World War II and the Soviet Hero Myth

The hero myth surrounding the soviet veterans of WWII was created by a well-oiled machine of propaganda, the Sovinformburo and the memories of soldiers and civilians alike in the decades following the end of a war that claimed 27 million soviet lives.[1]  The myth of these heroes sought to describe soldiers of the Red Army as every-day citizens, loyal to their motherland, brave and happy to do their duty.[2]  These soldiers were not afraid of dying for their homeland and they fought selflessly for the good of the people they left behind.[3]  They never demeaned their place by failing in their task, panicking while facing a formidable enemy or experiencing doubt about their honorable and righteous cause.[4]  According to Merridale, it is only with great irony that “their state should have instilled in them a sense of pride so powerful that few could see how thoroughly it disinherited them.”[5]  Though this myth was fully developed and exploited during WWII and the decades that followed, it existed in some form before the first shots were ever fired in poetry and even masterpieces like Tolstoy’s War and Peace.[6]  The scope of the myth was further enhanced by the Sovinformburo and its censorship of news that would have caused soldiers and civilians alike to lose hope.[7]  Censorship minimized losses on the battlefield, focusing instead solely on pieces of progress that had been made against the fascist army – even if that meant only delaying an inevitable attack.[8]  Nothing was allowed in the press that even suggested the presence of fear, rewriting the official narrative of the war’s first year as a steady stream of heroism in the face of a great and terrible adversary.[9]

The myth held, in part, because no one particularly wanted to relive the pain and loss they endured throughout the war years.[10]  Survivors had much to gain by allowing the official, mythic narrative to stand, and much to lose by contradicting it.[11]  Even decades after the war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Merridale found that the overwhelming majority of veterans still felt obligated to keep their real experiences private.[12]  This silence was, in fact, their official duty to the state and demobilized soldiers were required to sign documents to that effect before they would be allowed to return home.[13]  This propaganda and censorship campaign allowed returning veterans to maintain a sense of pride and it served as the face they would continue to present to the public, regardless of the trauma they had either experienced – or in many cases – inflicted upon others.[14]  After the war was over, in fact, challenging the official narrative of the war could turn a veteran from a hero into an enemy of the state.[15]  In addition, loyal veterans were given pensions.  For many, to speak against the motherland seemed, at least symbolically, a dishonor to the millions who had given their lives for it.[16]

[1] Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War, (New York: Picador, 2006), 4.

[2] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 6.

[3] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 6.

[4] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 7.

[5] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 8.

[6] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 51.

[7] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[8] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[9] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[10] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[11] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 281.

[12] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 207.

[13] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 356.

[14] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

[15] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

[16] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

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