The forgotten lessons of June 22, 1941


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maxim Krans)

Sixty-six years ago, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union without warning and inflicted untold suffering on its people.

This sad day in our history will forever remind us of the millions of soldiers who were killed on the battlefield between then and May 1945, countless concentration-camp victims and those who perished from famine and slave labor. Millions more were wounded or crippled, and many other people remained abroad after the war.

Every June 22, we also thank those who defeated the Nazi juggernaut during the most terrible war in history.

But it appears that, decades later, some Russians are having different feelings about that time.

To be frank, I do not like to write about the war because it is rather hard to choose the right words. Some of my relatives were executed in a Daugavpils concentration camp in Latvia. Still others survived the German blockade of Leningrad in 1941-1944 or were taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht.

When the war began, the Young Communist League, or the Komsomol, called on Soviet young people to join the Red Army. My mother, a student at Moscow State University's biology department, volunteered for the front and spent three-and-a-half years fighting the enemy.

I also recall young boys without legs in faded combat fatigues who gathered in a square in front of our house. Moreover, I am sorry for all my compatriots who never came back.

Opinion polls show that 64% of Russians lost relatives during the war and still feel embittered. The older generation continues to view the war as a fact of life, rather than a newsreel or a chapter in a history book, because it inflicted eternal wounds on their mentality and because they were forever traumatized by its losses.

Although it is the duty of the Russian nation to preserve the memory of the war like a hereditary trait, the 1940s are fading into oblivion. It appears that many young Russians no longer care about that period, war veterans or their recollections.

Seven years ago, I helped to conduct a poll of senior high school students in four Russian cities with dismaying results. Only 34% of the respondents knew when the war began; 93% said American, British and French forces had aided the Red Army in the capture of Berlin; and 81% knew nothing about the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.

The situation has probably gotten worse since then. Only 20% of students polled in Krasnoyarsk, a city in Eastern Siberia, could say anything about the events of June 22, 1941. A sample survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, an influential pollster, involving Russians aged from 18 to 35 yielded similar results. It looks like all these people are suffering from amnesia.

My childhood years coincided with a period when vivid memories of the war were still a conversation piece in the evening. Faces of dead and living war veterans in military uniforms looked at us from brand-new photos that had not yet become yellow with time. And the skeletons of half-destroyed houses glared at us from their window sockets.

Unfortunately, the modern young generation views all this as something out of a textbook that they use to cram for history exams and forget about afterwards. To be frank, their impression of the Second World War is the same as the one older people might have of the Hussite wars of the 15th century.

Worst of all, young people are beginning to think differently about the heroic feat of our forefathers and the evil they fought. According to the Public Opinion Foundation, 15% of young people believe that Nazism as a system of views has some positive aspects.

When asked what would have happened to the U.S.S.R. in the event of a German victory, 33% of university students in Moscow said the defeat would not have had any negative consequences. Over 10% said national living standards would have improved, and 5% virtually praised a hypothetical German victory.

Neo-Nazism is becoming increasingly popular in Russia, a land soaked with the blood of soldiers who died fighting its original version. The Interior Ministry says that 150 extremist youth organizations are operating in the country, whereas human rights activists believe their number is even greater.

The Sova Information-Analytical Center, which monitors nationalism and xenophobia, said extremists had killed 32 people and injured 245 more in January-May 2007.

As a rule, neo-Nazi and skinhead attacks are listed in the same category as street crime. Courts have recently started trying some of these cases under other articles of the Criminal Code.

On June 19, a court in St. Petersburg sentenced several extremists for beating a Congolese student to death and said the crime was racially motivated. That same day, a Moscow court found a group of neo-Nazis guilty of killing an anti-fascist activist and beating his friend but sentenced them only for hooliganism, assault and battery.

Generalizations may be dangerous because Russian young people are quite diverse. Some of them spend their summer holidays searching for the graves of fallen soldiers. Others ransack and desecrate war memorials. And still others care nothing about that war.

The older generation should probably be blamed for failing to teach their children to respect national shrines. Or perhaps it focused on the war's heroic aspects and took too long to expose its terrible realities. The uncomfortable truth is that most of us only notice war veterans on holidays.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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