Russia’s history of the Shoah is not the same as ours

Soviet propaganda and lack of survivors led to a very different perspective on the Holocaust


Burning candles in a row in the dark with copy space.

April 20, 2022 10:12

Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine, the Holocaust has been an oft-invoked historical analogy employed by both Russian and Ukrainian leaders. President Zelensky has spoken of the murder of his family members and has made comparisons between contemporary events in Ukraine and the Holocaust, for example, between “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question” adopted by the Nazi party in 1942 and the “Final Solution” which Zelensky argues is being adopted towards the Ukrainian people.

On the other hand, since Russia first invaded Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, the Holocaust has been distorted, twisted and manipulated by the Russian state to justify its actions.

The topic of the Holocaust has only recently come to be acknowledged in the Russian Federation. A state-led policy has been developed since Putin’s third term, following the conservative shift in his ideology and the need to control more closely Russian and Soviet history. This is noteworthy because prior to the early 2010s there was no state policy towards it. There were some individual initiatives organised either by grassroots movements and sometimes the state to commemorate it, but there was no concerted effort until 2012.

Then the Russian state started to create a specific Holocaust memory which is designed to stress Soviet heroism; the fascist leanings of the former republics; and contemporary Russia’s supposedly tolerant, multicultural society – in contrast to painful periods of history. The Holocaust was rarely acknowledged in Soviet Russia. It was subsumed within the narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” and the specificity of Jewish suffering had not been singled out.  Rather than seeing the Holocaust as a unique tragedy it was viewed as part of the broader wartime experience. It was de-Judaicised because there were concerns that focusing on its Jewish nature could jeopardise the state’s focus on all-Soviet suffering during the Great Patriotic War.

There was no framework for Holocaust survivors to tell their stories in the Soviet Union, a situation made worse when attacks on Soviet Jews included the depiction of Jews as foreign actors in Soviet society. In 1948, the murder of Solomon Mikhoels, head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, highlighted the physical side of such persecution. The Doctors’ Plot of the early 1950s publicly identified and condemned Soviet Jewish doctors for fictional treason.

Holocaust survivors could not tell their stories, either at home or abroad. The Soviet state would actively prevent them from doing so. Aleksandr Pecherskii, a heroic leader of the 14 October 1943 revolt at Sobibór extermination camp in occupied Poland, returned to the Soviet Union after the war. However, according to David Bezmogis: “He is worn down by the cumulative disappointments imposed upon him by the Soviet authorities – a lack of recognition for his and his comrades’ heroism, a lack of recognition for the extraordinary feat that was the Sobibor uprising, and the serial refusals to allow him to travel outside the Soviet Union to participate in events related to Sobibor. 

“The last of these occurred in 1987, when Pechersky was invited to attend a screening of the British television movie Escape From Sobibor starring Alan Arkin as Leon Feldhendler and Rutger Hauer as Pechersky. Once more the authorities made it impossible for him [to] attend.

The version of the Holocaust that we know in the West highlights this imbalance, because it erases the experiences of Soviet Jews. Our memory of the Holocaust focuses mainly on the experience of Jews from Western parts of Europe, who were the majority of the survivors of the Holocaust. In the aftermath of the war, they could write freely about their experience. 

This is in sharp comparison to East European Jews, predominantly survivors of either the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ or of the camps in Operation Reinhard, the secret plan to exterminate Polish Jewry. Survivors were fewer in number, lacked the physical evidence of a death camp and were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, unable to express themselves beyond Soviet censorship.

That is one reason why recent discussions of the Holocaust in the Russian Federation are so significant. However, as during the Soviet era, the rhetoric disseminated by Putin and those around him continues to spread disinformation, and the authorities closely monitor information shared about the atrocities. It is used for geopolitical purposes, decoupled from the tragedy itself and failing to commemorate the Holocaust for the sake of its victims.

Isabel Sawkins is completing a PhD on Holocaust memory in Russia

April 20, 2022 10:12

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