Victory Day, will be a big day for Russian President Vladimir Putin. On
May 9, he will step out in Moscow in a new role. As the anniversaries of
the Second World War have approached, Putin has increasingly put
himself at the heart of his country’s wartime narrative of destruction,
death, and survival against the odds. He, personally, is the keeper of
the national memory, the chronicler of its history.
As Putin underscores
in a recent article for the Russian elite magazine, Russian Pioneer,
the war that Russians call the Great Fatherland War is literally his
father’s war. His father’s memories and his family’s represent those of
the entire Russian nation. Since his childhood, Putin has borne witness
to the Second World War. The Russian president goes to great lengths to
inform the Russian Pioneer readers that his family’s war stories are
facts. They have been thoroughly documented by others. In recounting
these stories, these facts, he is now passing them on to the next
In doing so he becomes the nation’s putative father, Otets.
Otets is the first capitalized word of Putin’s article in Russian
Pioneer. The magazine, which was created by members of his inner circle,
has helped rebrand Putin in the past. The article reads as
conversational version of the most vivid details of Putin’s father’s
tales from the front - fresh from Putin’s memories.
It conveys a number of important personal and narrative points. Putin’s father, also called Vladimir, was not a passive victim of the war. He volunteered for the front. He fought back. He went on a mission behind enemy lines to destroy bridges and railway lines - anything to defeat the enemy. Local villagers betrayed him and his comrades to the "fascists." Almost everyone was killed, but his father hid from German soldiers in a swamp and escaped. Much later, Putin’s father was injured defending his home city during the brutal Siege of Leningrad. He was saved by an old friend and neighbor, and in turn Putin's father saved his wife, Putin's mother, from near death. Neither of them could save their little son, Putin’s older brother, who was lost to deprivation and disease, and buried in a mass grave.
Putin was his parents’ somewhat miraculous postwar son. Their stories
have shaped his personal and political perspectives. He now recasts them
for his own message to the Russian people. Several themes emerge. One
is the importance of loyalty, absolute loyalty. Another is betrayal as
the ultimate evil. Traitors must be punished. Yet another theme in
Putin’s retelling of his family story is reconciliation with Germans.
Beyond his personal history, Putin gleaned his knowledge of the war from Soviet movies and books, from his studies of German language and history, and from his 1980s KGB service in Dresden. Since the rehabilitation of ordinary Germans and close friendship with East Germany were political priorities in the USSR, the Soviets rewrote history.
In postwar East Germany, fascists were quickly transformed into good
Communists. Responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazi regime was
laid on the capitalists, the Germans across the wall in the West. Putin
uses his parents’ stories in the same way. For instance, he stresses
that his father’s group behind enemy lines was led by an ethnic German
Soviet citizen, who presumably perished (although Putin does not
actually say). He recounts how his mother had counseled him not to
remember the German soldiers with hatred. They were, she reminded him,
ordinary people like us who were forced to the front to fight.