Russia prosecutors are summoning Red Army veterans to recall their battlefield experiences to help identify Nazis and their collaborators who carried out Second World War atrocities in the Soviet Union.
The new war crime investigations are being linked by observers to President Vladimir Putin’s renewed interest in historical memory and his determination to shape how the world remembers Soviet leader Josef Stalin and especially the Soviet Union’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The Russian leader and former KGB officer has complained that the Soviet Union’s huge wartime role and its losses have been distorted and downplayed for political purposes by Western politicians and historians. Putin has asserted Western popular culture overlooks Soviet sacrifices and focuses more on events such as the Normandy landings of 1944.
Russian investigators intend to question as many as 1,000 Red Army veterans, nearly all very frail, according to Russian media. The family of a 94-year-old veteran complained to The Moscow Times of receiving a formal summons from the prosecutor’s office in Volgograd, a city in southern Russia previously known as Stalingrad, the site of arguably the most important of any Second World War land battle.
‘Strict tone’ criticized
“We just couldn’t believe that the prosecutors would summon a frail old man to their offices during the coronavirus outbreak using such a strict tone,” the veteran’s grandson Denis Chistyakov told the newspaper. “Why not just come to his house for a chat?”
The Volgograd prosecutors’ office told the paper that such summonses had been sent to at least 80 veterans in the region. Summonses have been sent to veterans throughout Russia, according to press reports.
Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency earlier in the year that investigations were being set up to “establish, identify and name all the guilty Nazis, whether they are alive or not.” He added: “Nuremberg did not convict all those responsible. Irrespective of whether they are alive or not, we must name those names. Only the memories of eyewitnesses can accurately reconstruct the details of the criminal activity.”
He said the probes were aimed also at challenging those who try to rewrite history.
The investigations appear to be timed to coincide with next year’s 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa, which was launched on June 22, 1941, and broke a 1939 non-aggression pact struck by Adolf Hitler and Stalin.
How many Russian civilians died in the war remains a matter of dispute. A 1995 study by M.V. Philimoshin, an associate of the Russian Defense Ministry, estimated that 14 million Russia civilians died, with 7.4 million deaths caused by direct, intentional violence, 2.1 million dying in forced labor in Germany, and 4.1 million succumbing as result of famines and forced starvation. Other historians say those estimates might be either too high or too low.
More than 8 million from the Red Army died in combat, some while being held as prisoners.
Hitler ordered brutality
According to a study by American historians Alex Kay and David Stahel, most German Wehrmacht soldiers who fought in the Soviet Union participated in war crimes, from mass shootings to rape. And they were encouraged, even required to do so, by operational instructions issued by Hitler and his subordinates. At a high-level meeting on March 30, 1941, Hitler said the war against Soviet Russia was to be a war of extermination. Subsequent orders issued by his generals made clear Slavs were to be considered “sub-humans.”
General Erich Hoepner, commander of the Panzer Group 4, told his soldiers: “The war against Russia is an important chapter in the German nation’s struggle for existence. It is the old battle of the Germanic against the Slavic people, of the defense of European culture against Muscovite-Asiatic inundation and of the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. The objective of this battle must be the demolition of present-day Russia and must therefore be conducted with unprecedented severity.”
In a combative essay in an American magazine in May, Putin complained of Western distortions of Second World War history. The 9,000-word essay was written partly in reaction to a European Parliament resolution that said the Soviet Union shared the blame with Nazi Germany for the outbreak of the war by agreeing upon the 1939 nonaggression pact. Putin justified the 1939 pact as a necessary defensive measure by Stalin because of the reluctance of Western nations to confront Nazi Germany and for their appeasement of Hitler.
Putin’s critics say he is selective with history and keen to erase inconvenient historical events like the mass executions by Stalin’s secret police of about 22,000 Polish officers and soldiers in western Russia. Russian historians also complain Putin downplays the purges of Stalin and his imprisonment of critics in the camps of remote, frozen Siberia, as part of an effort to rehabilitate the image of the Soviet leader.
Last year, Russian historian Anatoly Razumov told VOA in an interview the very act of remembrance is frowned upon, with the authorities under Putin seeing the memorializing of victims of the Stalin’s Great Terror as unpatriotic and as an act undertaken by fifth columnists for the benefit of Western enemies.
Decades-long research to expose the scale of the late Communist leader’s terror are believed to have landed Russian historian Yury Dmitriyev in jail on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges to silence him and to deter others.
Putin this year labeled those who disagree with the Kremlin’s version of history as “collaborators,” and Russia’s Investigative Committee recently established a special department to investigate what it called the “falsification of history,” a move historians fear will further stifle historical research and debate.