In Soviet films, on Soviet posters, in Soviet poetry and songs, the typical Red Army soldier was hale and hearty, simple and straightforward, untroubled by trauma or fear. He cheerfully marched all day, slept on the ground at night, never complained, and never even used swear words. When the British historian Catherine Merridale was collecting the lyrics of Red Army songs for her 2005 book, Ivan’s War, she ran into a wall: Even decades later, ethnographers and veterans could not or would not share with her any satirical, obscene, or subversive lyrics, because no one dared to repeat “disrespectful versions” of the sainted soldiers’ songs.
In the official accounts, the Red Army soldier did not brutalize civilians, rape women, or loot property either. Famously, a staged photograph of soldiers waving a Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag in May of 1945 had to be doctored, because one of them was wearing two wristwatches (they were stolen from Germans; Soviet soldiers typically did not own several wristwatches). Many years later, when another British historian, Antony Beevor, published archival evidence of looting—children as young as 12 traveled to Berlin for that purpose—and the mass rape of 2 million German women, the Russian ambassador to the U.K. accused him of “lies, slander, and blasphemy.”
But plenty of Russians already knew the truth. Stories of the horrors of the war, experienced by veterans as well as those who stayed at home, were passed down within families. Ambivalent memories persisted. [Continue reading…]