May 01, 2011

Rethinking the Unthinkable

Ask any russian, "When did the War begin?" — just "the War," not the Civil, First World, Chechen, or Afghan War — and the answer will be automatic: June 22, 1941. It goes without saying that the War is the one known here as the Great Patriotic War, the one that people cannot get used to calling "the Second World War," especially since the Second World War actually began two years earlier and, strictly speaking, the Soviet Union was already participating in it, taking eastern Poland, fighting with Finland.

But these events, however much they might have been written about in recent decades, reside in a different part of the public consciousness. These were individual military operations. The War began on the morning Fascist troops invaded the Soviet Union without any declaration of war.

The whole country sang this song, by the poet Boris Kovynev, even though it was only published in a small front-line newspaper ("serious" poetry anthologies refused to print it). No wonder these unpretentious lines, sung to the tune of "The Simple Little Blue Scarf" spread so quickly. June 22 became the most important day in popular memory. And ever since, any attempt to stake some kind of proprietary claim on interpretations of this date’s significance by official propaganda, veterans, and various nationalistic organizations, did nothing to devalue the awe it inspired in the Russian psyche.

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