For the past two weeks, posters celebrating the Soviet triumph in World War II have been taped to the windows of every store in Russia, proudly displaying the date “9 May” and the orange and black striped ribbon of victory. Red banners have been draped across the fronts of apartment buildings all along the central Moscow parade route. And in the lead-up to the country’s annual Victory Day celebrations, the Kremlin has made a move that it touts as yet another display of Russia’s patriotism and pride: the government has announced that it is considering passing a law to criminalize statements and acts that deny the Soviets won World War II, or claim it used poor tactics in battle or did not liberate Eastern Europe.
The proposed law is seen by Kremlin-watchers as further evidence of Moscow’s continued suppression of dissent at a time when the domestic popularity of President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has slipped thanks to the economic crisis, and amid international fears of growing Russian militarism after its successful war against Georgia last summer.
“I believe the Duma should enact a law that would criminalize the denial of the Soviet victory in World War II,” said Sergei Shoigu, head of the powerful Ministry of Emergency Situations and co-chairman of the supreme council of Putin’s United Russia party, during a speech to veterans in Volgograd in February, according to reports by Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
Shoigu’s call for the new law came after Russian television channel NTV broadcast a documentary about the Battles of Rzhev, a series of offensives launched by Soviet forces against the Germans between January 1942 and March 1943. The documentary raised popular anger, especially among WWII veterans, after it exposed the number of Soviet soldiers killed, which was much higher than most Russians believed around a million compared to around 500,000 on the Nazi side and presented a negative interpretation of Soviet tactics by, for example, showing how shocked German soldiers who had fought in the battles were at the way Soviet troops were thrown into the fight with little regard for their lives.
Valery Ryazansky, a United Russia Duma MP and a chief supporter of the bill, said on Thursday he hoped the law would appear before the Duma before June 22 Russia’s Day of Remembrance and Mourning. “Those who attempt to interpret the outcome of World War II, to turn everything upside down, to represent those who liberated countries from the Nazi invaders as subjugators” will be punished, he said.
Violators of the new addition to the criminal code would face a fine of up to around $9,200 or up to three years in prison. If the perpetrator is a government official and uses his status to break the law, the fine is increased to more than $15,300, a five-year term in prison and the deprivation of the right to occupy certain government positions, said Ryazansky.
In an Orwellian twist, the drafters of the bill, which is being called the law “Against the Rehabilitation of Nazism,” have said they modeled it on the various forms of Holocaust-denier legislation that exists in Austria, Germany, Belgium and France. But critics point out that the law banning denial of the Holocaust is designed to protect the memory of the Jews and other ethnic groups killed by Nazi forces and their supporters. Russia’s new bill, however, would stop anyone reexamining a history fraught with half-truths and lies propagated by the Soviet government, then carried into the present on the backs of unrevised text books and a general aversion to looking too closely the country’s past.
Liberals in Russia fear the law may punish and silence new and possibly more accurate interpretations of the country’s history and solidify the government’s control of the past. But the real aim of the law may be to provide the Kremlin with another rhetorical tool with which to attack governments of former Soviet Republics and Eastern Bloc countries that have increasingly moved towards the West. The most recent example which is still making waves in Russia was the 2007 row in Estonia over the moving of the statue of a Red Army soldier from a central Tallinn square to a nearby war cemetery, a decision which triggered riots and caused an international incident.
When Russia’s law “Against the Rehabilitation of Nazism” is passed, “the presidents of some countries who denied [the Soviet victory] would not be able to travel with impunity in our country. And the mayors of some cities, before demolishing sites, would think before they act,” said Shoigu, according to RIA Novosti.
According to a poll of 1,600 Russians released on Wednesday by the Center for the Study of Public Opinion, 60% of Russians say they agree that denying the Soviets won World War II should be criminalized, while 77% believe the Soviet Union liberated Eastern Europe. On Saturday, thousands of troops, with over 100 tanks, troop carriers and mobile ballistic missile batteries, will parade through Red Square and the center of Moscow as more than 70 aircraft and helicopters fly overhead. But as Russians celebrate their victory over the Nazis, they may also be celebrating the defeat of freedom of speech.
Read: “Why Putin Loves World War II.”
See pictures of the Russians in Ossetia.