LENINGRAD, Soviet Union -- Vera Mamina is a survivor of the 900-day Nazi siege of this city in World War II, and she has been an archivist at its Piskarevski wartime memorial cemetery for 20 years. But even she can't fully fathom the monument's hold over her countrymen.
"Several thousand people come every day," Mamina said of this vast burial ground for those who perished, mostly from starvation, while defending this city, the historic home of the czars and later the cradle of the Russian Revolution. "I ask myself: 'How can it be that people keep coming?' It would seem to me that sooner or later everyone would have been here already. But somehow the crowds never diminish."
Many come on excursions organized by factories, schools, clubs and offices, where attendance is considered a patriotic duty. Busloads of foreign visitors come as well, Piskarevski being a mandatory stop on most tours of Leningrad, "the Hero City."
But thousands of others come on their own, drawn almost half a century after the event by a collective national memory of wartime trauma that most were not yet born to witness but that, according to some, did as much to shape modern Soviet society as the Bolshevik Revolution itself.
The war elevated the Soviet Union to the status of a modern superpower while simultaneously reinforcing an almost mystical Russian xenophobia that, centuries ago, was directed at such invaders as Napoleon Bonaparte and Genghis Khan.
Under the banner of a sacred commitment to defend the motherland, the war unified the ruling Communist Party and the great majority of the subjects whom the party had so brutally abused through more than 20 years of civil war, forced collectivization and massive ideological purges.
And it left the Soviet Union with a cordon of newly annexed or subject lands that extended its sway beyond the farthest reaches of any earlier Russian empire.
Now, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and a determined group of reformers are throwing open for the first time chapters of that distant conflict in a challenge to old assumptions lying near the core of the country's image of itself and the world around it.
The continued institutional and individual reverence for the memory of the war that a visitor finds at Piskarevski underlines the political risk of this policy. But the reformers see it as necessary if their country is finally to turn its attention from guns to butter and overcome the distortions that have so skewed its economic, political and social development.
"It is necessary for people to know the truth in order to stop seeing ourselves still as a besieged fortress, to become open to the world and to open the world for us also," says political scientist Andronik Migranyan, a senior researcher at Moscow's Institute of the Economy of the World Socialist System.
In a sense, the Soviet Union is engaged, half a century after the conflict began, in the last and most important battle of the war, the battle over its legacy.
There are extraordinary differences in popular perceptions of the war here and in much of the West, starting with its name. They don't call it World War II here. It's the Great Patriotic War.
For the Soviet Union, it didn't start on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, or on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It began on June 22, 1941, when Hitler's troops smashed through ill-prepared Soviet defenses in a surprise onslaught that carried to the very outskirts of Moscow and nearly brought Russia to its knees.
The turning points of this conflict had less to do with Normandy and Hiroshima than with Stalingrad and Leningrad, and 50 years later even the most anti-Communist historians are more inclined to credit what was long "the unknown war" on the Russian front for its pivotal role.
20 million Soviet Deaths
The savage combat that raged between Moscow and Berlin for four years cost the German army more than 70% of its total war losses. It also cost 20 million Soviet war dead, about evenly divided between soldiers and civilians. That is equal to about 10% of the country's prewar population--and means that almost every Soviet family lost someone close.
The struggle left most of the European part of the country a shambles: 1,710 cities and towns and more than 70,000 villages destroyed or damaged, 6 million buildings demolished, 25% of the country's economic capacity disabled and 25 million of its citizens homeless.
As many as 1 million died during the siege of Leningrad. At Piskarevski, special military units blasted mass graves, up to 35 feet deep, in the frozen ground. They filled the holes with bodies, without even counting, much less trying to identify them. Cemetery documents record only the hospital or neighborhood from which corpses arrived by the truckload.
Archivist Mamina, who was 6 at the time, watched her aunt die of hunger in the apartment where her family was staying. They couldn't leave the corpse in their room because of the risk of disease. Yet no one was strong enough to carry it away.
"We had to just drop her out the window," Mamina recalls.
Siege survivors swear they can still remember the taste of the fist-size daily ration of black bread that sustained them, bread whose ingredients included pine needles, tree bark, chaff and whatever else was available to augment short supplies of flour.
"Of course, the war touched upon everyone, those on the front and those who lived thousands of kilometers away," says historian Alexander S. Grossman, 62. As a high school student in Tashkent, he spent his wartime summers in a surveying party, hunting for deposits of strategic materials near the border with Afghanistan.
"One of the most positive elements of Stalinism, speaking of the war, was the fact that the system really turned the entire country into one military camp," Grossman added. "From Vladivostok to the Western border, the entire population worked hard and desperately for victory. They lived a very difficult life without exception. And only thanks to that did we manage to defeat such a strong adversary as Hitler's Germany."
Shared Suffering, Victory
Just as their shared suffering had a powerful impact on generations of Soviet citizens, so did their shared victory.
Writing in the fall of 1944, with the Red Army surging toward Berlin, Sovietologist George F. Kennan, then deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, observed that the recovery from near defeat "has revived the hope, latent in every Russian soul, that the scope and daring of the Russian mind will some day overshadow the achievements of the haughty and conventional West. It has dispelled some of the suspicion, equally latent in every Russian soul, that the hand of failure lies heavily over all Russian undertaking, that the term 'Russia' does not really signify a national society destined to know power and majesty but only a vast unconquerable expanse of misery, poverty, inefficiency and mud."
To whatever extent the Soviet people really saw the end of the conflict as signaling a new era of prosperity at home and acceptance abroad, the notion was quickly smashed by the reality of the Cold War.
Longstanding ethnic and ideological antagonisms between the Soviet Union and its wartime Western Allies had merely been papered over by the common need to defeat the Nazis.
"If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons," Britain's wartime leader, the late Winston S. Churchill, commented days before the Nazi attack against the Soviet Union.
Suspicious of Allies
Soviet leader Josef Stalin was equally suspicious of the Allies, who had sent troops to support the anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian civil war.
The ink on the German surrender documents barely had time to dry before those old antagonisms reappeared, which is why the wartime Allies still celebrate victory in Europe on different dates. The West marks V-E Day on May 8, the effective date of the German surrender at Rheims, France. But Stalin rejected that capitulation, insisting that the surrender ceremony be reenacted in Soviet-controlled Berlin on May 9.
One of the most important gains of the war from a Soviet perspective quickly became a bitter new bone of East-West contention. A string of political satellites in Central and Eastern Europe were seen here as both justified compensation for Soviet blood and a protective buffer against the danger of any future surprise attack from the West.
The principal threat was no longer Germany but the United States, which emerged from the war with its industrial capacity untouched and the awesome secret of atomic power in its possession.
The need to catch up justified economic distortions that turned this country into what foreigners sometimes described as "Bolivia with the bomb"--a military superpower whose citizens mostly lived in squalid flats and had to stand in line to buy the most basic necessities of life.
From the war emerged a tradition, only now beginning to change, of holding the Soviet military virtually above question or criticism.
It is difficult to say where genuine, wartime-inspired craving for a strong national defense leaves off and official manipulation of wartime memories to further Kremlin policy begins. But there's no doubt that the combination has put an indelible stamp on Soviet society for half a century.
According to a recent survey by the National Center for Public Opinion Research in Moscow, 58% of Soviet citizens still claim to think about the war "often," and another 34% say they think about it "sometimes," according to project director Nikolai P. Popov.
Visitors often remark that the numerous wartime reminders one sees in everyday Soviet life make it seem as if the conflict ended only yesterday.
Soviet teen-agers in uniforms of the Young Communist League still stand guard with training rifles over war memorials in cities, towns and villages across this vast land. Brides and grooms traditionally pay respects at the monument to the unknown soldier after their nuptials. Factories and offices boast prominent displays honoring former employees who died in the war or current employees who are veterans of it.
The war is the subject of an extraordinary number of new and old movies, plays and books. Schoolchildren study it extensively.
Official language is studded with wartime references. Reports from such prestigious national construction projects as the so-called Baikal-Amur Mainline railway in Siberia "were like reports from the battlefield," notes political scientist Migranyan. "Everywhere we 'fought,' we 'conquered,' we 'defeated,' we 'stormed.' "
The government-controlled media used wartime memories to buttress the image of a Western threat through most of the postwar period. A typical 1978 cartoon in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda depicted the ghost of Adolf Hitler lecturing top-hatted capitalists and military men clutching nuclear bombs.
Comments Migranyan: "I think that the war was the central theme of our culture and our life until perestroika "--President Gorbachev's program of economic and political reform.
"Our victory raised high the international prestige of the Soviet Union," Gorbachev said on the 40th anniversary of the war's end, in 1985. At the time, he was still a virtual unknown on the world stage, only two months into his new job as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
Himself only a boy during the war, Gorbachev represents a new generation at the pinnacle of Soviet power. But he was still lionizing the conflict in much the same terms as his predecessors, for whom participation in the war was their main claim to legitimacy.
The war, Gorbachev said that day in May, 1985, "inspired an upsurge of patriotic sentiments among the Soviet people. Victory was and will remain for us a source of inspiration, from which we will always draw energy to translate into life immense plans of construction and to strengthen the might and ensure the further prosperity of our homeland."
It is ironic that four years later, Gorbachev's policies of glasnost , or "openness," and novya myshlenya , or "new thinking," are beginning to strip the war of some of its mythology.
The official Soviet view for years was that "world imperialism" had at best acceded to Hitler's rise and at worst encouraged him to launch an all-out war against socialism. In this version of events, the Red Army did almost all of the fighting, with Allied armies landing at Normandy only when their governments began to fear that Soviet troops would otherwise soon liberate all of Europe by themselves.
The Soviets even took principal credit for defeating the Japanese, although they did not enter that theater of the conflict until three days after the U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
"The (Soviet) leaders who wanted for their own reasons to cut the people off, to rule the place without a lot of interference and consultation with others, to achieve a place in the world by developing military power and so on--they found these (wartime) images useful," comments Jack F. Matlock, U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
"If there have been mutations in the way they're used," Matlock added, "it's partly because the current leadership sees it in its interests to downplay the danger presented by the outside world. . . . Because objectively they have got to shift resources out of the military to the civilian economy, or else they'll never get themselves out of the jam that they've gotten into."
Change began with the discrediting of Stalin's wartime role, a particularly useful exercise given that it is essentially Stalin's economic system that Gorbachev is trying to reform. Previously, even long after he was denounced for his criminal repressions of real and imagined opponents, Stalin's wartime image remained that of a national savior whose iron will pulled the country through its darkest hour.
But a series of articles and documentaries in the last 18 months have accused Stalin of ignoring repeated intelligence warnings giving the exact date of the German invasion and of other wartime blunders that cost the lives of untold thousands.
The August, 1939, Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact and subsequent treaty of friendship a month later, long depicted as a Stalinist master stroke that gave the country vital extra time to prepare for war, is now seen as stupid, if not criminal.
"Hitler made a mockery of Stalin, who until the last moment trusted him implicitly," wrote former diplomat Semyon Rostovsky.
Earlier this month, the Soviet journal Arguments and Facts printed the infamous secret protocols of those 1939 treaties, which set out agreed spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, effectively partitioned Poland and paved the way for Stalin's annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The journal quoted a parliamentary commission set up last June as concluding that the protocols were proof of "imperialist leanings in the execution of the country's foreign policy."
Historian Vyacheslav Dashichev broke another taboo by citing Stalin's imposition of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe as the reason behind the Cold War. The Soviet leader's "great power ambitions . . . posed a threat to the political balance between different states, and especially between East and West," Dashichev wrote.
While all this may seem arcane to a Western observer, it is far more than history in a Soviet context.
"Rethinking the war is an integral part" of the entire reform process, says pollster Popov.
"What has happened in just the last two years--maybe in just the last year--looks like the complete destruction of the old enemy images," he adds. "I think if we would poll people now, we would find that the fear of an outside military danger has decreased drastically."
The military is no longer sacrosanct. The byword has changed from a "preponderance of strength" to "reasonable sufficiency."
In July, the revitalized Soviet Parliament passed a law over the general staff's objections exempting about 175,000 university students from what has been a universal draft. Some speak of shifting to a much smaller, professional army.
There is even a new lobbying group here known as the Committee of Servicemen's Mothers pressing for better living conditions and an end to the practice of using military labor on civilian construction projects.
How far all this goes remains to be seen. It could mean a fundamental redefinition of the Soviet relationship not only with the West but with Moscow's East European allies as well.
Clearly, says Ambassador Matlock, there is under way here "an evolution of thinking" on a whole range of political issues.
"I wouldn't exaggerate and say it all hinges on the interpretation of World War II," he says. "It's much more involved. But that's one of the touchstones. And the way that experience is treated is still relevant."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times