For Russians, World War II is known as the "Great Patriotic War" [Ð’ÐµÐ»Ð¸ÐºÐ°Ñ ÐžÑ‚ÐµÑ‡ÐµÑÑ‚Ð²ÐµÐ½Ð½Ð°Ñ Ð’Ð¾Ð¹Ð½Ð°]. Anyone who has visited Russia or spoken with Russians can appreciate the sentiment behind this. World War II was unimaginably brutal — and brutalizing — even for a population who had endured Stalin’s Great Terror just a few years before. But however comforting the phrase may be, it is a serious historical distortion. Russia’s role in World War II did not begin in 1941 with Hitler’s invasion of Russia — as is implied by the phrase. It began in 1939, when the Soviet Union, in concert with the Nazis, invaded Poland. It continued with the Soviet invasions and annexations of the Baltic states. Unfortunately, though these events are indisputably part of World War II, there was nothing "great" or "patriotic" about them — nor did they have anything to do with the fatherland.
As I say, I can appreciate why Russians would want to embrace this self-flattering description of their role in World War II. What I can’t understand is why Western historians collude in this little fairy tale. In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Sheila Fitzpatrick, the doyenne of Russian "revisionist" historiography, reviewed a magnificent new book by Catherine Merridale in the New York Times. It’s a sour little review that deliberately avoids engaging Merridale’s central argument about the "myth" of the Great Patriotic War. When Merridale openly acknowledges the limitations of her research, and the counter-intuitive responses of her interview subjects, Fitzpatrick sneers, "So much for debunking."
But I was bewildered when I read this line from Fitzpatrick’s review:
For Russians the war began horrifically, with a chaotic retreat before the German invasion of June 1941.
Did Professor Fitzpatrick even read the title of the book she was reviewing? It is Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945.