Based on Mikhail Shishkin’s article translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz
The May 9th issue of The New York Times carries on its Opinion Page the Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin’s story. Shishkin recounts that as a youngster he was very proud of his father, who had enlisted at age 18 and was a submariner in the Baltic sea during WW II. He states that there was a picture of his submarine on the wall and during the May 9 Victory Day anniversaries he donned his sailors uniform with all his medals of honor.
As Mikhail was growing up, he realized that in 1944-1945 his father had been sinking ships evacuating civilians and troops from Riga, Latvia, and Tallinn, Estonia. Hundreds, if not thousands of people met their deaths in the waters of the Baltic. It was war and I don’t judge him, he says. He fought the evil of fascism, but was taken advantage of by another evil. He and millions of Soviet soldiers, sailors and airmen, virtual slaves, brought the world not liberation but another slavery. The people sacrificed everything for victory, but the fruits of this victory were less freedom and more poverty.
My father was 6 years old when my grandfather was arrested as an enemy of the people. He perished in the gulag. Mikhail feels that the baseness of Russia’s rulers lies in the way they have always taken advantage of a remarkable human emotion: the love of homeland and willingness to sacrifice everything for it. Thus, when war began the persecuted population was called as “brothers and sisters!” to come to the aid of the homeland. My father was still young when he went to sea in a submarine, in constant terror of drowning in that steel coffin. He had ended up protecting the regime that killed his father.
Victory gave the slaves nothing but a sense of the grandeur of their master’s empire and reinforced their great slavery. So, after the war my father and all his submarine friends drank. When, during the lean times of the Gorbachev era, the veterans received rations that included items from Germany, he felt insulted. He got drunk and hollered: “But we won!” Then he quieted down and wept and kept asking: “Did we win the war or lose it?”
He was the last of his submarine friends to destroy himself with vodka. He was buried in his sailor’s uniform.
The chief Russian question is: if the fatherland is a monster, should it be loved or hated? Long ago, a Russian poet put it this way: “A heart weary of hate cannot learn to love.” Of course everyone wishes their homeland victory. But what would constitute a victory for his country? Hitler’s victories were defeats for the German people and the final rout of Nazi Germany was a victory for the Germans themselves, who demonstrated how a nation can rise up and live as human beings without the delirium of war in their heads.
Today the Victory Day has nothing to do with the people’s victory or my father’s victory. It is not a day of peace and remembrance for the victims. It is a day for rattling swords, zinc coffins, a day of aggression, a day of great hypocrisy and great baseness. For Russians have been called to fight a war against fascism again. The patriotic hysteria on their television is the regime’s miracle weapon; the population has a make-believe idea that the West wants to destroy Russia. Again we are compelled to wage a holy war; to defend the Russian language, to save the Russians and the world from fascism. Anyone who objects is a “national traitor.” The history is being rewritten, leaving in it only military victories and martial glory. The schoolbooks include the story of Crimea’s glorious return.
President Vladimir V. Putin has achieved everything a dictator could strive for in his 16th year of rule. His regime rests on the unshakable laws of the vassal’s personal loyalty from the bottom to the top of the pyramid of power.
Mikhail’s father was a Russian; mother a Ukrainian. He says that Putin’s regime has set our people against each other. He feels that it is perhaps better for his parents not have seen how the Russians and Ukrainians are killing one another. It is impossible to breathe in a country permeated with hatred, which in history is always followed by much blood.
Once again, the dictatorship is calling on its subjects to defeat the homeland, mercilessly exploiting the propaganda of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Russia’s rulers have stolen my people’s oil, stolen their elections and their country. And stolen their victory. Father, we lost the war.