01 December 2017

Confronting fascism together

Screenshot of Rossiya-1 talk show on the Nikolai Desyatnichenko episode. Link to video.
"Shame and a scandal." "He should be taken out and shot!" "Is he a traitor or an idiot?" "Look what crawled out of the ruins of our proud Soviet educational system!" "The poison of political correctness." "A shameful rebuke to our proud veterans!" "On his knees before the Nazis." "He's all 'forgive us, Adolf'!"

These were some of the reactions to Russian high school student Nikolai Desyatnichenko's appearance at the German federal legislature on its annual day of sorrow commemorating the victims of war. He was one of several young people, German and Russian, invited to summarize their research on the war losses of the other country. (DW news story.) At best, accusations were hurled (in the video above specifically by Vladimir Zhirinovsky) at the school and local government, because "of course, a 16-year-old can't figure these things out," says Zhirinovsky, despite the research Desyatnichenko carried out, and his memories of his own great-grandfather.

Reality check: the central message of Desyatnichenko's presentation was simply the following: (1) Many ordinary soldiers had no personal desire to make war. I have heard the same thing from Russian veterans! (2) Finally, "May common sense prevail and the world never again see war." (This concluding sentence was left out of the Rossiya-1 discussion linked to the photo caption above.)

In the resulting storm of controversy, the Russian presidential press secretary pointed out that the student clearly was not an apologist for Nazism. Among the insults and demands for investigation and punishment, other positive voices were also heard. Among the most eloquent were these words from 83-year-old journalist and commentator Vladimir Posner, whose essay was entitled, "I'm glad that there's such a boy as Kolya Desyatnichenko." Excerpts:
We can summarize the reactions [to his speech] very briefly: pure baiting and hounding. And it doesn't matter whether it came from super-patriot writers like Zakhar Prilepin, or a legislator, or mass media -- the fact is, he was being baited. And you know what struck me the most? It was the fact that the boy being treated this way was demonstrating the best features of Russian humanity.

This is what I have in mind: I'm referring to the ability to forgive, the ability to understand, the ability to understand the suffering of another person, even if that person is your enemy and even if that person causes you to suffer. This is an utterly striking feature which I haven't seen among others the way I've seen it among Russians. This is one of our unique features, and one of our best. It is a feature that is particularly suited to the Russian personality. Not rancor, not hatred, not dull cluelessness and intolerance, but a willingness to forgive, heartfelt kindness, and compassion.
When I first read about Desyatnichenko and the controversy around his Bundestag appearance, I remembered my visit ten years ago to Elektrostal's own World War II museum. Here's how I described my impressions:
The romanticization of the military is something very different from the sober, thoughtful counting of the costs of past wars. In the last few days, I've seen remarkable examples of the latter task--and they remind me that I'm living in a country that has suffered from war losses on a scale that dwarfs anything we Americans have ever experienced. The Soviet Union lost 27 million soldiers and civilians in World War II, not to mention a huge amount of housing stock and infrastructure. Many dead soldiers have never been found, identified, and properly buried, but a small group of Elektrostal's young people have been participating in "expeditions" to battle sites in the Novgorod area, going to locations identified in archives and by elderly residents as being possible sites for recovery of remains and war paraphernalia. The Elektrostal museum "To the Memory of the Unknown Soldier" has abundant patriotism but not a shred of war glorification. Instead, there's a subdued and very moving sense of respect for the war dead whose recovered battlefield possessions form the basis of the collection. Photos and videos show the grim work of uncovering, sorting, and cleaning bones, identifying them when possible, and then giving them a loving Orthodox burial. German remains and paraphernalia are treated with equal respect. "We don't make distinctions and we're not concerned about blame," said one of the museum workers.
(Original post.)

I wonder whether, ten years later, it is still considered acceptable to treat German remains "with equal respect." But in the current atmosphere, I'm more struck by the irony that the memory of the defeat of German fascism is defended and romanticized by some in Russia with yet another version of fascism.

Here, by "fascism" I mean the potent combination of racism or folk-nationalism, militarism, authoritarianism, and a brutish degeneration of social norms.

Posner's glowing description of the ideals exemplified by young Desyatnichenko, contrasted rhetorically with the attacks on the student, sounded very familiar to me. They're a version of a familiar Russian exceptionalism, one that I heard many times, especially from Eastern Orthodox priests and writers. I remember the lady at the cosmetics counter telling me, "We Russians never attacked anyone." An artist said to me, "The church never turns away a contrite heart, never withholds forgiveness." A priest told me, "You Westerners are all straight lines and sharp angles. We are round, organic, and compassionate."

Of course, Russian exceptionalism has its counterpart values in American exceptionalism. The parallels don't stop there.

Russia and the USA defeated German fascism as allies.

Both countries are now enduring the phenomenon of home-grown fascism and rabid nationalism.

Among the targets in both countries are people asserting the right to examine history truthfully, including the stories of victims trampled underfoot by the cannibals (to use Ilya Grits's term) of war and militarism in both countries.

Both countries are suffering from mockery of the desire for mutual understanding and inclusiveness -- a desire caricaturized by the term "political correctness."

In both countries, Muslims and people of color frequently find themselves targets of brutish behavior or worse.

(In a wicked twist, the current U.S. president encourages these attitudes. As far as I know, even Putin has never publicly stooped this low!)

Russia and the USA were allies in the 20th century struggle against fascism. Maybe there can be a new form of "collusion" between Russians and Americans today -- the Posners and likeminded Russians, of whom there are many, working together with American small-d democrats to resist social fragmentation and alienation, and raise up the humane values enshrined in our respective exceptionalisms.

In fact, I'm sure it's already happening. Right?

The Romanov execution and anti-Semitic hints of "ritual killing."

Paul Goble on Russian charity: the poorest Russians give proportionally more than the rich.

'Tis the season for workplace giving. (Thanks to @CRANEunfolds for the link.)

Mike Farley and ... the rattling of our mind's junkyards ...

Pops Staples...


Unknown said...

Thank you for summarize the coverage of this story and for the connections to the museum visit. I was also very struck by the young people's perspective. We Americans suffer even more from the cult of war. The military budget proposed for this year is beyond unbelievable. See you in the halls of congress? Pat

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Patricia! I loved the story of the young pacifist in the latest Friends House Moscow newsletter.