In defence of Richard Wagner, Alexander Pushkin, and Victory Day

Leonid Gozman explains why Putin fails at changing the past

In defence of Richard Wagner, Alexander Pushkin, and Victory Day


Our country has been taken away from us. Many were forced to leave, others have to stay quiet, knowing they will face prison for the wrong words. The Russia that displayed signs of becoming a normal European country has disappeared, fading away in three days like the Russian monarchy had.

The future is being pried out of our hands, and with some success — chances of getting out of this impasse are growing slimmer. Although the struggle continues, it is clear that the road ahead of us is getting longer and rockier by the day. Even if it does lead to our destination, not everyone will make it.

The past is also being taken away from us. Not only and not so much through ubiquitous lying — Novaya-Europe readers, being intelligent people, are not very susceptible to that. When, for example, Putin talks about how “Ukraine was invented by Lenin” and Peter the Great was “reclaiming what belonged to him”, we understand that this is not entirely true, to put it mildly. His words do not change our attitude to Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, or the “Anglo-Saxons”. Neither do they change our attitude towards Putin — no room for change there.

But this leadership that God seemingly gave us for our sins (remember what ex-Russian Railways chief Yakunin said: God gave Putin to Russia!) manages to screw up everything it touches so badly that many of us have begun changing our attitudes to events of the faraway past. Because the authorities have weaponised them.

In Soviet times, 9 May — Victory Day — was a real holiday, one of only two days (along with the New Year) that the whole country truly celebrated. Moreover, the only thing that connected the official celebrations, which did not exist under Stalin and flourished under Brezhnev, to the festivities of the people, were war songs — and not the triumphant ones, but the sad ones. While WWII veterans were alive, they celebrated Victory Day in groups of their own and at the family table. Then, the veterans passed away, but people continued celebrating — and for a good reason.

May 1945 saw the destruction of one of the epitomes of unadulterated evil — the Third Reich. Of course, there still remained Stalin’s regime, which was as barbaric as Hitler’s; many others remained, on a smaller scale but no less heinous. However, the overall amount of evil in the world had sharply decreased — largely thanks to our compatriots and our ancestors. So, of course, this is a day of celebration.

It was also traditional on this day to remember the exorbitant cost of victory: tens of millions dead, countless people maimed, and so on and so forth. There was only one slogan in the country that was not hypocritical: “What matters is that there’s never a war”.

Many people now say that Putin has destroyed this holiday, first with his insane victory cult and then with his war; that it is now impossible to celebrate and has even been rendered non-existent.

But even God cannot undo what has been done, let alone Putin. Can the kitsch and the crimes of today undo what happened almost 80 years ago? It has already happened. Can a drunkard in a “Take Berlin!” T-shirt undo a feat accomplished by people who died long ago, many years before he was born?

Today, of course, it is not the Russian military that succeeds the tradition of WWII victors, but the Ukrainian military: they are defending their country from a rabid attacker much like their Soviet ancestors did back in the day. Whereas our country — or rather our state, but our country as well — continues Hitler’s work: bombing cities, killing, raping, and pillaging. “We are Russians, God is with us!”

Indeed, today there is nothing but shame. But the Victory of 1945 was no less real than today’s crimes. It was not invented by Soviet propagandists. It has nothing to do with the disgusting carnival that our leadership has set up, leeching off the heroics and the suffering of days gone by. And that Victory is in no way devalued by the war Putin has unleashed (that he will hopefully lose as Hitler once lost, so that Russia can be reborn after his defeat as Germany was reborn after the defeat of the Reich).

Nothing is new, and we are not the first to experience this. There have been cases in history when, influenced by some monstrous event, people changed their attitudes toward the past, which had nothing to do with said event and was not responsible for it. After WWII, Richard Wagner’s music stopped being played in many countries because Hitler loved it. But it was not Wagner’s fault that a criminal liked his music — Wagner died in 1883, even before Hitler was born, and his personal anti-Semitism had no bearing on how brutal the Third Reich was towards Jews. Wagner’s music is now performed across the world. And, thank God, people have not stopped reading Alexander Pushkin just because the United Russia party has used his portrait on their posters.

Of course, Wagner’s music did not fall from grace only because of Hitler’s musical preferences: there is a theory that the Nazis would sometimes shoot Jews to his music, which means that performing his works could be traumatic for both the survivors and those who have identified with them. But that is another matter entirely. It is about being tactful — when and what to play, say, and display. You cannot, of course, market 9 May as Victory Day instead of Europe Day in modern-day Ukraine — the country is being bombed by the very person who is trying to appropriate that Victory. Nor can you perform Wagner at Holocaust-related events. It would also be inappropriate to read some of Pushkin’s poetry in Poland. But this does not equal a total renunciation of Wagner, Pushkin or the memory of the Victory.

Our self-concept (our idea of ourselves) includes not only events that we participated in ourselves, but also the events involving the people with whom we identify — our ancestors, our fellow citizens, all those whom we call “we”. Back in 1945, “we” (for me this includes my family, the vets that I knew personally, the entire Soviet people, and the Allies) did a remarkable thing. That Victory is perhaps the only event in the entire Soviet period of our history that we can be proud of.

And if we stop celebrating this day in our homes and in our hearts, it will mean Putin’s victory and our defeat. It will mean that he took 9 May away from us and we agreed to surrender. It will mean that we allowed him to desecrate what was dear to us, that we gave in to the filth, the lies, and the malice.

We should not give this day away. We should not give them anything.

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