On 11 May 2020, the History & Politics Dialogue of Körber-Stiftung hosted eminent Russian historian and expert on imperial and World War history Alexander Semyonov. Moderated by Gabriele Woidelko, head of the History & Politics Department, the Director of the Centre for Historical Research at the prestigious Higher School of Economics gave insight into most recent commemorative developments concerning World War Two in Russia, with a particular focus on how these were affected by the ongoing Corona pandemic. Also, he commented on current historiographic shifts in the research and interpretation of this most costly of conflicts on human record.
Corona pandemic affected commemorative developments
Semyonov outlined the importance of a heroic narrative of the “Great Patriotic War”, which in recent years has become a pillar of Russian political discourse and extended into contemporary foreign policy. On that basis, both domestic and international observers considered it unlikely that plans for the central military parade in Moscow and for public festivities on 9 May would be abandoned. Yet, following a central decision to reduce public gatherings, the ongoing pandemic changed both the scale as well as the formats of commemoration. Summing up the developments, Semyonov observed a noticeable shift from the official to more private forms of remembrance, which, in turn, replaced an epic, state-driven narrative with a turn to more differentiated and fractured aspects of tragic, personal history.
This was also paid homage to in the official celebrations, which consigned greater importance to solemn commemoration than to displays of military might, but which nonetheless retained a high degree of political symbolism. The presidential speech stressed the multi-national sacrifice brought by an international alliance to end Nazi rule and thus broke with a dominating Russia-centred interpretation. Yet the laying of flowers at the memorial of the so-called “Hero Cities” of the Soviet Union, one third of which lie in sovereign states independent of Moscow, reverted to an understanding of historic successorship that transgresses the borders of today’s Russian Federation.
Societal and individual experience of hardship and suffering
Semyonov made particular mention of a more recent development in Russian commemoration, which had witnessed a shift from a grassroots initiative to an enterprise under state auspices in the last few years: The so-called “Immortal Regiment” was started as an idea to collect individual life stories of the war generation. With 750.000 entries by 2020, the project has literally inscribed family histories into “big history” and refocussed commemoration from the political results of the Great Patriotic War to the societal and individual experience of hardship and suffering. The Corona pandemic and the shift in attention from public spaces to the sphere of the internet meant that this initiative was restored in its original meaning and mission of showing the multiplicity, diversity and contradictiveness of individual experiences.
Global impact of World War Two
Semyonov also urged to pay greater attention to the global impact of World War Two and outlined how recent historiographic shifts have sought to reframe and assert its historic significance. The complexity and multi-dimensional entanglement of the war have become apparent in recent research that has shifted the searchlight of academic attention to concurrent civil conflicts and wars, interconnected with events on the main frontlines of the war. Knowledge of conflicts such as the Polish-Ukrainian clashes in Volhynia is central to understanding the historical dynamics of the war and the immediate post-war period.
Post-war global order shaped by nation states
Going further, Semyonov pointed out how our understanding of ethnic homogenisation and redrawing of borders that occurred in Eastern Central Europe impacted on assumptions of the achievability of homogeneous nation states and how this permeated into an understanding of a post-war global order shaped by nation states. He warned that, in this regard, the outcome of World War Two in Europe stands as an historical exception, and that in our historic appraisal of 1945 we should critically confront the applicability of nation-state frameworks thereafter and in other world regions. In a specific aside, Semyonov called for a critical assessment of the United Nations and Security Council as elements of a global institutional order built on those assumptions, and reflective of the power distribution of its age.
Coincidences of state politics and historical remembrance
International participants included members of political and diplomatic institutions as well as academic colleagues and members of the media, who engaged in a lively discussion with the speaker. Topics covered the most recent coincidences of state politics and historical remembrance in Russia, notably the diplomatic discord that ensued the December 2019 speech of President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, which had re-ignited and politicised the question of the outbreak of World War Two in Central Eastern Europe. The contradictions of Russian remembrance of a historic conflict in times of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine were also highlighted. With regard to the global dimensions of the World War, remembrance and political legacy in Asia were discussed and identified as missing in European perceptions. Against the background of the ongoing shift in power towards China and East Asia, participants called for heightened awareness of the specific regional understanding of nation states, its significance for regional actors and their approaches to multilateralism as basis for maintaining dialogue and peaceful relations.