Breaking out of the story
What does it take to break out of the story,
To free oneself of its confines,
Not to be its victim?
What is needed to overturn its humiliations,
Those blockages to the heart?
How do you steel yourself to the tyrant,
A vulture to grievances,
Hungering to starve you of freedom from anger's shackles?
How can you face your nearest,
Those mired in the myth, and say to them, "Enough?"
For as long as you remember your own hurt through the autocrat's filter
You walk the earth tatooed with dead children,
Living as a prisoner to be fattened with lies and devoured.
Putin has called his war "a special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine." While this description may seem absurd to most of us, it taps into grievances still felt in Russian families, perpetuating a viscious circle of never-ending self-victimization. Putin needs this sense of indignation to run strong in order to maintain public support as his war brings hardship upon his own people. For years there has been a neo-Nazi battalion in the Ukrainian army (see the Azov fighters), but, unpalatable as their views are, the reality is that they are a small group, many of them have Russian as their first language, and their ideology is more similar to Putin's ultra-nationalism than any brand of nationalism to be found in Ukraine. The idea that Kyivs "fascist junta" wants to cleanse East Ukraine of Russian speakers is exaggerated.
Victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 represented both a high point in a humiliating Russian century and a low point: During WWII Russians lost more of their countrymen than any other Soviet Republic, and the Soviet Union more citizens than any other country. There are many Russian families with a story from the Great Patriotic War, as WWII is known in Russia - Putin has shared his version of the fate of his own family's suffering in public repeatedly. The rapid onset of the Cold War meant that this loss of life went relatively unacknowledged by the rest of the world, a humiliation that was compounded both by the miserable conditions of the Soviet Union as well as ironically its collapse in 1991. For a few years, world leaders attended Victory Day on the 9th of May, Russia's biggest annual celebration, until Putin's invasion of Crimea in March 2014 made attendance unpopular.
Putin has long worked hard to erase the Soviet Union's duplicitous role in WWII in which it forged an agreement with Hitler to divide up Eastern Europe until the Reich turned on it with Operation Barbarossa in 1941. It is no coincidence that even discussing this period in Russia today is regarded as a criminal offense. Between Putin's tampering with history through his memory laws and the earlier relentless Soviet propaganda machine, Russians have had limited opportunity to come to terms with their nation's role in this traumatic event.
This type of grievance is notoriously difficult to shed, even in societies that are free. For example, while some German families continue to cultivate a sense of victimization for their unrecognized, unmourned suffering and war losses (I come from one of them), their standard of living improved rapidly and to such an extent as a result of the Marshall Plan and West Germany's integration by the liberal democracies that this sense of grievance didn't have the chance to affect political stability. Importantly, citizens have the option of access to facts if they so choose. It is no coincidence that in the 2000's the far right in Germany flared up in the eastern part where, under the East German totalitarian regime, myths about the "fascist" west blanketed any serious confrontation with history. The same has been true in other parts of the former eastern bloc, including in Poland where it is illegal to claim that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust - the myth that they were solely victims must be upheld in order for governing politicians to play on the public's sense of grievance. Ukraine's very own Azov fighters might be seen as a symptom of the same problem.
Efforts by descendants to face their families' and communities' pasts with honesty must continue for these old bombs to be diffused. Even without Putin, the same will be necessary for the emergence of a peaceful Russia.
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