I was about to write ‘this morning time stood still’, but then changed my mind, and not just because the phrase is a lazy cliché.
It’s just that time didn’t really stand still. It went back some 50 years when I, a teenage non-person, would catch some TV glimpses of military extravaganzas in Red Square.
In those days I gagged after five minutes or so and turned the bloody thing off. This morning I watched the spectacle to the end, even though the emetic reaction was exactly the same.
Only one thing has changed. Today’s leaders overlooked the proceedings from an ad hoc dais rather than the stand in Lenin’s mausoleum, as if to remind me that this is 2014, not 1964. Other than that the illusion of time warp was complete.
First a detail of goose-steppers carried in the flags of today’s Russia and yesterday’s Soviet Union. The electronically enhanced brass band accompanied the solemn processions with the tune of the song The Sacred War. One could write a whole book on the basis of this song alone.
Anybody who ever lived in the Soviet Union knows that it took a song, especially a patriotic one, months from conception to performance. Writing it was the easiest part: aesthetic standards applied to such works were low, while the authors’ rewards were high.
Most of the time was taken up by the song working its way through multiple stages of approval, from the Composers’ Union to the Writers’ Union to the Ministry of Culture to the Censorship Bureau (I’ll spare you the Soviet acronym) to the Ideology Department of the Central Committee to, typically, the Leader himself.
But The Sacred War appeared on 24 June, 1941 – two days after Germany attacked the Soviet Union and wiped out most of the regular Red Army. Every government institution, every Soviet official (starting with Comrade Stalin himself) was in a state of abject panic – so are we to assume that the circles of censorship suddenly started to turn at record speed?
Of course not. The song had been signed off in advance, which means Stalin’s clique had planned the war in advance. But not the war they ended up fighting: from the early 1930s, Stalin had been preparing the Red Army for a conquest of Europe.
To that end the whole country had been converted into a labour-military camp inhabited by slaves. Some of the slaves served in the army, some worked in military factories, some designed weapon systems, some – millions at a time – were dying in concentration camps. The differences were minute. They were all slaves.
Stalin worked tirelessly to turn Hitler against the West, leaving his back exposed to the thrust of the Soviet dagger. At first Hitler swallowed the bait and agreed to the notorious ‘Non-Aggression’ Pact dividing Europe between the two predators.
The criminal document was signed on 23 August, 1939. A week later Hitler attacked Poland from the west to claim what was stipulated in the Pact’s secret protocol. On 17 September Stalin attacked Poland from the east to claim what was left.
Thus it wasn’t one aggressor who started the Second World War but two. Yet interestingly Britain and France declared war on Germany but not on the Soviet Union.
In fact, not only American but also British supplies to Stalin continued even while the Luftwaffe planes flying on Soviet-made fuel rained Soviet-made bombs on London, and while the Kriegemarine operated from a naval base in the Soviet Kola Peninsula.
Meanwhile the Soviets amassed on their western border a military force never before even imagined by any belligerent in history. The Soviet tanks, including the T-34s and KVs of which no other country had even approximate equivalents, outnumbered the tank forces of the rest of the world combined, and Germany’s seven to one.
The Red Air Force, artillery, cavalry and infantry also enjoyed a prohibitive advantage in numbers and quality over the Wehrmacht, and not only Germany but indeed the rest of the world combined had nowhere near the Red Army’s million paratroops.
That juggernaut was strategically deployed in two long and narrow salients, the Byelostok and Lvov – two prongs ready to pierce Germany and the rest of Europe. But the juggernaut didn’t roll in time, mainly because Stalin was labouring under the misapprehension that Hitler was planning an invasion of Britain.
That indeed would have been a perfect moment, except that it never came. Hitler had neither the desire nor, more important, technical means to launch such an invasion. Instead he launched a pre-emptive strike, beating Stalin to the punch, cutting off the two Soviet salients at their bases and routing the armies inside.
To his horror Stalin discovered that wars weren’t fought by tanks, planes and cannon. They were fought by people, and Soviet people didn’t want to fight for Stalin. Almost every Soviet soldier had had someone in his family executed, starved to death, imprisoned and tortured by Stalin’s henchmen – now came the payback time.
Whole regiments were surrendering their arms to the sound of marching bands similar to those performing this morning in Red Square. Millions simply fled, deserted, surrendered individually. Most of those youngsters weren’t cowards – they were desperate. In fact, hundreds of thousands volunteered to fight against Stalin whom they saw as the lesser evil.
It wasn’t Stalin’s army but Beria’s Chekists who turned the tide. If soldiers wouldn’t fight for the Motherland, the Motherland would make them fight – using the same violence with which she had always treated her subjects.
Mass executions behind the lines began immediately, with even returning POWs treated as traitors. All in all, Beria’s heroes shot or hanged 157,000 Soviet soldiers following tribunal verdicts – and probably three times as many without even that travesty of justice. Thus the Soviet army suffered heavier casualties from its own side than the British army suffered altogether.
Faced with Nazi brutality before them and Soviet brutality behind, the soldiers began to fight, eventually ending the war in Berlin. More than 26 million died along the way, many because no effort to reduce casualties was ever made by a single Soviet commander, starting with the sainted Zhukov himself.
In fact, Dwight Eisenhower recoiled with horror when Zhukov casually mentioned that his favoured method of clearing a minefield was to march some infantry across, thus making it safe for the precious tanks.
The Germans capitulated to the Soviets on 9 May, 1945, and this was the event commemorated with such pomp this morning – but wait, we’re still on the opening song.
What followed was the show I saw several times a year since I was little: the Defence Minister and parade commander slowly inspecting the troops in their convertible limousines. “Hail, Comrades!” “Hail, Comrade Defence Minister!!!” Even the form of address was the same – and there I was, thinking that ‘Comrades’ has communist associations.
Then came the Leader’s speech, this time shorter than I remember from the time of Brezhnev and especially the loquacious Khrushchev. But never mind the length, feel the content.
For Leaders don’t just say things. Every word is replete with meaning, cryptic or otherwise. This time Putin informed the listeners that “continuity of generations is Russia’s greatest treasure”. Those who have ears will hear: the Soviet Union lives on.
“We won’t allow the memory of our fallen heroes to be betrayed!” [Translation: more heroes will have to fall.] Then followed a highly meaningful reference to the sites on which the heroes had fallen (Cheka cellars didn’t get a mention).
Their sequence was pregnant with meaning. Any war historian will tell you that the three crucial battles of the Great Patriotic War were, in chronological order, Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk. You’d expect that the Leader would mention them first, but you’d be wrong.
For the first two battles mentioned were Leningrad and Sebastopol – the first, presumably because it’s the Leader’s birthplace; the second, definitely because it’s in the Crimea. “We won’t let you down!” intoned the Leader before stepping back.
The rest of it unfolded to the same old script: the troops representing various branches of service marched past the dais, with the announcer commenting on their heroic deeds, past but tactfully not present.
I was particularly pleased to watch a goose-stepping Andropov Division, so named after the longest-serving chief of Putin’s sponsoring organisation, the KGB. The announcer’s solemnly rotund voice withheld any specifics, only saying that the division had distinguished itself in “numerous operations on home and foreign soil”. Quite.
Then the Cossacks marched by, which was a miracle in itself, considering that Putin’s role model Lenin decreed that the Cossacks were to be “wiped out to the last man”. Evidently they weren’t, which testifies not so much to the Cheka’s mercy as to its inefficiency.
And of course no celebration would have been complete without the armoured personnel carriers conveying the glorious army of the Republic of Crimea. Considering that said republic was only founded a few days ago, it’s amazing how quickly its army was put together and kitted up.
Footsteps died out, engines roared, and various weapon systems, 115 of them, rolled into Red Square. The announcer informed the admiring audience that “President Putin is personally overseeing the modernisation of our armed forces, and equipping them with state-of-the-art systems.”
I’m sure that came as welcome news to the Ukrainians who are hastily trying to put together a ragtag army able to slow down, if not repel, Putin’s aggression. So the modernisation isn’t yet complete? I can see the Ukrainian commander wiping his brow even as we speak.
Compare these obscene festivities with yesterday’s understated commemorations in Britain and you’ll grasp the key difference. The British bowed their heads to the past; the Russians raised their heads to the future. Britain becomes bellicose when she has to; Russia remains bellicose at all times.
The Marquis de Custine travelled to Russia in the 1830s and gasped with horror: “This country is always at war; it knows no peacetime!” Custine didn’t say plus ça change, but he would today, had he lived this long.