SOCHI, Russia — The pageant of Russian history presented in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies passed over the Soviet victory in World War II to the consternation of more than a few patriots. But the war seems to be making the news these days more than ever nonetheless.
Russian sacrifices in the fight against the Nazis 70 years ago were stupendous, and feelings still run deep. Every family paid a price, and the war haunts everyday life here in a way that short-memory Americans would find startling. But there’s another side to its legacy: For decades after the war, Soviet leaders sought to reinforce their legitimacy by exploiting the memory of the titanic struggle.
And today the Russian government appears to be turning in the same direction.
President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has portrayed Russia as being under ideological attack. The West, it says, wants to impose a different and alien value system on the Russian people. Critics say Putin has been warning against demons abroad as a way of shoring up his own standing during uncertain times.
And there could be no more potent denunciation of the West’s alleged motives than to compare them to those of Nazi Germany.
Alexei Pushkov, the head of parliament’s international affairs committee, has proposed a bill criminalizing what he characterized as misinterpretations of Russian history. He said such a move is necessary because “Europe” is pushing an agenda to rehabilitate Nazism and that neighboring Latvia was already moving in that direction.
On the other hand, Pushkov warned Friday on Twitter that soon the Western allies would also give themselves all the credit for vanquishing the Nazis — unless Russia stood up for itself.
Phil Black, CNN’s Moscow correspondent, was summoned to the foreign ministry last week after his network ran an intentionally cheeky list of the 10 ugliest monuments in the world that included one dedicated to the defenders of the Brest fortress against the German attack in 1941. And even though that monument, unveiled by the Soviets in 1971, is actually in Belarus, CNN delivered an apology to the Russian ambassador in Washington.
In a comment on that issue, the foreign ministry’s human rights ombudsman, Konstantin Dolgov, said Russia will continue “to decisively cut short attempts to falsify history and belittle the role of the Soviet Union in achieving victory in World War II.”
Then the incoming head of the government-run RIA Novosti news agency, Dmitry Kiselyov, strongly implied on his television show this week that Arlington’s Iwo Jima Memorial portrays gay sex among the Marines raising the flag.
Dozhd TV, an independent television channel that has garnered the Kremlin’s ire for its coverage of political protests in Russia, lost virtually all access to cable providers after it came under fire in January for asking a provocative question — too provocative, as it turned out. Would Leningrad have been better off surrendering, the channel asked, rather than enduring a 900-day siege during the war? The official outrage that followed was intense.
The future of Dozhd is now in doubt.
And a blog post this week comparing a young Russian Olympic champion to a German medal winner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics who was later connected to war crimes in Ukraine and killed by partisans in Belarus in 1943 sparked another furor.
The author of that post was a loose-cannon satirist named Viktor Shenderovich. He said his point was that Putin, who was photographed congratulating figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia, was likely to exploit her victory just as Adolf Hitler had capitalized on the achievement of the handsome blond shot putter Hans Woelke.
Shenderovich said he was warning against fascism in Russia, but political leaders here said he was besmirching Russia’s victory in the war. (Other commenters simply suggested that he was way off base, and tone deaf to boot.)
His post appeared on the Web site of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, the favorite news source of Russia’s liberal middle class, run by a canny editor named Alexei Venediktov. A deputy speaker of parliament demanded that the station apologize, but Venediktov said the station had a policy of not interfering with bloggers, had not put the offending post on the air and would not apologize. During the years, he has earned enough credibility that the controversy faded away.
Pushkov’s proposal to legislate history could have the most significant effect of any of the controversies. He was angered, he said, by a similar history-writing bill in the Latvian parliament that would make it a crime to deny either Nazi or Soviet occupation of that country.
The Soviets — and after them the Russians — always portrayed themselves as liberators of Latvia and the two other Baltic nations. That is not how Latvians, Estonians or Lithuanians see it. At the outbreak of World War II, the Soviets moved into the region, to be replaced by the invading Germans, only to push the Germans out again. The three formerly independent countries were absorbed into the Soviet Union. They broke free in 1991.
Russia, Pushkov said in a speech to parliament, needs legislation “that would protect our history and our viewpoint on historical events, because there are quite a lot of those wishing to distort them both abroad and, unfortunately, inside Russia.”
It was Nazi Germany, he said, that first accused the Soviet Union of occupying Latvia.
“Therefore, let’s not be mistaken,” he said. “The recognition of the so-called Soviet occupation leads to the political rehabilitation of Nazism and its adherents.”
As for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, its creator, Konstantin Ernst, implied that the International Olympic Committee had pressured him to remove a segment on the war victory. But given the trauma and devastation the war wrought, it’s difficult to see how it could have been seamlessly woven into such an otherwise cheerful spectacle.