When I visited him last month in Moscow, Kirill Yerokhin was in his living room, which had been decked out as if for a family celebration. Platters with fruit, thick pink and white slices of pastila, the Russian sweet, and piroshki, little buns with sweet and savoury fillings, covered the coffee table. From a dozen wooden frames on the wall, Marshall Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet Union’s greatest war hero and Yerokhin’s grandfather, looked down.
The feast was fitting. I had come to ask about May 9, the anniversary of Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in the second world war, and my host explained to me that there is nothing more sacred. “For as long as I can think, Victory Day was the most important holiday, and it always will be,” he says. Although Yerokhin, 51, has long had a place in official ceremonies, there is nothing officious about this day to him. “It is close to the heart and to the soul.”
And not just for him. Seventy years after the end of the war, Russia is gearing up for a celebration more monumental than any in recent memory, flanked by exhibitions, film releases, concerts and conferences. President Vladimir Putin has invited leaders from 68 countries to a grand ceremony in Moscow and a military parade. But while politicians from some 30 nations, including China’s president Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, have confirmed, many western leaders are staying away. Both US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have declined the invitation.
May 9 highlights the chasm that has opened between Russia’s view of itself and perceptions elsewhere. While many European countries mark the day with Holocaust commemorations and appeals for peace and international understanding, the Russian emphasis is on military glory and the Red Army’s role in liberating Europe.
Many European politicians fear Moscow is using the anniversary to paper over the deep divisions opened by Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine. “At a moment when Putin is trying to redraw the map of Europe, how can we stand next to him and celebrate the postwar order on the continent, the very foundations of which he is bent on destroying?” asks a diplomat from a European country whose leader has declined the invitation to Moscow.
Such accusations are met with bewilderment and indignation in Russia. Yerokhin echoes the sentiments of many when he says it is not Russia but America that is wrecking the postwar world order in a quest to expand its own influence. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russians and their foreign friends and acquaintances get sucked into arguments like this every day. When it comes to Russia’s relations with Ukraine, other neighbouring countries and the west, they cannot agree on anything — not even the facts.
For many in the west, the explanation behind this gulf has been simple: lies and propaganda. Russian media have become more bellicose and ideological than they were even in the Soviet era, demonising Ukraine’s pro-European Maidan movement and accusing the new government in Kiev of being organised by American spies and backed by fascist gangs. Last summer, Russian state television ran an interview with a woman in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk who claimed she had seen Ukrainian soldiers crucify the three-year-old son of a pro-Russian rebel. The report was taken down after it turned out to be a lie and the incident caused outrage, but the channel did not publish a correction.
Meanwhile, Putin continues to deny the presence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine despite mounting evidence to the contrary, infuriating his western counterparts. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, told Obama in a phone call a year ago that Putin appeared to be living “in another world”.
Many Russians are in just as much shock as the growing rift with the west permeates their daily lives. For Valery Chastnykh, deputy director of the Institute of Russian Language and Culture at Moscow State University, it became deeply personal last year. He had travelled to the UK to assess projects that students in the department of Russian at the University of Leeds had prepared during their year in Moscow.
Jack Heaton, 20, had chosen to discuss the role of Russia in the unfolding war in eastern Ukraine. In a 10-minute presentation, he said there had been a revolution in Kiev, that Putin was fighting a covert war to destabilise Ukraine and that Moscow’s propaganda had fooled the Russian people into believing that a pack of fascists ruled in Kiev.
Chastnykh disagreed with all of it. “He presented a very biased, very superficial view of our country,” he recalls. “He was suggesting that Russia is brainwashed and we don’t know any better. This is just not true.” Chastnykh said so, right then and there. Both he and Heaton remember the discussion that followed as if war had entered the classroom. “I am not going to call it an attack — that makes it sound quite brutal. But it was. Valery took the pro-Russian side,” Heaton says. “Valery and I basically accused each other of being brainwashed.”
Many Russians are deeply troubled by such incidents. They see their country as a deserving member of the global community and remember how hard it was to build these links after the cold war. Irina Orekhova, who has been teaching foreign students Russian at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow since 1976, sees her responsibility as nothing short of a mission. “We are not just teaching a language — we are teaching a culture,” she says. “I want to show our students our civilisation, the Russian world. This is my motherland, my great love.”
The current political tension is also hurting young Russians who have built friendships in the west. Olga Petrova, 22, spent a year at a high school in Knoxville, Iowa. She says the west’s accusations against Russia in the Ukraine war have left her feeling betrayed. “This conflict is so personal for everyone,” she says.
But although information warfare has triggered the breakdown in understanding between Russians and the west over the past year, the roots of the problem lie much deeper. The “other world” invoked by Merkel existed long before the Ukraine conflict. “Before blaming Putin for playing his tune, you have to ask: ‘Who put the piano on stage?’” says Alexei Miller, a Russian historian who has researched competing nationalisms in eastern Europe for more than two decades.
When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, it set free a range of widely diverging, often mutually contradictory historical narratives. The history of central and eastern Europe and central Asia had been constricted in a tight ideological corset for more than 70 years. Suddenly newly independent countries could revive their national histories and debate atrocities from the Stalin era. Such discourse became a key pillar of national identity.
In Russia, things were much more complicated. Russia had been the nucleus from which the Soviet Union was built, its language and culture had dominated the now-defunct communist empire and its people had accounted for the lion’s share of the Soviet armed forces. A clean break with the past was impossible. In many cases, the opening of historical archives pitted Russians against their neighbours.
In the 1990s, during a brief interlude of multi-party politics, Russia started to question its past. But at the same time, political infighting, corruption and financial crises left many with a sense of loss, chaos and confusion. Almost a decade after the end of the Soviet Union, the country was still struggling to find a new identity.
Putin changed things. Since he came to power 15 years ago, Moscow has closed historical archives, narrowed the spectrum of debate and moved to unify history textbooks. Since the start of his third presidential term in 2012, Putin has identified patriotism and a hero cult as the necessary glue for his disoriented nation. “There is a great work under way now for the patriotic education of the youth,” says Nadezhda Malinina, granddaughter of General Mikhail Malinin, Marshall Zhukov’s chief of staff, and part of Yerokhin’s circle of friends.
But part of what Russia calls victory and liberation is remembered as invasion and occupation by some of its neighbours. In the run-up to the anniversary on May 9, the worsening stand-off with the west has reignited long-smouldering historical controversies.
Nowhere are these controversies more tangled than with Ukraine. Russia traces its own statehood back to a federation of Slavic peoples founded in the ninth century in what is now Kiev. In Tsarist-era Russian historiography, Ukraine was called Little Russia, and seen as part of the nation. But from the late 19th century, Ukrainian nationalists started asserting their own identity instead. According to Miller, Ukrainian nationalists tended to cast Russia as a brutal, hegemonic power, while some Russian nationalists described Ukraine as the “illness” of Russia.
Following the communist revolution, the Bolsheviks abandoned the term Little Russia and fostered the idea of a Ukrainian nation friendly to Russia. Throughout the history of the Soviet Union, any hostility between the two was covered under or hidden by the term “brotherly nations”, which Russia continues to use but which has flaked off like a layer of varnish. “In the 1990s, everything that had been there before the Soviet Union came back,” Miller says.
In 2011, he and Georgy Kasyanov, a professor of Ukrainian history from Kiev, published a joint book on how history was being abused on both sides. But Miller sees his work falling apart before his eyes. “Now people are being forced to choose: either feel Russian [and] hostile to Ukraine, or feel Ukrainian [and] hostile to Russia,” he says.
Maria Kostetskaya, 21, was born to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father, and is trying to find her place in this maze. Her father’s entire family was deported to the far north of Russia because one uncle had worked as a policeman in Ukraine during the second world war. “He was with the Banderites,” says Kostetskaya, using a dismissive Russian term for followers of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist who died in 1959. Bandera’s attempts to establish an independent Ukrainian state have made him hugely controversial in Russia. In the current crisis, Moscow has demonised him as a fascist.
In the same breath as Kostetskaya calls her Ukrainian relatives “Banderites”, she says she believes in Russia and Ukraine being brother nations and insists that everything was fine until the change of government in Ukraine last year. “Why are they being so anti-Russian in Kiev now?” she asks. “Why are they worshipping Bandera?”
But when I ask about her father, Kostetskaya’s indignation suddenly disappears. She tells me how during Soviet times, he was queueing for meat at a shop in Kiev. When it was his turn, he greeted the shop assistant in Russian, as was common. “No meat today, they told him,” she says. But then they called him back at the rear door and asked if he was Ukrainian — they had recognised his accent. “And there was meat for Ukrainians! Isn’t that funny!”
Yet Kostetskaya insists she feels fully Russian. In the Ukraine war, she sides with Russia. “I sometimes quarrel with my boyfriend, who is German, about this. He always blames everything on Russia.”
Such confusion is common among young Russians who are shocked to discover how far the narratives they have been brought up with deviate from what counts as the truth elsewhere. In late February, there was a seminar organised for Russian students in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. The participants, many of them Kostetskaya’s fellow students, were shown The Other Dream Team, a documentary about the Lithuanian basketball team. Their defeat of the former Soviet Union states’ team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics became the crowning moment of their careers.
The film showed the occupation of Lithuania and its subsequent incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940, the deportation of thousands of Lithuanians to other parts of the Soviet Union, and Moscow’s attempt to put down the 1991 independence movement with tanks. A group of Lithuanian players recount how humiliating they found it to be referred to as Russian when they won Olympic gold in 1988 on behalf of the Soviet Union, and how proud they were to compete for their own nation in 1992, a year after Lithuania declared its independence.
“It was a nationalistic film, and it was entirely from the Lithuanian perspective,” says Kirill Shamiev, 20, a political science student in St Petersburg. “I didn’t feel very comfortable watching. Rationally I think the Lithuanians have the right to establish their own identity and have their own views on this, but I wanted to say: ‘No, no, don’t talk so bad about the Soviet Union!’”
The son of a military official who is considering joining the armed forces himself, Shamiev is by no means a dissident. His parents, who he describes as “typical Soviet people”, told him that only meddling by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the softness of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, were to blame for the empire’s collapse. Many of his friends believe that Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states are Russian lands and that their independence was an error that needs to be righted one day.
As the family moved round Russia due to his father’s job, Shamiev encountered teachers who presented radically different perspectives on the country’s past. Only in his last school years in St Petersburg did he learn about political repressions, deportations and occupation of neighbouring countries. Before that, Shamiev heard mostly about glory in the second world war and the country’s economic development under Stalin. “Such teachings have left many in our country nostalgic about the Soviet Union. Many feel that it was better to live in a common, strong country,” he says.
I met Vera Lapina, another of the seminar participants, in a beautiful art nouveau building in the centre of St Petersburg in March. She still felt shaken almost a month later. Lapina’s grandfather, an electrical grid engineer, moved to the Estonian capital of Tallinn in the 1970s — like many other Russians sent to the Baltic states as experts. “They went full of idealism and helped build up and develop the country, and now they’ve become occupants,” she says.
Lapina’s grandparents told her they committed themselves for life when they moved. “My granddad learned the Estonian language, which was not easy, but he wanted to. My grandma fell in love with the city, which was so European, different from anywhere else in the Soviet Union at the time.”
Lapina is desperate to rebuild such positive feelings. “We seem to have no common cultural values with Estonia now. Why are they showing films from Brazil and China in Russia, but so little about our neighbours?” she asks. “The politicians need to do something. If they feel so badly about us in the Baltics, we can apologise. Why doesn’t our president apologise on behalf of our country?”
This is a minority opinion. Many others I interviewed complained it was unfair to accuse their country of aggression. Alexandra Kondusova, an economics student in St Petersburg, argues that the Baltic States enjoyed privileges in Soviet times, and says they are ungrateful. “The Baltics had very little industry before the Soviet Union — we gave them everything. But now they are throwing it away.”
There are similar sensitivities between Russia and Poland. Grzegorz Schetyna, Poland’s foreign minister, unleashed a storm in Russia in January when he suggested that the end of the second world war should not be celebrated in Russia as one of the countries from which it originated. Soviet troops entered Poland shortly after Germany, which had started the war. The Soviet offensive was in line with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the treaty signed in 1939 under which Germany and the Soviet Union secretly divided up central and eastern Europe among themselves.
Moscow continues to deny this was an invasion. Putin himself defends the pact, which broke down a year later, as a means of foreign policy aimed at delaying war with Germany. On Victory Day, Russia continues to commemorate not the second world war but what it calls the “great patriotic war”, dating only from Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941.
“Of course, memory is always pluralistic, and there are always some things we remember and other things we’re leaving to oblivion,” says Mariusz Sielski, a Polish sociologist in Moscow who specialises in memory studies. “But there is a moment where we need to pay enough attention and have enough respect to listen to someone else’s memory.”
Sielski believes Russia is struggling to come to terms with this difficult history because it was under totalitarian rule for so long. He says the Catholic Church in Poland allowed a communal memory to exist that rivalled the official version of history. “People could discover that there was another truth,” he says. “That never existed in Soviet Russia. Here, the only space outside official history was private, inside the families, and often Russians who had been involved in the war only told their children about what happened on their deathbeds.”
Shameful historical events are often emotionally explosive for Russians. In 2010, Sielski accidentally walked in on a private screening at Smolensk University of Katyń, the film by Polish director Andrzej Wajda about the massacre of more than 20,000 Poles by the Soviet NKVD internal affairs agency in 1940. The Soviets blamed the massacre on the Nazis until 1990, when they finally acknowledged the truth. Sielski participated in the discussion afterwards.
“When they realised I was Polish, it provoked an emotional breakdown,” he says. “It was very uncomfortable for me — I was asked to forgive, but who am I to forgive this?” One of the students started talking about his grandfather, who worked as a KGB officer in Estonia. “He said he loved his grandfather but only now realised his grandfather might have done wrong, and that he didn’t accept it,” Sielski recalls. “This was the only time a Russian ever said anything like this to me.”
Nikolaus Katzer, director of the German Historical Institute, a German government-funded institution in Moscow, says any kind of reappraisal of wartime history is politically difficult because the conventional version has become so central to Russian national identity. “Of course, they want to preserve the victory narrative and the perspective that the Soviet Union acted to the benefit of its neighbours, but you have to have a dialogue about these things,” he says.
Many Russians who have travelled or lived abroad have experienced a collision of narratives. Law student Adel Zabbarov, 20, spent a year at a Californian high school when he was 16. When we meet in a Moscow coffee shop, I am struck by how positive he still feels about America — something that has become increasingly rare in Russia.
“I want to be an advocate of western values in Russia and to contribute to making them better understood here,” he says enthusiastically. But even he was taken aback when his history textbook featured a table comparing Stalin and Hitler as examples of totalitarian rulers. “I had never heard people mention Stalin in such a context before,” he says. “Stalin was our wartime leader, and for every Russian the second world war is an issue so close to the heart because every family lost someone in that war.”
Zabbarov also remembers a discussion about the victory in the war. An American classmate argued that the fact that 30 million people died in the Soviet Union didn’t mean it had been the country that won the war. For one of his friends, this kind of talk was too much. She told her teacher she disagreed with the way the wartime period was presented in the textbook. Some of her classmates mockingly called her a Russian spy. This upset her so much that she stood up and sang the Russian national anthem, and was suspended from class for a week.
Zabbarov came to a different conclusion. He concluded his American classmates had a right to their point of view. “I am glad I didn’t let emotion blind me,” he says. “If I opened that textbook at the page with the Hitler and Stalin table again, I wouldn’t be shocked any more either.”
Kathrin Hille is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief.
Photographs: Getty Images
Slideshow photographs: Petr Antonov
Get alerts on Moscow when a new story is published