Visiting Russia for the first time, and studying abroad there as an American student were striking experiences for me. The sights, immersion into a new culture, and Russian language were fundamental parts of my study abroad experience. I was surprised, however, as to the important role that history played in the backdrop of the Russian experience. Though I was only there for a short while, I got a taste of how history, and specifically, World War II, has come to shape the modern Russian identity.
In the U.S., I was taught about the sheer number of WWII Soviet casualties with what now seems like an air of informality; I never really comprehended how many lives were lost. In Russia, I was able see and hear a local perspective on the catastrophic deaths of 27,000,000 soldiers and civilians – some 16% of the population – all while millions of eventual survivors suffered hunger, pain, and loss. This trauma of war was understandably absorbed into the culture and identity of the Russian people.
I learned that World War II was more than a loss of lives to the Russians. Visiting the Leningrad siege memorial, I was immersed into the chilling atmosphere created by the historical documents and artifacts from the war. The descent into the memorial’s museum was dark, with rocket shells lining the walls. Inside, more shells lined the walls of the whole museum. The implied violence and the somber quality of the wide, dark room forces one to think about the chilling and grotesque historical event that was the siege of Leningrad. A video played on one of the walls, depicting the city during its nearly 900 days of turmoil. Handwritten accounts from children, soldier’s radios, and household items such as typewriters, laundry items, and notebooks that were hard to obtain during the war filled the inside of the museum. The items were encapsulated in their cold, glass cases, yet I found it hard to separate myself from the reality that lay before me. Our tour guide translated some of the Russian decals describing people and events, and his narration of the events of the siege and description of the resilience of the Soviet citizens painted a picture of pain, loss, and triumph during the war.
I was also able to hear personal history from one of my Russian history professors at the St. Petersburg State University of Economics. She described losing both of her grandfathers to the war, and growing up with a strong matriarchal presence in her family. She also described how nearly an entire generation of young men were simply gone after the war and the widespread affects this had on society, namely the need for women to mobilize in taking on the roles that men had traditionally worked. She put it succinctly: “Still, after the war, there are few, if any, families in St. Petersburg that haven’t been affected by it.”
The memory of those lost to the war has not left the Russian consciousness, as evidenced from the countless memorials and statues and even mass graves that I could see as explored St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Novgorod. These are still constantly showered with flowers in dedication to those taken by the war in the three of the aforementioned cities. From my history class, I learned about the yearly efforts to search for more soldier’s bodies in swamps, fields, lakes and ponds. New finds are reported on TV news. I got to see the fierce celebration of Victory Day, as well as the yearly walk of the Immortal Regime, in which family members of those who died march with photographs and flowers commemorating their loved ones. Even being here for a short time, one cannot miss power the events of WWII still have over daily Russian life.
I learned how the weight of the war brought forth the perseverance and the courage of the people of the Soviet Union. Russians still revere this perseverance and hold it up as something that Russians should aspire to and as something that makes Russians Russian. While under the Siege of Leningrad, for instance, embattled citizens created, performed, and attended Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. They made a communal effort to keep streets clean of deceased bodies. They put their lives at risk to bring aid across nearby Lake Ladoga.
When Russians think of WWII, they think of responsibility in the face of tremendous brutality and overcoming that brutality and salvaging their freedom. Another important aspect of the war for the Soviets that was never in my history classes in the US was that the Soviets were fighting to prevent the genocide of their people and the colonization of their country. The stakes for the USSR were huge, much larger and more immediate than they were for their American allies.
It is true that the Soviet Union’s participation in the war, and the Cold War thereafter, was depicted as a struggle against a world-wide enemy, with the goal of spreading communism once that goal is accomplished. However, Americans should understand that World War II was, for the Soviets, a struggle against a force that would have absorbed and exterminated them. The Soviets were fighting for their lives and liberty, they were relying on perseverance and self-reliance to do so. These are all ideas that parallel those that form the basis of American identity. We fought WWII together. While the Russian memory of the war is much stronger than the American, the reasons for this are quite evident and understandable: the Soviets fought on their own soil and the whole population experienced the full and immediate horror of war together. Understanding this, as well as how the values reflected in these different cultures are, in fact, shared between us, should be able to bring the U.S. and Russia closer together.
While these things seem obvious to me know, I’m not sure that I would have learned them without actually having physically crossed the geographic and cultural distance that separates the US and Russia. I’m grateful for my study abroad experience, however short it was, and what it taught me about Russia, history, identity, and how cultures that seem so different can understand each other and show compassion to each other when given the chance to meet face to face.