Russia says it conducts its invasion of Ukraine in the name of “денацификация” or “denazification”. Why is this term so frequently used by Moscow? In the Soviet and post-Soviet collective memory, World War II, which in Russian is called “Великая Отечественная Война” or the “Great Patriotic War”, is a core element of identity.
The war, which started for Moscow in June 1941, led to the death of at least 26 million people from across the Soviet Union, about 15 percent of its population. Even though Stalin signed an agreement with Hitler in 1939 to reject any military action against Germany — and, in the process, cut Poland in two — he later understood he had grossly miscalculated, as other European leaders did in the case of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Eventually, the Soviet Union fully joined the war that crushed Nazi Germany and Japan.
The incredible level of destruction over Soviet territory, particularly in Belarus and Ukraine but also in European parts of Russia, and the millions of deaths as a result, are historical facts that have evolved into a national myth of heroism which claims that the Soviet Union “saved Europe”. In reality, while the Soviet people paid a heavy price, armies and resistance groups — both from across Europe and the rest of the world — all contributed to Hitler's defeat.
Regardless, this myth has been perpetuated and amplified by independent Russia through official discourse, as well as via the media — mostly on radio and television — where programs, TV-series, interviews with veterans, films, podcasts, and documentaries about Soviet heroism during WWII dominate.
This content largely contributes to a glorification of war and weapons, and defines ultimate evil as being solely Nazi. In that narrative, there is no place for the millions of deaths caused by Stalin or Mao Zedong against their own people. Ultimately, the fight against Nazism is cultivated as an extremely powerful trigger of deep emotions that deems it a moral duty to take up arms in order to “protect the motherland”. As a result, there is total confidence in what the state says, and no possible critical questioning of what might motivate the other side. This is what happened with the first Chechen War, also led by Putin, from 1994 to 1996.
Ukraine’s experience of Nazism
Being located at the frontline of the Nazi-Soviet war, Ukraine, like Belarus, bore much of the brunt of World War II, losing about 18 million people, or 18 percent of those living in Soviet Ukraine at the time. As with the rest of the Soviet Union, it maintained the same heroic myth via similarly styled media productions, in both Russian and Ukrainian, about the devastating losses during that period.
But what differentiates Ukraine from Russia is that unlike Moscow, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyiv allowed for a plurality of discourses about its Soviet past, acknowledging historical facts such as the Holodomor, as well as Soviet and Ukrainian antisemitism, while Russia developed a new cult around Stalin.
Modern Ukraine, as with all European countries, has a fringe, extreme right, neo-Nazi movement, aggregated around the Azov Battalion. Similarly, Russia counts groups who advocate neo-Nazi ideology and train foreigners who share the same ideas. Instances of anti-semitism in Russia rarely get prosecuted.
Ukraine has also elected, through fair elections in May 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky, a president who, like many of his countrymen, has a complex cultural and linguistic identity. One of those elements is Jewishness, which he seldom puts forward but has used more often of late to call for global support. Part of his family died in the Holocaust.
Among those fleeing Russian bombs today are the Jews of Ukraine, who along with many others, are the victims of war for another generation. Meanwhile, 70 percent of Russians continue to support the actions of their government in the name of “denazification”.