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For most Americans, World War II is a remote and half-forgotten historical event. For Soviet citizens, however, it is the Great Patriotic War and a traumatic experience that ended "only yesterday." Those different national memories, and the political conflicts they generate, will be especially apparent this year, which marks the fortieth anniversary of the war's end. In the United States, few, if any, commemorations will occur before the traditional V-E Day ceremonies on May 8. In the Soviet Union, a jubilee is already under way.

It is a mistake to think that Soviet memories of World War II are prolonged merely by the unending flow of official propaganda. The government has promoted the remembrance, as reflected in more than 15,000 books on the subject and memorials in every town, but the popular emotion is genuine. More than any other event, including the Revolution, the war shaped the Soviet Union as it exists today, as a political system, society and world power. Its legacy endures among citizens because it was an experience of inseparable--and colossal--tragedy and triumph.

The tragedy began on June 22, 1941, with the massive, unexpected German invasion and the near-total Soviet defeat. After four years of savage fighting from Moscow to Berlin, it culminated in 20 million Soviet deaths, about equally divided between soldiers and civilians. That often-cited but little-understood statistic means that virtually every family lost one member or more.

Nor has the mourning stopped, particularly among women. Displaying worn photographs of their lost sons, aged mothers of soldiers listed only as missing in action (millions are so designated) still haunt veterans' reunions in hope of hearing some word of their fate. And because only 3 percent of men between the ages of 17 and 20 survived the struggle, millions of women of that generation remain unwed and childless; "their loneliness," as Izvestiia reported recently, is yet another "terrible echo of the war."

National glory can never compensate for such tragedies, but for most Soviet citizens, final victory gave sacred meaning to their personal losses. In their eyes, it brought three great achievements: the destruction of the Nazi war machine which had conquered the whole of Europe; the creation of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe which was to guard against another invasion from the West; and the nation's historic rise to great power in world affairs. So popular were those accomplishments that even embittered Russians forgave the Soviet government's misdeeds that had contributed to the catastrophe of 1941, including Stalin's prewar massacre of Red Army officers, his 1939 pact with Hitler and the general unpreparedness for the German onslaught.

The shared wartime experience of "grandeur and grief," as a Soviet poet characterized it, changed the relationship between the Communist state and the society in fundamental ways. For the Slavic majority at least, the system finally became a truly national one and thus legitimate. But Soviet Communism also changed during the "war for the Motherland," as traditional Russian nationalist values overwhelmed revolutionary ones in the official ideology.

If nothing else, the war forged a lasting bond between popular and official outlooks on the Soviet Union's overriding purpose at home and abroad. Henceforth, it was to do everything possible to guarantee that the country would never again be caught unprepared by a surprise attack. That alone explains the people's persistent support, despite the sacrifices required of them in everyday life, for the government's obsession with national security, including its hold over Eastern Europe and the high priority it gives to military expenditures.

The war's legacy also underlies deeply ambivalent Soviet attitudes toward the United States. On the one hand, officials and citizens alike frequently recall warmly the Soviet-American alliance and gratefully acknowledge the United States' aid, or Lend-Lease, that accounted for about 4 percent of Soviet gross production between 1941 and 1945. On the other hand, they resent bitterly any American attempt to slight their role in World War II and see it as part of a forty-year effort to deny the Soviet Union its hard-won right to equality in the postwar world.

Perceiving such slights, as they did last year in the American-French commemoration of D-Day at Normandy and as they will during this anniversary year, Soviet officials insist that their struggle was decisive in defeating Nazi Germany and "saving world civilization." They argue that the war's major turning points occurred at Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and other Soviet battle sites; that until mid-1944, almost 95 percent of Nazi ground forces were engaged on the eastern front, where Germany suffered 10 million of its total 13.6 million casualties; and that fifty Soviet citizens died for every one American. Even after forty years, no "historical truth" is more important in Soviet minds.

Apart from the need for "eternal vigilance," Soviet officials are not united on the lessons to be learned from World War II, especially as they may apply to the United States. Pro-detente spokesman still cite the wartime alliance as evidence that improved relations between the two countries are possible. Other officials point adamantly to the German invasion as proof that threats always lie in the West. Thus, they responded to President Reagan's anti-Soviet crusade in the early 1980s by equating him with Hitler.

Americans outraged by that analogy should consider the Soviet reaction to our own "lessons" of the war. None are more offensive, even to many dissidents and emigres, than arguments that the Soviet Union is a latter-day replica of Nazi Germany, driven by the same violent cults and insatiable lust for conquest and with whom any serious negotiations are Munich-like acts of "appeasement."

In the nuclear era, such lessons on both sides are as dangerous as World War II concepts of civil defense. Symbolic acts of mutual understanding and memory are needed to dispel them. If the political will cannot be found by May 3, forty years after the day American and Soviet troops met at the Elbe, there is no reason to believe it will ever be found, at arms talks or anywhere else.
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Title Annotation:Soviet Unions opinion of World War II
Author:Cohen, Stephen F.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Jan 26, 1985
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