Russia and Europe, partners in war
Today we remember the day in June 1942 when Arctic convoy PQ-17 set sail from Hvalfjord, Iceland, bound for the Russian ports of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. Shortly after the 35 merchant ships and 6 naval auxiliaries entered open waters, the convoy was sighted and tracked by a U-Boat. A series of raids and attacks followed, during which 24 of the 41 ships were sunk. Only 2 British, 4 American, 1 Panamanian and 2 Russian ships managed to deliver urgent supplies to Russia’s Arctic ports.
Rest in peace, great heroes of the Great War, and may God have mercy on your souls.
At 10am, on 6th June 1944, the BBC broadcasted the following announcement by the then supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower.
People of Western Europe: a landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of the concerted United Nations plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies.
Seventy years on, the D-Day landings have been honoured with weeks of international commemorations and services, attended by heads of states, veterans and those simply paying their respects to those who fought for their country on the beaches of Normandy. Earlier this year, outside Russia, observance of the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad was more subdued.
There are several reasons for this. First, and foremost, little is known in the West about Soviet involvement in the War, as the “Iron Curtain” fell soon after victory was declared. Second, apart from the 2001 film “Enemy at the Gate” starring Jude Law, there are few English-language cultural representations of the fight on Europe’s eastern front. Finally, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, 50 years worth of negative labelling – disassociating Russia from the West, and vice versa – is widely upheld on both ends of the continent. And as such there has been little motivation to reconstruct Russia’s historic close association with its European neighbours.
Yet there are good reasons for regarding the Soviet contribution to World War Two as crucial to the Allied triumph over Nazi Germany. It was the combined assaults on both eastern and western fronts, which had the same detrimental effect on Nazi troops, as the two-fronts caging Germany during the First World War. It was a shock to me that despite all the hype around D-Day, or “Operation Overlord”, the UK media (bar Russia Beyond the Headlines) was void of any mention that two weeks later, on 22 June 1944, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration.
As journalist John Naughton points out, Operation Bagration was “the biggest Soviet offensive of the war”. With 10 times more troops than had landed on the Normandy beaches, the Red Army liberated large areas, which had been under German occupation. The Nazi forces never recovered from the losses in manpower and resources sustained from the Allied onslaught at either end of the continent. And once the Allies solved their supply chain issues, it was only a matter of time before the final push to Berlin put an end to the most devastating war Europe has ever witnessed.
Nonetheless, the commemoration of the catastrophic losses of a war we fought and won, together, as Allies, is tarred by the politics of the present. As a Wall Street Journal article conjectured the real reason behind Putin’s taking part in the D-Day ceremony, the journalist had the audacity to point out: “we don’t recall the Red Army [taking] part in D-Day”. Fortunately, this oversight was quickly admonished by one sharp reader who commented: “Are you kidding me? By June 6, 1944, the Red Army and the Soviet population had experienced nearly three years of total war: the June 21, 1941, Nazi invasion, the Babi Yar massacre, the 900-day Siege of Leningrad and the battles of Moscow, Kursk and Stalingrad.”
The problem is that what we commonly think of as “historical truth” is no more than an opinion of events shaped by government policy, collective memory and the media. And there is nobody to blame. In Russia the War continues to be at the core of national pride. We have the phrase “Second World War”, but when we refer to “the War”, we think of 22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945, “Great Patriotic War”. A war when Soviets were protecting the motherland from the Nazi invaders. Thereby this simple matter of linguistic phrasing detracts the minds of Russian citizens from the onslaught that took place beyond Soviet borders.
Western accounts often gloss over Soviet participation, let alone the excess loss of life on the eastern front. The siege of Leningrad, for example, is widely regarded by historians as one of the longest and bloodiest sieges in history. For 897 days citizens defended their city, now St. Petersburg, surviving on rationing that dropped to 125 grams per person per day of stale bread, as the fierce winter of 1941 settled in. For 2 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 5 days, the city was cut off from the rest of the country by land; it’s only life line was boating across the Ladoga Lake by ship in the summer, or trucks and lorries when frozen in the winter. What is also often forgotten is that a substantial portion of the supplies that enabled the city to survive was delivered by the British-coordinated arctic convoys for material supplies, and most importantly, fuel.
Soviet cooperation with the Allies during World War Two was the culmination of a long legacy of Russian engagement with Europe, and more specifically, Britain. Starting with Peter the Great, who is widely-regarded as having introduced European ideals into Russia, through unity in the Napoleonic Wars, to the last Tsar Nikolas II as the cousin of King George V. This was symbolised during the War when in 1943 his son, King George VI, bestowed a double-hilted sword on the citizens of Stalingrad in honour of those who fought and gave their lives in the bloody battle in southern Russia.
In the process of geopolitical gamesmanship, Operation Overlord and Bagration, the Arctic Convoys, the Siege of Leningrad, and the long term cooperation between Russia and Europe are often left out of the picture if not outright forgotten. “Official” versions blind the truth of the extent of the common experiences of the peoples on both eastern and western fronts, many of whom fought and gave up their lives, homes and futures in the common European fight against the Nazi aggressor.
So it doesn’t matter whether we commemorate the 18th January, 6th June, 22nd June, 27th June or 8th May (or for some time zones, 9th May), as long as the atrocities of the War, and its victims and heroes are not forgotten.