Sunday, 24 April 2011

Remembrance in St. Petersburg

In the IHT, Alison Smale writes of the Piskarovskoye Memorial Cemetery, and its monument to the one million victims of the siege of Leningrad, and then goes on to tell of an exhibition at the Anna Akhmatova Museum on the Soviet-Finnish wars of 1939-40 and 1941-44, and of arguments that Stalin’s attack on Finland on June 25, 1941, with 85,000 Finns and 330,000 Russians killed, led directly to the siege of Leningrad.
Akhmatova, who knew nearby Finland from pre-1917 days when many St. Petersburg residents vacationed there, was one of the few European intellectuals to see Stalin’s attack on Finland in 1939 on a par with Hitler’s occupation of Paris or bombing of London.

In the permanent exhibit that chronicles her life, the Finns have installed pictures of these wars. On another floor, they built what looked like a Finnish apartment, peppering it with war images in unlikely places (the surface of dinner plates) to illustrate that memories of war never fade.
Read more.

In his book, The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939-40, Carl Van Dyke writes that this war “convinced the Finnish government of the need to seek protection against the threat of another Soviet invasion by courting allies either in Scandinavia or Germany.”

He also describes how “the war revealed many deficiencies in the Red Army’s ability to conduct contemporary warfare, confirming the Red Army’s low status in relation to other European armed forces...”

Though Stalin had increased the size of the military prior to the war years, from 1934 on he’d introduced a series of organisational reforms in the Red Army to consolidate his own political power, culminating in a wave of repression in 1937-38 during which “36,761 army commanders and some 3,000 naval commanders had been dismissed, shot or imprisoned.”

From the book:
The absurdities and horrors of the first month of the war had given rise to jokes and humorous stories which ridiculed superior officers and commissars while indulging in self-deprecation. Eventually, a more benign expression of this humour found its way into the military press in the character of Pasha Brezhuntsov (‘The Liar’), who was a creation of the editorial board of the newspaper Boevaia krasnoarmeiskaia. In early February the editors began printing the fictional letters of Pasha the Liar, depicting a gossiping, undisciplined soldier incapable of shooting or skiing and unfamiliar with regulations, whose exploits poked fun at Soviet weaponry, military food, the excessive formality of military bureaucracy, and traffic-jams on the roads. These stories came to the attention of the Political Administration of the Leningrad Military District which condemned such humour as politically subversive and a mockery of the Red Army soldier.

A more politically sympathetic alternative was the cartoon character ‘Vasia Tërkin’ created by the military journalist A. Tvardovskii with the help of the artsts V. Briskin and V. Fomichev at the newspaper Na Strazhe Rodiny. Tvardovskii based his cartoon character on a truck driver he had met during the invasion of western Belorussia a few months before, embellishing him with traits of a folk hero. Tvardovskii’s intent was to portray the role model of a combat-ready soldier who combined cheerful, quick-witted but unpretentious humour with resourcefulness under fire ‘without undermining the sacred principles of military discipline’. ‘Vasia Tërkin’ was introduced to the reading public on 31 December 1939. (...) ‘Vasia Tërkin’ sought to co-opt the potential subversiveness of military humour (...)

Images and excerpts from The Soviet Invasion of Finland 1939-40, Copyright © 1997 Carl Van Dyke.

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