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Putin Is Trying to Take Over Russia's Memories of WWII

Here's why he can't


My grandmother Khinya is not a sentimental woman. But last July 4, she shocked my mother, her daughter-in-law, when she suddenly poured out her memories of that day when she, a girl of 11 living in Zhitomir, Ukraine, fled with her family in a freight train full of the wounded to Kiev, then to Kharkov, then onto a collective farm in Kazakhstan to escape the blitzkrieg, which, in her memory, appeared as planes swooping low and strafing people in the streets as she hid in the bushes. Her grandmother and pregnant aunt refused to travel, and she never saw them again. (Later, a Russian neighbor said that, when the Germans rounded up the Jews and began to shoot them, her aunt went into labor.) She told my mother that she relived this horror every July 4, quietly and unassumingly, as is her way.

My mother’s mother Emma had just turned seven when her family had to flee Moscow in October of 1941 as the Germans got closer and closer to the Soviet capital. Her father, as lackadaisical as she is, grabbed some of their summer clothes and the family took off for Siberia. On the cab ride to the train station, she remembers her father railing against Stalin and Molotov for failing to prevent this calamity. When Emma’s family got to Siberia, she and her brother rarely saw their father, an aeronautical engineer, who had to work round the clock in a hastily assembled factory churning out planes for the war. Their mother, a pediatrician, was conscripted by the NKVD to work as a doctor outside Novosibirsk, where she and Emma lived behind barbed wire. To this day, my grandmother recalls walking in the snow on the side of the road as a gray mass of prisoners, surrounded by guards and dogs, marched in silence past her.

They were cold, hungry years. Khinya’s husband, my late grandfather Yakov, also survived because his family was evacuated east. He once told me how his mother set up a potato patch near their hut out in Siberia. My grandfather, a boy in his early teens, was given an old rifle and told to guard the precious underground harvest. One day, a starving woman showed up with her young, starving son. She held a stick with a metal shard attached to the end, and she started to dig for my great-grandmother’s potatoes. My grandfather, not knowing what to do, began to yell at her to stop, and the woman hit him with the stick, cutting his forehead.

Seventy years later, these memories are still fresh not just in the survivors, but in Soviet families now scattered all over the world. They are so integral, so imbedded in our family histories that they often float to the surface of conversation among even us, their grandchildren, like bubbles. Once, at a dinner party in Moscow, a woman my age joked about how she should be ashamed for not finishing her food: her grandmother had survived the nearly three-year siege of Leningrad, when over a million people starved to death in the city. Then she told a story about how her grandmother, then a little girl, was invited over to her neighbors’ apartment for lunch. She didn’t much like those neighbors, so she didn’t go. It was a good thing, because a few days later, a boy from the building had disappeared. The neighbors, it turned out, had eaten him.

This year, once again, the center of Moscow will be shut down as a military parade rumbles through Red Square and past a very serious Vladimir Putin. Ostensibly, it is to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the day when the Germans formally surrendered to the Soviets in Berlin. But the parade, now an annual affair, with its planes and its tanks and its trucks pulling intercontinental ballistic missiles through the city has become a cornerstone of Putinism, a way to bind the country with the only thing that its citizens still have in common.

This year, the day has become even more politicized. The orange and black ribbons that once held the medal commemorating victory in the war are now a symbol of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and of Putinists in Russia. There will be a victory parade in freshly annexed Crimea, too. Victory in the Great Patriotic War, as it’s known in Russia, has been used to justify the annexation of Crimea and to fight opposition to Putin at home. The war has somehow become Putin’s personal possession, the victory—his personal achievement.

This year, the holiday is even harder to celebrate for those that support neither Putin nor his foreign policy, but, unlike Putin, lived through it all. It is, after all, their memories of the war that make up the history of those bloody, hungry years; they are the bright and morbid pixels in the larger, increasingly manipulated picture.

It wasn’t till Ukraine was liberated in 1944 that Emma found out what had happened to her cousins Polina, Lyuba, and Zhenya. They had been buried alive, along with their parents, when the Germans got to their town and cleared out all the Jews. Emma lost a lot of older cousins in the war, and not all to the Holocaust. Her cousin Vova, barely out of his teens, died in a tank outside of Kursk. His elder sister Katya stayed and worked in Moscow, and died of pneumonia at 23. There was Simon, the only son of aging parents, who never came back from the front. There was cousin Tsilya’s dashing young husband who was taken prisoner and died in a concentration camp in Poland. One of his fellow inmates later told Tsilya that he had tried to escape three times. The last time, they shot him. There was Grisha Yampolsky, the artillery officer who got the coveted safe spot outside Moscow even as the front moved west, but died in a stupid accident during training, in January 1945. Emma happened to be there when the officer arrived to tell his mother Chana, on whose floor my grandmother’s now homeless family was staying. “She turned pale, lay down on her bed and turned to the wall,” Emma recalled. “She never got up again.” Chana died a few months later.

Khinya lost even more relatives, as they were all Jews concentrated in Western Ukraine. “Twenty people at least,” she says. Time has made her lose count. She tells the story of an uncle who sent his wife and two kids to a neighboring village to hide out. In 1943, he came home from the front to check on them, and found out that they, like all the other Jews in town, had been killed. He told a neighbor he had nothing left to live for but revenge. He didn’t make it through the war.

Yakov lost his older brother, Samuel, who burned up in a tank at 19. Brocha, their mother, was a pediatrician and a religious woman who had attended the Bais Yaakov school in Minsk before the Revolution. She managed to keep kosher and the Jewish holidays even in the militantly secular Soviet Union, but when she lost her son, she also lost her faith in a god who could not save her firstborn, not for all the children that she had saved.

When my father was in college and Khinya found out that his friends called him “Monya” rather than Mikhail, she was spooked and angry: Samuel’s nickname had been Monya. It was bad luck, though my father was named for Khinya’s father, Moses, who went to fight even though he was already in his forties, and lost part of his foot in the battle for Kharkov.

Khinya left Russia over twenty years ago and doesn’t much care for the place. Emma still lives in Moscow and recently sold the family dacha that her father had built to replace the apartment they lost in the war. When she was a young woman, Emma ran with the dissidents and hid samizdat in her underwear drawer. She was up on the barricades in 1991, and then again in 1993. She says she cried when Putin was elected in 2000 because how could a country just ten years out of the Soviet horror elect a KGB colonel? Nearly 80, she still goes to the anti-Putin protests in town. She can wind herself up to heart-attack levels of stress talking about the abuses and cruelty of his government. But for all her antipathy toward Putinism, Victory Day is a big day for her.

“We were waiting for it, day in, day out,” Emma told me when I Skyped her yesterday. “It wasn’t unexpected like June,” when the Germans invaded, in 1941. By the end of the war, she and her brother and their parents were crashing with Chana, though later they would live in the unused morgue at a POW camp outside Moscow where her mother worked as a doctor. (Just when my grandmother started to feel bad for the prisoners, her mother told her how one of the inmates had hissed “Jude” at her from behind the barbed wire.)

In the spring of 1945, Emma, now 10, her brother Tolya, and the other children would listen to Yuri Levitan, the famous Soviet radio anchor, announce the cities that the Soviets had retaken. They would cheer for the military salute that followed each announcement. And on the night of May 8, they stayed up late into the night waiting for the announcement that Nazi Germany had surrendered.

“When it finally came, there was such joy, such tremendous joy,” Emma recalls now. By then it was May 9 in Moscow, though it was still the 8th in Berlin.

The next day, the city spilled into the streets. Emma’s uncle, Grisha Goldberg, had come back from the war without one of his legs—he had lost it trying to take the city of Velikie Luki in Russia’s northwest—but he had managed to make a baby daughter since his return. And so with Grisha on crutches and the new baby in her stroller, the whole family made their way to Red Square, where a projector had beamed Stalin’s face onto the side of a neighboring building. “I was just on the edge of the Red Square because it was so packed,” Emma recalls, beaming. “People were dancing, playing harmonicas. They were so happy.” The death and deprivation and suffering they had all endured, she says, made May 9 that much happier, “because the nightmare vanished with a bang, and we thought a new, beautiful life was beginning. I wanted to sing and jump and hug everyone!”

Victory found Khinya in a bombed-out Zhitomir to which the family had returned in 1944. “At 4 a.m., one of the neighbors ran in and told us that the war had ended,” Khinya says. The next day, people would pour out into the streets of the town and celebrate—“not like people do now, grilling their kabobs” Khinya adds, clarifying that there were rations in place until 1947. “We couldn’t believe it was over.” But that was the next day. When she first heard that the war was over in those early morning hours, the first thing Khinya did was start washing the floor. “I have no idea why,” she says.

This year, as May 8 rolled into Victory Day, my Facebook stream started to fill with my Russian friends’ memories of their fathers and grandfathers, and their mothers and grandmothers, and their time in the war. (Nearly a million Soviet women, by the way, saw active duty, working as artillerists and combat pilots.) Others wrote defiant posts about how the overwhelming swarm of black-and-orange ribbons, their meaning sullied by politics, would not let Putin taint a day that is their holiday, too. Putin, after all, had nothing to do with any of it. 

Khinya doesn’t plan on celebrating. Emma is skipping the parade. “It’s a profanation,” she told me. “Why would I go to this parade? To watch the rockets being hauled around?” Instead, she’s going to see some of her girlfriends who, like her, were all kids during the war and are now sick, old women. Then, she’s going to a corner of town where people gather with guitars and sing the songs of the late dissident poet Bulat Okudzhava, who turned his time fighting in the war into gut-wrenching verse.

Perhaps they’ll sing this one, called “Omen”:

If there’s a crow up in the sky,

Looks like there will be a war.


If you want to stop the war,

First, you have to kill the crow.

But for you to kill the crow,

First, you have to load your gun.


But as soon as you start loading,

Everyone will want to shoot.

But when the shooting really starts,

Then the bullet finds its hole.


It doesn’t pity anyone,

It just want to hits someone,

Anyone, theirs or ours,

And that’s it.


And that’s it.


And that’s all:

There is no one but the crow,

No one’s left to shoot it down.