Since World War II, there have been two kinds of memory about past conflicts, Kotsyubinsky says, the “sacrificial” which focuses on the heroic nature of those who died, a kind of memory that dominated Europe before 1939 and that continues in Russia to this day, and a day of sorrow which focuses on the victims of these conflicts rather than their heroic nature.
Chief among the victims so remembered with sorrow are the Jews who suffered in the Holocaust, “by its size, the greatest humanitarian tragedy of the 20th century,” the historian continues; but “here it is important to recognize and stress that the blockade of Leningrad was after the Holocaust the second humanitarian catastrophe of World War II.”
According to Kotsyubinsky, “it was in fact a genocide of Leningraders who fell victim to inhumanity of two totalitarian systems at once, who were indifferent to the fate of people and left them without assistance and hope for salvation.” On one side were the Nazis who were quite prepared to starve the city’s residents into submission.
“On the other was the Soviet leadership,” which withdrew those who could help the war effort but left most of those who couldn’t to suffer and die. “In Leningrad, this in essence was no different from the Jewish yellow star because if meant a certain horrific death” since “such people de facto were not fed or evacuated over the course of several months.”
“The Leningrad holocaust is the most important guilty verdict about totalitarianism as such, not only to Nazism but also to communism which treated people as expendable in exactly the same way, Kotsyubinsky says. Any honest discussion of this in Russia today is impossible because if there were innocent victims, there were executioners who must be held responsible.
As long as the commemoration of the Leningrad blockade remains in the heroic mode, he continues, there are no problems for the regime. But shift to a focus on the victims would quickly lead to demands for a reassessment not only of Stalin’s responsibility but also to that of the current rulers who continue to praise him.
Russians in that event would begin to ask their rulers why they do not distance themselves from the crimes of their Soviet predecessors and why they continue to take pride in calling themselves Chekists. Such questions have answers and those answers are a threat not only to the regime but to the state as such.
It would be “’the beginning of the end’ of the entire authoritarian Russian state model. And Russia in the past has not had another and hardly is it going to appear in the future. As the experience of the 20th century shows, as soon as authoritarianism collapses in Russia, the demolishing of the Russian state as a whole follows.”
In the Russian Federation now, however, the two forms of memory exist and are developing in their own directions. Memory of loss exists, “but it isn’t supported ‘from above.’” Instead, the powers that be continue their “officious heroic-patriotic holiday format.” And there is thus “’a war of two variants of memory about the war.”
The official side still appears dominant, but things are changing fast, Kotsyubinsky says. The regime’s peak of popularity “has passed, and the more people are dissatisfied with the power that rules them, they more reason they will have to dispel the myths it asserts and the more they will demand a memory which will compromise” those in power.
As a result, “the conflict of ‘the two memories’ will not weaken but on the contrary will grow;” and the heroic approach will ultimately give way to the other.
“Grieving recollections about the victims of war cannot and must not be eternal,” of course. “They are too traumatic. In essence, such a memorial policy is justified as long as the children and grandchildren of the immediate participants of the events which suffered trauma remain alive. They need moral compensation.”
But, Kotsyubinsky concludes, “the memory of the victims of war and totalitarianism will continue to remain important as long as the state which in the past committed crimes against humanity continues to exist. Such a state needs a regular ‘dose’ of grieving memory about the war just as a diabetic needs insulin.”