The earth shook as the mighty salvo signalled the start. Gracefully, heavy armour proceeded along Red Square, passing by the stepped pyramid of Lenin’s Tomb, by the multi-coloured domes of St Basil, and descending to the embankment of the Moscow River; huge green trucks pulled the most obvious phallic symbols of all — the intercontinental missiles Topol-M or SS-27, heirs to the fearsome Satan SS-18. Soldiers did their goose step march; Russia celebrated V-day with this traditional military parade, a somewhat archaic show, despite the shiny new hardware, and curiously out of tune with this peaceful, prosperous and vivacious city.
The tanks and missiles did convey the sheer brutal might of another geological period: they’d fit right into Jurassic Park and could mate there with tyrannosaurs. The procession passed by the Mausoleum, the heart of the old Communist state; built in the 1920s by the great church-builder Alexey Shchusev, it is now screened by large makeshift construction as it undergoes repairs and restoration. The GUM department store facing the Mausoleum across Red Square bursts with the fanciest and most expensive goods brought from overseas –- they are quickly snatched up by bright young things obviously belonging to a different generation.
Hundreds of thousands of Muscovites and visitors throng the route to glimpse the rolling Juggernauts. V-day was the first balmy sleeveless day after straight seven months of grime and cold; after the parade, the multitudes thronged parks, listened to concerts, or went off to their dachas. Amazingly, so many working-class Muscovites have their summer houses, another Soviet heritage (often just modest shacks, but still a nice place to go on weekends). Still, millions went out to see the fireworks that concluded the celebration of V-day.
The military parade is the visible symbol of a compromise between Lenin’s Tomb and GUM, between the veteran generation and the younger generation. It has been reinvented and reinterpreted. The holiday was created by Leonid Brezhnev in 1965 in the spirit of friendship with the Allies: the US, Britain and France; it was in the spirit of détente, or peaceful coexistence doctrine. The military parade added a hint that the USSR had retained its might.
Yeltsin’s reformers almost banned V-day, together with May Day and Revolution Day. They teased the vets saying: “Pity you won the war; if we’d lost it, we’d now live as well as the Germans”. They adopted the “Communism was worse than Nazism” doctrine, affirmed by President Bush who habitually compared Nazis and Commies in order to encourage the East Europeans to join NATO. The reformers used it to justify their mass privatisation of public property.
Putin revived the parade as well as the patriotic rhetoric: it was easier to restore than privatised industries. After the defeatist mood of Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s days, this was balm for Russian souls. And the war has been recast from a Russian-American-British-French struggle against the Nazi beast to a doomsday battle between Russia and the forces of the united Europe. It is a possible reading for every continental European state (Spain, France, Italy, Czechs, you name it) contributed its soldiers and war effort to the assault against Russia.
Now, however, a new interpretation has been offered: a magnificent, beautifully written new book on the war by Russian painter-turned-writer Maxim Kantor, The Red Light, was published right before V-day: it is being compared to War and Peace. It presents a whole panorama of the war through the eyes of many participants: a Russian cavalry officer, the son of executed Red commander, a SMERSH counter-intelligence operative, a freewheeling robber, and, from the German side, the narrator is Ernst Hanfstaengl, a Harvard-educated German-American, secretary and confidant of Adolf Hitler.
For Kantor, this was a war of paradigms, of Equality vs. Inequality, with the Soviet Union, warts and all, standing for equality of man, while the rest, Hitler and Churchill alike, stand for inequality. Kantor preserves some of his choicest venom for Hannah Arendt, the inventor of “Totalitarianism,” who concocted the equivalence of Stalin and Hitler regimes long before Ernst Nolte. Kantor compares the fates of POW’s: in Russian captivity, 350 thousand Germans perished, 13% of the total. In German captivity, over three million perished, over 60%, ten times more. Killings of civilians were on quite a different scale. Kantor ascribes the horror stories of Soviet cruelty to capitalists’ hatred of Communism. If Arendt equates Stalin and Hitler, he considers her a Hitler apologist. As the bottom line, this son of a Jewish Argentine philosopher calls for Christian Communism as the way of compassion and equality.
The battle of interpretations still goes on. A few days before the V-day there was a string of holidays and demos: first, Mayday, with hundreds of thousands marching under the red banners of the Communist Party and trade unions, and then, on May 6, there was the latest demo of the defeated White Fronde, the anti-Putin right-wing forces who’ve managed to mobilise between ten to fifteen thousand citizens. In a way, it was an anti-V-day rally, for the Frondeurs, the heirs to Yeltsin’s reformers, consider Communism as evil as Nazism, as they stand for more privatisation. An opposition writer Michael Berg stated that clearly: “It would be better if we, the Soviets, would be defeated. Eventually we would be liberated by the Americans and become a normal European state. The Jews would suffer, but we suffered anyway”. It was universally detested.
The White Fronde is done for; it became hugely detested, mainly due to the silly behaviour of its leaders. Some of them had been filmed taking money from Western sources and promising in return to riot in Moscow and other cities, and even to sabotage the Trans-Siberian railway. Other leaders expressed their arrogance and scorn for ordinary people too obviously. They nicknamed ordinary people “sardines”, or “the herd”, and naturally the people turned away from them. The rightist Frondeurs never had mass support for their slogans anyway: less tax for the rich, longer working hours for the workers, no welfare for the poor, full privatisation, strong anti-clericalism, and acceptance of the US model were just not that attractive to begin with.
The leftist rally on Mayday was huge and peaceful, partly because Moscow has an incredible 0.3% unemployment rate — practically no unemployment at all. People are pleased with Putin’s offensive against the oligarchs and against corrupt officials. A new law forbids officials to own property and bank accounts abroad, as demanded by the Communists. Salaries are quite low but steadily rising, and this prosperity allows Russian single mothers to spend their harsh winters in warm Goa, India; restaurants are expensive but full. Many expats from all over the world are moving to this newly-found oasis of prosperity.
The slogans of the Russian Communists could never be mouthed at leftist rallies in the West: beside demanding nationalisation, an eight-hour working day, free education and health care, they also call for an end to immigration (for immigrants lower workers’ incomes and bring criminality), and for banning gay propaganda and other anti-family activities like the child-free movement.
I wonder how Western Rightists and our Leftist friends will explain that combination? They are used to conflating Marxism with immigration and gender issues, but here the most authentic Communist movement of all actively opposes such side issues and sticks to the main question: ownership of the means of production and distributive justice. This was always the line of Russian Communists: they did not promote immigration, and they are not keen on sexual proclivities.
Lenin was shocked when Clara Zetkin, the German Communist leader, told him that they discuss gender with their female comrades. Stop this nonsense, he told her. “Is now the time to amuse proletarian women with discussions on how one loves and is loved, how one marries and is married? Now all the thoughts of women comrades, of the women of the working people, must be directed towards the proletarian revolution, [dealing with] unemployment, falling wages, taxes, and a great deal more.” “The promiscuous can’t be good revolutionaries”, he said. Stalin went further: he banned abortions, criminalised homosexuality, made divorces hard to get. An extra-marital affair could cost one’s job. A typical Republican view, yes, but against the rich and for the workers.
Gingerly, the awesome name of Josef Stalin is given honourable mention here and there. It became a battle cry against neoliberalism. Far from prosperous Moscow, in the cities devastated by neoliberal reforms, people dream of putting the guys with big offshore accounts up against the wall, Stalin-style. Parliament mulls over restoring the glorious name of Stalingrad to the city that Khrushchev renamed Volgograd in a fit of de-Stalinisation. A new statue paying tribute to the late ruler was even erected recently in far-away Yakutsk. Every poll affirmed Stalin’s popularity among people, to the chagrin of the liberals. Stalin cared about workers, people say. In his day, a qualified worker’s salary was equal to that of a professor; workers were entitled to free, all-inclusive seaside vacations; children had wonderful summer camps and free education. Unemployment was unheard of. Housing was free, as well as heating, electricity and telephones. The Man of Steel even re-established the Church after its Trotsky-led suppression. Financial geniuses, abortion quacks, gay activists and Zionist leaders (including my late father) were all to fell trees in a friendly labour camp in hospitable Siberia.
Stalin was as rough with the bourgeoisie as Thatcher was with the workers. If Forbes, the leading American publication for the rich, can say: “We desperately need more leaders like her”, and the Economist, the leading publication of the British bankers, dares to proclaim “What the world needs now is more Thatcherism, not less”, the Russians remember Stalin’s legacy. He nationalised, she privatised, he cared for family, she destroyed it; she gave all to the rich, he gave all to the workers.
His influence in the West was more benevolent than in the Soviet Union, as James Petras has recently reminded us. Without Stalin, there would have been no Gandhi. Or rather, the Mahatma would have been shot by the colonial masters as were his predecessors in 1856. Without Stalin, we would have no Swedish socialism, we would have no welfare state. We would have no decolonisation. If the bosses played fair with workers, it was because they were afraid of Stalin. For Western workers, he was like a hard-boiled elder brother: perhaps he hung out with wrong guys, maybe he belonged to a gang, but because of him, a younger brother could feel safe.
Stalin is far from coming into vogue, but anti-Stalinists are definitely out of favour. They overworked his name. Whenever one complains about thieving privatisation, and fat cats who steal public property, one is reminded that, on the other hand, “Stalin was a bloody tyrant”. Indeed one does not have to be a fascist to dislike the Israeli-flag-waving Antifa, one does not have to be a Communist to dislike McCarthy, and one does not have to be a Stalinist to dislike the anti-Stalinists who foisted Thatcherism on us.
For Russians, however, Stalin is first and foremost a war leader, the Supreme Commander, who led Russia to victory on V-day. He won against impossible odds, he was involved in every decision on every front, he did not contemplate surrender even with German tanks poised one hour’s drive from his capital. He mobilised all the willpower of Russia to withstand the onslaught and crush the enemy. This is how he is remembered in Moscow on V-day.