainians were more impacted by the war than Russians. More Ukrainians died fighting the Germans than British, French and American forces combined. Moreover, it was the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front (comprised of both Ukrainians and Russians) that liberated Auschwitz. This fact has been so obscured that if one asks Westerners “who liberated Auschwitz?” I’m willing to bet  that the answer “Russians” will appear more often and long before the answer “Ukrainians” ever will. The role of Ukraine in WWII is a very complex one and clearly much education is still needed. I’ll leave that for another post.

2) Purging of Soviet Barbarism

The discovery of Auschwitz by the Red Army confirmed the deep evils of Nazism. The Holocaust is of course an undeniable fact with a great volume of eyewitness accounts, documentary evidence, and scholarly literature. [5] Auschwitz was a major cog in the Nazi machine of genocide and genocide is an integral part of Nazi ideology. Doing research on the Holocaust and Nazi barbarism is still a deeply emotional experience, but it is very much possible to do. Even in Russia, if you wish to research Nazi barbarism on Soviet citizens, the archival authorities will be more than willing to assist you. What the Russian archival authorities might not be so willing to help you with, however, is if you declared you wanted to research Soviet barbarism.

The “Russian vs German” prism of WWII is often intertwined with the perception that it represents a clear case of the battle of good vs evil. “Hitler/Fascism is evil – Stalin/Communism is good.” But Stalin and his Communist regime were hardly angelic. This was the same Stalin and Communist regime after all, who in 1932-33 unleashed a genocide in Ukraine, so effective that one journalist called it “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe it ever happened.” This was the same Stalin who invaded nation-states under dubious pretexts and conducted multiple bouts of ethnic cleansing, not just in the places he invaded but also against minorities within the RSFSR and the rest of the USSR itself. [6] The fact that Nazi Germany committed perhaps the most uniquely horrific atrocity in history also gave the USSR the chance to bury its own crimes in the name of preserving this “Hitler-bad/Stalin-good” prism.

Soviets are responsible for other acts of barbarism, some well-known, others less so. The denial of the Katyn Massacre is one example of this, but it is a trend that the Kremlin has continued. The same Stalin and Communist system also imprisoned millions of peoples in the Gulags. Let me give you another example: who has ever heard of Magadan? Magadan is a small sub-arctic port-town located on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk. If you visit Magadan today without knowing its past, you might be convinced that it is a quiet and unassuming place. Little of interest happens there. But scratch the surface of Magadan and you quickly find out that it was home to the administrative hub of the Dalstroy Gulag complex, the largest such Gulag complex in the USSR. Dalstroy’s largest camp, Sevotslag, housed over 190,000 prisoners at its peak in 1940. [7] Conservative and incomplete estimates reveal that between 1929-1950 at least 18 million people were incarcerated in the Gulag camps throughout the USSR, of which at least 3 million died. [8] Unfortunately, an accurate death toll at Sevotslag and the other Gulags will remain impossible to accurately quantify until the Russian state allows full investigation.

Unfortunately, under Putin the enormous Gulag system that contributed so greatly to the bloodshed of the USSR has been allowed to decay. Quite literally, Gulags have been allowed to simply rot away under the elements, in the hopes that they can be forgotten about (click to enlarge map).

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Map of Gulag camps in 1954

The only Gulag camp that survived into the Putin era in any sort of recognisable state was “Perm 36.” Under the care of some very noble Russians, it was converted into a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of all those who had suffered and died there. Predictably and tragically for this very reason, the Perm 36 Gulag Museum has been forced to close, but under a pretext echoed by Russian state TV which had accused Perm 36 of promoting “Extremism” or “Anti-Russian” activities linked to Ukraine and fascism:

[In June 2014] the Russian state television network NTV aired a documentary aimed at discrediting the museum as a pro-fascist, American-funded institution. “The aim of Perm 36,” the narrator intoned, “is to teach children that Ukrainian fascists are not as bad as history textbooks portray them, whilst their grandchildren cause genocide in eastern Ukraine.”

It seems an inconvenient truth, then, for state-controlled NTV to point out that many of the victims of Perm 36 were not Ukrainian, but indeed Russian. Russian writers, Russian poets, Russian priests, Russian dissidents, many of whom were convicted of the dubious crime of “Anti-Soviet agitation” and locked away there. One such prisoner was the human rights activist Sergei Kovalev, who gave the following interview to the BBC’s Jonathan Dimbleby in 2008:


Imagine if Merkel suddenly took a nationalist turn and closed down the Nazi-built concentration camps on the grounds that commemorating their victims promoted “Anti-German” activities. How outraged do you think the world would be? Putin’s wiping away of Russian history and Soviet repression and brutality as exemplified in the removal of references to what the Soviet regime really did in Gulags such as Perm 36 deserves notice. The former USSR was not a benevolent regime to its peoples.

The “Hitler-bad/Stalin-good” prism is a crude and simplistic way to look at WWII from a moral perspective. WWII was in the words of Norman Davies, “No simple victory.” The USSR, like Nazi Germany, was a regime of evil acts. But in the context of the “German vs Russian prism,” that too often seems to be downplayed, or outright overlooked. In fact, a Russian TV poll conducted in 2008 found that Stalin was voted by the Russian public as the third “greatest Russian” of all time “despite being responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviets in labour camps and purges.” This shocking result represents a damning indictment of Russian historiography. In 2003, German TV produced a similar programme to find the “Greatest German,” Hitler was not featured. In Germany, memorials to Hitler’s victims continue to be erected. Nazi concentration camps are being preserved as a warning against the barbarism that built them in the first place. In Russia, on the other hand, Stalin is being more and more glorified in history textbooks to the point of absurdity.

The USSR, like Nazi Germany, was a regime of evil acts

Stalin’s own Anti-Semitism is also noteworthy. As a result, the fact that the Jews were the prime target of Nazi barbarism was expunged by Soviet propaganda. “From the mid-1940s until the late 1980s, the Holocaust was omitted from school and university textbooks, encyclopedias, and monographs for exclusively political reasons.” [9] The Nazis, being fascists, were still depicted as evil, but it is only very recently that the Holocaust re-established anything resembling a place in Russian historiography. [10] But the ignorance that remains combined with Soviet Anti-Semitic tropes that the Jews were simply incompatible with Soviet life seems to have led to some curious after-effects in contemporary Russia. For example, when Russian TV host Evelina Zakamskaya was confronted with the fact that Ukrainian and Russian Jews had supported the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine (otherwise falsely depicted as an Anti-Semitic coup in the Russian press), her response? It was the Jews’ fault for bringing the Holocaust upon themselves! Such breathtaking ignorance and/or stupidity helps reveal the full extent of the education truly needed in Russia.

3) Russia’s Myth of Being Anti-Fascist

Earlier this year I came across a curious tweet (now deleted) by a Russia-Today host that was as insightful as it was ignorant.

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The effect of portraying the Russians as the great enemy of fascism has been the portrayal of the Russians as an “eternal enemy” of fascism. Even under the Soviet Union, that was not entirely true. The most obvious case in point here is that for nearly one-third of the duration of what we call WWII, the Russians under the Soviet system were not enemies, but in fact allies of the Germans. Far from fighting “the Nazi invasion” in 1939 as RT host Laura Burdon-Manley and this article suggests, Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, instead signed a pact with his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop to carve up Poland as well as the Rest of Central and Eastern Europe between the two regimes. What followed was two years of very close co-operation, and alliance it was. When the Nazis were bombing Polish targets from the air during the September 1939 invasion of Poland, they were aided by a Soviet radio tower based in Minsk. When the Nazis sought to invade Norway, the Soviets provided assistance by lending them a Naval base which became “Basis Nord,” and so on. [11]

“At the time of the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, Soviet oil flowed westward to fuel the engines of the Panzers and the Luftwaffe. Similarly, German machinery and arms flowed eastward to replenish the ailing Soviet economy. The new German cruiser, the Lutzow, was sold to the Soviet Navy, and renamed the Pietrov Pavlov. In January 1941, the USSR bought the District of Suwalki for 7,500,000 dollars in gold. The Soviet press praised the victories of the German army ‘over the decadent forces of capitalism and imperialism.’ Nazi propaganda praised the achievements of ‘the great Stalin.’ Pravda explained that the Red Army had moved into Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine ‘to liberate our brothers of the same blood.’  Der Voelkischer Boebachter rejoiced that the German army was realizing Hitler’s dream of greater Lebensraum for the German race in the East. The NKVD & the Gestapo worked in close collaboration. German communists from Russia were handed over to the Gestapo in exchange for Russian émigrés and Ukrainians from Germany. Both sides looked on Poles and Jews with undisguised contempt. The ‘racial enemy’ of the one was virtually indistinguishable from the ‘class enemy’ of the other.” [12]

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A sign erected by the Red Army in Brest-Litovsk, scene of a joint Nazi-Soviet victory parade on September 22 1939. The text reads, “Long live the Red Army, liberator of the working masses [of] WB [Western Belorussia] & WU [Western Ukraine].”

Recently Putin has even attempted to justify the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, “What is so bad about it that the Soviet Union did not want to fight? What is so bad?” he said. In 2013, he tried to justify the 1939 invasion of Finland because that invasion was necessary to correct border “mistakes” according to him. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact led to the clearly aggressive invasion of Finland, yet it is often presented as a defensive measure. In reality, Stalin thought he could utilise Hitler to achieve certain goals such as the destruction of the West, and if that meant jointly crushing Poland too, which Stalin had long hated anyway, so be it. The motives of Stalin were in fact, far from defensive. Hitler could be used as an ally in the interim, and Stalin certainly benefited from having Hitler as an ally between 1939 and 1941.

Soviet delusions of what their allies were got to the point where, on November 12 1940, Molotov visited Berlin to ask if the USSR could join as an “Axis power.” In the end he was rebuffed. What he did not know was that by that time Hitler had already been planning his invasion of the USSR, which duly came on July 22, 1941.

The coming together of Hitler and Stalin in terms of apparent outlook led Mussolini in October 1939 to conclude Stalin had rendered Bolshevism dead and “instead we have a kind of Slavic Fascism. [13] But was this the case? A change of nationality-policy in the early 1930s involving a turn to russification and the incorporation of Russian patriotism to the point where it became nationalist in character, added to the already existing Soviet totalitarianism certainly intrigued already existing Russian fascists amongst the white émigré communities whom had been inspired by Mussolini since the 1920s. In France, the fascist-inspired Russian emigre Alexander Lvich Kazem-bek and his Mladorossi (young Russian) party “praised” Stalin for creating “Bonapartist” conditions that would lead to his downfall and the beginning of a true Tsarist-Soviet state. [14] In Manchuria, the Russian fascist Konstantin Rodzaevsky, who had spent much of WWII alongside the Japanese, slowly became convinced by the end of the conflict that Stalin was a true fascist:

“I issued a call for an unknown leader, … capable of overturning the Jewish government and creating a new Russia. I failed to see that, by the will of fate, of his own genius, and of millions of toilers, Comrade J V Stalin, the leader of the peoples, had become this unknown leader.” [15]

In August 1946 Rodzaevsky arrived in Moscow to live out his fascist fantasies there. For his wartime activities aiding the Japanese, he was shot on arrival. Kazem-bek, who would go on to develop a greater sense of loyalty to the Soviet ideal, lived on in Moscow. [16]

The idea that certain Russians decided of their own volition to collaborate with fascist powers in WWII, even between 1941-45, has been buried by propaganda. Notable examples of Russians who did collaborate with the Nazis include Bronislav Kaminski, who helped put down the Warsaw uprising using his Russian S.S. Sturmbrigade R.O.N.A brigade and Andrey Vlasov, possibly the most high-profile defector.

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Photo. Russians fighting for the Germans during the putting down of the Warsaw uprising in 1944

It has been suggested that approximately 1 million Russians had taken up arms for the Germans under the banner of the “Russian Liberation Movement” by the end of 1942. But what about the civilian population? According to Professor Boris Kovalyov of the University of Novgorod, some deeply religious Russians were won over into supporting the Germans as liberators from “Godless Bolshevism” after the Germans had conducted a “hearts and minds” campaign, including taking Russians to Berlin to show them the “German way of life.” “Germany” claimed one village mayor “is a country of gardens, first class steelworks and autobahns. It has exemplary order. We should fight for it!’

Photos. A German propaganda poster trying to appeal to russian peasants. Russian Orthodox clergy welcoming the Germans. For other photos, see here.

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To be sure, such opinions as those espoused by that village mayor were not shared by every civilian in Russia whom the Germans came across, especially when reports of atrocities against the civilian populations of Russia began to surface quickly afterwards. Where the Nazis weren’t being doted upon by local populations, they faced heavy resistance. This was true not only in Russia, but across the Eastern front also, particularly in “Partisan areas.”

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Map. Overview of Soviet partisan activities between 1941-44.

It seems Putin would like you to think that in WWII the Russians were an entire nation of anti-fascists whilst the Ukrainians were an entire nation of willing fascist collaborators. In both cases, the reality isn’t so clearly black and white. In the final analysis, the Germans getting certain Russians to be on their side was as purely cynical as the Germans getting any Ukrainian or any other Slav on their side. Regardless of how useful a Russian or a Ukrainian could be to them in the interim, Russians and Ukrainians were nonetheless considered “sub-human” to the Germans, and Russian and Ukrainian lands and peoples ripe for exploitation. We know this because the Nazis developed a “Generalplan Ost” for colonisation and a “Hunger Plan” for getting rid for the “superfluous populations” of Eastern Europe – by feeding Germans using collectivised food and leaving none for the Slavic populations, thereby starving tens of millions out of existence. This Plan entailed “extinction of industry as well as great part of the population in the deficit regions.” Guidelines for the Hunger Plan issued on May 23, 1943 contained some of the most explicit language about killing millions that the Nazi regime produced.“Attempts to rescue the population there from death through starvation by obtaining surpluses from the black earth zone can only come at the expense of the provisioning of Europe. They prevent the possibility of Germany holding out till the end of the war, they prevent Germany and Europe from resisting the blockade. With regard to this, absolute clarity must reign.” [17]

The idea of using hunger as a genocidal policy ought to sound familiar to any Ukrainian. The sick irony is apparently lost on today’s Russian Neo-Nazis. According to one report produced in 2007, it’s been estimated that Russia contains half the world’s total number of active Neo-Nazis. Nothing has been suggested to say the picture has gotten better since.

Russia’s Neo-Nazis put many of Hitler’s ideas into a context of Russian nationalism and patriotism, which in turn perversely means glorifying Stalin, the USSR, and russification policies also (See of note, Aleksandr Dugin). Putin has helped develop this pattern of nationalism by placing Stalin into a “patriotic context.” This nationalist outlook has made Russian nationalism attractive and by extension the most ugly form of nationalism attractive. This is a problem that the Russian people, as well as the rest of us, are going to have to deal with. Regardless of whether Putin thinks or wants you to think he is an opponent of fascism, he and the nationalist ideas he advocates, are certainly not a real solution to Europe’s or indeed Russia’s “fascist problems.” Given Putin’s willingness to use Neo-Nazis elsewhere in Europe to his own advantage, the above should be telling. After all, the ideology that has been dubbed “Putinism” also has a basis in fascism itself.

—-

[1] C Bellamy, “Absolute war,” p2. This figure represents “nearly half the total losses resulting from the second world war.”
[2] quoted in Bellamy, ibid., p5.
[3] Bellamy, ibid., p11.
[4] N Davies “Europe at War 1939-1945: No simple victory,” p367. C Bellamy, op cit., p11. “The famous American journalist Edgar Snow, who visited Ukraine in 1943 and 1945, cited a senior Ukraine official as saying that 10 million people – a quarter of the population – were lost in the war, and that figure excluded those men and women mobilised into Soviet or German armed forces.” For other data, see InfoUkes.com.
[5] Among too many excellent titles to cite, I recommend R Hilberg, “The Destruction of the European Jews” and P Longerich, “Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews.”
[6] For an introduction, see for example N Naimark, “Stalin’s Genocides.”
[7] N Davies, Op cit., p332.
[8] For more details see A Applebaum, “Gulag: A history.”
[9] I Altman, “Teaching the Holocaust in Russia in the 21st Century” at Yad Vashem.
[10] Altman, ibid.
[11] For these and more details, see R Moorhouse, “The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941.
[12] N Davies, “God’s playground: A history of Poland. Vol 2,” p444.
[13] G Ciano, “diary, October 16 1939. Ciano was Mussolini’s foreign minister until 1943.
[14] N Hayes, “Kazem-Bek and the Young Russians’ Revolution. Slavic Review. Vol. 39, No. 2 (Jun., 1980), p255-268.”
[15] As quoted in this Wikipedia article.
[16] Hayes, Op cit.
[17] T Snyder, “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin,” p163.

Edited by: Paula Chertok

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  • chris hawkins

    Dugin and his cronies call it ‘National Bolshevism’

  • Galitzian Knight

    Russia must be stopped