Reading a personal account like Yegorova’s, it’s easy to identify so strongly with the storyteller that one comes almost to accept her version of history. It’s no surprise that Yegorova tells her story through a filter of ideology; only a few of us are, at heart, Solzhenitsyns, who see and describe the world as it is, no matter how painful the view and the consequences.
As editor, I hoped to provide glimpses of a wider perspective on that history, by adding historical footnotes about events that Yegorova describes, events like the Warsaw Uprising and Stalin’s repression of the kulaks.
Unfortunately, I’m not a historian. But Anne Applebaum is, and anyone hoping to understand Yegorova’s milleu should scan my footnotes with a skeptical eye and move on quickly to Applebaum’s writings about Eastern Europe’s “borderlands” and the Soviet GULAG system.
Here’s a great place to get started: read Applebaum’s wonderful essay, “The Worst of the Madness,” from the New York Review of Books. She writes about the parade of genocides and occupations that beset the populations caught, geographically and politically, between Europe’s dueling mass murderers.
Many comparisons have been drawn between Hitler and Stalin, but less is known of their early collaborations and occasional shared interests: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 doomed thousands of Polish citizens to slaughter by their Soviet and German occupiers–the murdered hardly cared whether they were done in by the Nazis or the NKVD. And the insurgents of the Warsaw Uprising, it seems, were viewed as enemies of both regimes–one of which slaughtered them outright, the other merely stood at the city’s outskirts and allowed it to happen.
Americans and Russians do have this in common: the desire to hold up our countrymen’s roles in WWII as a source of national pride and to see the story of that war as a simple one, in which freedom defeated tyranny. Applebaum doesn’t allow us to enjoy those cozy illusions, however. “If we remember the twentieth century for what it actually was, and not for what we imagine it to have been, the misuse of history for national political purposes also becomes more difficult,” she says.
“The modern Russian state often talks about the “twenty million Soviet dead” during World War II as a way of emphasizing its victimhood and martyrdom. But even if we accept that suspiciously large round number, it is still important to acknowledge that the majority of those were not Russians, did not live in modern Russia, and did not necessarily die because of German aggression. It is also important to acknowledge that Soviet citizens were just as likely to die during the war years because of decisions made by Stalin, or because of the interaction between Stalin and Hitler, as they were from the commands of Hitler alone.
For different reasons, the American popular memory of World War II is also due for some revision. In the past, we have sometimes described this as the “good war,” at least when contrasted to the morally ambiguous wars that followed. At some level this is understandable: we did fight for human rights in Germany and Japan, we did leave democratic German and Japanese regimes in our wake, and we should be proud of having done so. But it is also true that while we were fighting for democracy and human rights in the lands of Western Europe, we ignored and then forgot what happened further east.
As a result, we liberated one half of Europe at the cost of enslaving the other half for fifty years. We really did win the war against one genocidal dictator with the help of another. There was a happy end for us, but not for everybody. This does not make us bad—there were limitations, reasons, legitimate explanations for what happened. But it does make us less exceptional. And it does make World War II less exceptional, more morally ambiguous, and thus more similar to the wars that followed.”
It’s not only Yegorova, not only the citizens of a totalitarian state, who retool their histories for their own purposes. And just as in modern-day Russia, suggesting here in America that our role in WWII contained its own complications and compromises earns the questioner the damning epithet of “unpatriotic,” especially from veterans.
It’s understandable that veterans, more than anyone, would want to paint a black-and-white picture of their experience, just like Yegorova did. But to honor their sacrifice and suffering means to try valiantly to see the world as it really is, scars and all, and to shine a searing light on our own deeds, heroic and otherwise.
Perhaps by seeing our history in all its complexity, as Applebaum suggests, we might also begin to overcome our sometimes rather naive sense of isolation and exceptionalism. “The more we learn about the twentieth century,” she writes, “the harder it will be to draw easy lessons or make simple judgments about the people who lived through it—and the easier it will be to empathize with and understand them.”
Those unlucky millions who lived in Europe’s borderlands–14 million of them casualties of Hitler’s Lebensraum ambitions and Stalin’s murderous ideological “experiments”–don’t have the luxury of holding a simplistic view of 20th Century history. Ask a Pole, Lithuanian, or Ukrainian for his opinion of the WWII “good vs. evil” paradigm sometime. His answer probably won’t be so simple.