Remembering Victory Day in a Different Way

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May 9 marks the 63rd anniversary of Victory Day, the day that Stalin set aside to commemorate the end of the World War II in Europe. The fighting had ended by May 5, and the Western allies accepted Germany's surrender three days later. But the Soviet Union opted to recognize the following day. Victory Day, as its name suggests, was intended originally to celebrate the Soviet victory over fascism. Today, it is used to remember those who took part in the greatest conflict in history and those who sacrificed their lives in the Red Army. Very few of them remain alive today.

Though the government of former President Vladimir Putin has continued to incorporate the war into national consciousness -- and presumably President Dmitry Medvedev will continue the practice -- propaganda has always taken precedence over any quest for historical accuracy. The only difference is that the official number of Soviet dead has risen -- from Nikita Khrushchev's original estimate of 20 million to about 32 million combined civilian and military deaths, which is roughly equivalent to the current population of Canada.

But the official narrative in the Soviet era contained several distortions and even glaring omissions, some of which were continued during the Putin era.

First, the term coined by the Soviet leadership of "Great Patriotic War" denotes the beginning of the conflict on June 22, 1941, when the German Wehrmacht, with more than 3 million troops, invaded the Soviet Union. But World War II broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler's troops attacked Poland. Stalin watched the conflict for 16 days before sending in his own troops to occupy the eastern regions of the Polish state, ostensibly to liberate Ukrainians and Belarussians living there. The subsequent Soviet annexation of eastern Poland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia (located in modern-day Moldova) and northern Bukovina (located in western Ukraine along the border with Romania) had been carefully elaborated in a secret protocol, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, between the two dictators. From late 1939 to the summer of 1941, the new Soviet rulers deported some 400,000 Poles, Ukrainians and Belarussians from their homeland on various pretexts.

Stalin was shocked by Hitler's decision to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and this was evident not only from his lack of preparation and refusal to listen to warnings from Winston Churchill and his own spies about the forthcoming German assault, but also from official propaganda that referred to a "treacherous attack" by Hitler. It could only have been considered treachery if the Soviet Union were attacked by its own ally. The Soviet Union thus bears some responsibility for allowing Hitler a free hand in Western Europe, though some historians argue that he had little choice given the reluctance of the British and French to form an alliance with the Soviet side.

Both Stalin and his chief general, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, were always prepared to sacrifice troops for territorial gains. Stalin was never interested in hearing casualty lists. Rather, in the early part of the war he ordered armies to remain firm as they were being encircled by the German Blitzkrieg operations resulting in the capture of more than 5.5 million prisoners of war, many of whom died in captivity. Front commanders who retreated were shot. By 1942, more than 77,000 Soviet citizens had been executed by the NKVD for "cowardice" and "treachery."

These tactics were put into legal form with two decrees: Order 270, issued on Aug. 16, 1941, made it a criminal offense for any soldier to surrender; and Order 227, applied on July 28, 1942, declared that any commander retreating without express permission would be tried before a military tribunal. This policy was known informally as "Not a step backward!" To ensure that such demands were met, the NKVD dug trenches behind Soviet armies, filled with sharpshooters who would dispense summary justice to any soldiers who might feel inclined to flee from the Germans.

As the defeats turned to victories after the Battle of Stalingrad (from August 1942 to Feb. 2, 1943), Stalin's generals ordered rapid advances even during spring flooding, and they sent troops en masse across major rivers. Hundreds drowned crossing the Dnepr River to recapture Kiev. No one ever explained to Soviet citizens why their army lost three times more than the Germans. In 1945, Stalin ordered his front commanders Zhukov and Marshal Ivan Konev to race for Berlin, while Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky's troops advanced to the north of the city.

Berlin was duly captured, but the losses were extraordinarily high. The Soviet army, with Stalin's encouragement, went on the rampage in former German and Austrian territories, raping, pilfering and murdering. In the Soviet Union's western borderlands, new wars broke out with local insurgents that lasted into the 1950s in Ukraine and the Baltic states.

Though Soviet writings focused constantly on German atrocities in the postwar period, there was never any specific information about Germany's execution of the Holocaust on Soviet territory. Rather, official Soviet reports focused on prisoners liberated from Nazi camps without specifying the Jewish identity of the victims. By the late 1940s, Stalin had begun his own campaign of anti-Semitism. He had no wish to turn his new Jewish enemies into victims; in fact, members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist League were the first to be targeted.

The Soviet Union also consistently denied the NKVD's execution of some 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn, Tver (Kalinin) and Kharkov in 1940. It never explained satisfactorily why, after encouraging the Polish resistance movement, which was called the Polish Home Army, to mount an uprising in Warsaw at the start of August 1944, it allowed the First Belarussian Front of Rokossovsky to observe the battle from the east bank of the Vistula without offering any aid. Stalin even refused Allied planes the right to land and refuel on Soviet territory in order to assist the Poles. The Germans not only crushed the insurgents, but they destroyed Warsaw afterward.

The Soviet Union emerged from the war as a superpower. But this doesn't excuse the fact that official Soviet propaganda ignored the crucial role that Western aid to the Soviet Union, such as lend-lease, or the opening of the Western front -- albeit somewhat delayed -- played in the Soviet and Allied victory. Stalin was given the benefit of the doubt by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- even to the extent of allowing the Soviets to enter Berlin first. This, one could argue, precipitated the Cold War. Stalin outmaneuvered Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta conference in February 1945 and gained control over East European states. Over the next three years, Stalin imposed Communist regimes that would last for four decades.

These events render May 9 a mixed blessing. The sacrifice of the Soviet people in defeating Hitler and fascism should never be forgotten. At the same time, however, the current Russian leaders should not forget or gloss over the callousness and cruelty of the regime that ruled their country during the war years.

David Marples, a professor of Russian history at the University of Alberta, Canada, is the author of "The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991."