History is being blithely tossed about these days by everyone from Vladimir Putin himself to Sarah Palin and John McCain. What is the real story? Is there a real story?
To answer that question, I invited two eminent historians – well, one historian and one historically minded political scientist, Serhii Plokhii and Mark Kramer, both of Harvard, to speak at MIT on this exact situation. They spoke on Monday (3/17), the day after the Crimean Referendum and the day before the Russian President’s speech.
The Nazi siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941. It ended 874 days later, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history. The Soviets won at the cost of more than 1 million soldiers killed, captured, or missing and more than 640,000 civilian dead. Nearly a third of the city perished — from disease, bombings, and starvation. Soviet propagandists — during the siege and afterwards — constructed a heroic story of perseverance and courage as part of a broader mythologizing of the war. That tale has served various social, political, and cultural purposes ever since. In the process, however, the real story was sanitized and simplified, hidden and censored — to the point that even participants often preferred the mythological version (which at any rate was more ennobling than the real story). This fine documentary (900 Days, 2011) uses interviews with survivors and archival sources to help peel back the layers of myth and to reveal the historical siege that few survivors had ever discussed publicly.
The story behind the collection is that during the Second World War, TASS had a group of artists, both visual artists and writers, who produced nearly daily monumental posters. If you think you know Soviet poster art from the war, these will still surprise you. The images were put up in the windows of the TASS building, and some were used more widely. In 1997, the Art Institute discovered a bunch of these posters hidden in a closet, and this exhibit grew out of it.
There are far too many images to talk about in a quick blog post–but you can look through them all at the museum’s website. As the resident historian of things before the twentieth century, I’ll just post one image.
It’s a variation on the conflation of historical battles with the Second World War. Here, though, “Fritz” (the Nazi everyman who’s featured in a lot of the posters) is meeting one of the knights–his Germanic ancestor!–defeated by Alexander Nevsky at the Battle on the Ice. I’ve always loved the ways that history gets used in Soviet posters, and this is really one of the more unusual ones, in part because it’s tied in with comedy, particularly in the verse that goes along with it (which you can see at the site in the caption, above).
Actually, that’s one of the most interesting things about this exhibit. While certainly many of the posters have that high emotional content–we will avenge!–of many of the more famous posters, there’s also a LOT of comic art and writing–and a lot of making fun of Hitler and the Nazis. It puts a very different spin (to me, at least) on the Soviet reaction to and interpretation of the war.
This blog is about an excellent 2010 documentary by Vadim Jendreyko entitled “The Woman with the Five Elephants.” (For a trailer see: http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/woman-with-5-elephants/trailer)
The five elephants referred to in the title are classic novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Svetlana Geier, the central subject of the film, coined the phrase when she translated them from Russian into German.
The documentary dispenses Geier’s wisdom and wit, following her into the kitchen as she chops onions, cooks meat patties, and contemplates the meaning of life. She connects the feel of fresh linens with a passage from Moby Dick. Examining the intricate stitching of her white table cloth, she remarks that the details mean nothing outside of the context of the whole cloth. The remark concisely conveys her approach to translation: to see the work as a whole – and to eschew literal word-for-word translations that invariably distort the meaning of the text in its original language. Her translation of Dostoevsky’s classic work, Crime and Punishment, gave to German audiences the name by which it is known to English-speakers. It had previously been known in German, thanks to a far too literal translation, as “Guilt and Atonement.”
Today marks the 66th anniversary of Victory Day. As Sean Guillory notes in a must-read post, victory, like so many other aspects of 20th century east European history, is remembered quite differently in many post-Soviet and post-Communist states. He writes:
Russia, with much justification, views this transformation of the memory of liberation into the memory of conquer as deeply insulting. Yet the whether one thinks about the legitimacy of these moves, they nevertheless raise some quite uncomfortable questions about the basis for history, memory and identity. How to reconcile all these memories of victimhood into a general narrative, where the field of victims in the war can be objectively be dispersed between the war’s winners and losers? Can it be done? Should it? Or is the European memory of the war, as Tony Judt suggests, ever to remain “deeply asymmetrical”?
Of course, it is not only in Russia where the war is fondly remembered and revered as unsullied victory. In addition to the beautiful sand art animation from Ukraine’s Got Talent that I shared previously, I can’t help but think of this video, which I frequently show to my post-1945 Soviet/post-Soviet history students. It was made for the 60th anniversary of Victory Day in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. It is another great way to get my students to think about the different degree to which World War II continues to matter in the United States versus the former Soviet Union (obviously, as Sean highlights for us, this memory is not always positive). All you have to do is pick the latest favorite hip hop artist and ask the students if they could imagine them rapping about World War II.