Once, during the 1980s, I visited the fortress of the city of Brest. Brest is now in Belarus, just east of the Polish border, but at that time Brest was a Soviet city, and its fortress was the city’s most important shrine to Soviet power. The entrance led through a vast slab of stone, into which had been cut an enormous Soviet star. Inside, the visitor’s eye was immediately directed to a vast, sorrowful human head, carved straight into an outcropping of rock. Ubiquitous loudspeakers piped funereal music throughout the fortress museum, which contained displays commemorating the Soviet heroes of the Nazi siege of Brest, as well as the subsequent Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. In front of an outdoor eternal flame, newlyweds held hands and solemnly laid wreaths, as was then the custom.
The scene was impressive, as it was meant to be. Yet there was something not quite right about it either. After all, until the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, Brest had been a Polish city, not part of the USSR at all. In June 1941, when the Germans invaded, the city’s Soviet identity would have still been pretty tenuous. More to the point, the Nazi siege of Brest, while tragic for those who fought and died within the fortress walls, was not in fact an important battle. It was an early sideshow, a minor distraction from the otherwise decisive initial Nazi rout of the Red Army.
The truth is that the Brest fortress monument, sculpture, music, and all, was designed not so much to commemorate a significant military event, but more to remind everyone in the vicinity of the city after the war who was boss. The Poles had been expelled, Soviet commissars had taken their places, and Brest now belonged to the Soviet Republic of Belarus. In this narrow sense, the Brest fortress is much like many other Soviet war monuments: although grandiose and impressive, and although certainly reflective of the scale of wartime suffering, they don’t always tell the whole truth about the Soviet experience of war.
But that, of course, could be said not only of Soviet monuments to the war, but of Soviet books about the war, Soviet films about the war, and Soviet anniversary commemorations of the war. Until the 1990s, the official Soviet histories of what was always called the Great Patriotic War were riddled with taboos. That Stalin helped start the war, by agreeing to divide Poland and the Baltic States with Hitler in 1939; that the Red Army was shocked and unprepared when Hitler attacked in 1941; that Soviet strategists deployed infantry as cannon fodder, unnecessarily sacrificing hundreds of thousands of men; that ordinary foot soldiers had little to eat, inadequate clothing, and, for many, short, brutal lives; that the Red Army in occupied Germany looted, murdered civilians, and raped women at will; none of this was part of the official record.
In recent years, some Western and Russian historians—Antony Beevor, Richard…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.