As Russia gears up to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, it’s time to remember the long-standing historical ties that have existed between Russia and the United States.
U.S. military personnel marching along Red Square during the Victory Day parade on May 9, 2010 in Moscow as Russia celebrates the 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Photo: EPA
70 years ago in May 1945, Nazism was defeated and the bloodiest war in European history ended. For most European nations, and especially for the Russian people, that war had a profound impact on national memory and its trauma is still very much alive.
Similarly, 150 years ago in May 1865, the Civil War in the U.S. ended. For a century and a half, that event remains the deepest trauma in American memory and the most important point of reference for U.S. history.
These two May anniversaries and the tragic events that surrounded them remind us also that, in those two calamities, Russia and the United States were friendly powers and allies. Indeed, during the Civil War of 1861-1865, Russia remained the only European power that openly supported the federal cause by diplomatic means, and even sent its fleet to New York harbor in 1863, while Russian public opinion was decidedly on the Northern side.
Certainly, the causes of the fleet visit were complex and included Russia’s strategic plan to keep its navy outside of the Baltics in case of a new war with England, but the inspiration that the Russian Navy caused in the United States was remarkable. Mutual sympathies were promoted by the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 and the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. in 1863 – two events that reinforced the spirit of freedom prevalent during the epoch in both countries.
80 years later, the meeting of Soviet and American soldiers on the Elbe River and the defeat of a common foe, Nazi Germany, became the symbol of another war collaboration that included many more instances of mutual support and military collaboration in 1941-1945.
That was not a rare coincident. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, U.S. public opinion supported Russia against joint European intervention and many American surgeons even hastened to Sevastopol hospitals. In fact, it was an American journalist, Januarius MacGahan, whose description of the Turkish atrocities helped Russia to gain the Europeans’ support in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. Russia and the United States were also allies in World War I and even during the War on Terror in the early 2000s.
In times of peace, the relations between the two nations were not as good. Brothers-in-arms during war, they became rivals in peace. Still, Russia (even when it was the Soviet Union) and the United States of America have never declared war on each other (the only dubious exception was the participation by U.S. troops under British command in the Entente’s intervention in the Russian civil war).
Why is that, during peacetime, the two countries gradually migrated into opposite corners of world politics?
Ideological competition, geopolitical rivalry, or the Hegelian logic of history may be offered as explanation. However, the causes are less relevant for us today than the lessons of the two centuries of relations between the two countries. History is not a curse, but it is also not a guarantee of future friendship. Moreover, the same history may be interpreted differently in order to support one or another political position during the current period of tensions.
There is a struggle for the past going on in and around Russia with its focus on World War II. The base line of the struggle is the problem of martyrdom: For what reason did 27 million Soviet people die?
The answer is not obvious in the contemporary world. More traditional is to say that the Soviet people, together with the liberal democracies of Great Britain and the United States, fought to eliminate Nazism, the worst evil in human history. According to this logic, the great alliance helped humankind to reach for a better future, despite the differences of the political organizations of the major allies.
Another interpretation is gradually gathering more supporters in the new generation of politicians: It states that World War II was essentially a fight between two evils: Nazism and Communism (in its Stalinist form). According to this second view, there was not a big difference between those two regimes, and the Red Army did not liberate Eastern and Central Europe but rather, conquered it for Communism: “Western victory was a liberating victory; Russian (Soviet) Victory was a subjugating victory.”
Surely, history is an ongoing process, and one can always question the chronology and periods. However, World War II was a joint effort to fight the most absolute evil that humankind ever knew, a regime that killed millions of innocent people and started aggressive wars. The Soviet, American, and British Armies fought together to eliminate the enemy, freeing people from the evils of Nazism.
Yes, the history of post-war Europe went in a different direction, and Soviet leaders helped to impose pro-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe. However, in no way did such a political development denigrate the fight against Nazism, the martyrdom of the Soviet people and freedom from Nazi rule.
In addition, when we look at the implications of the second view, we see that it gives the World War a purely geopolitical interpretation at the expense of the moral one: There was no more unique evil in European history, and there were at least two (or more) regimes of comparable cruelty. The war (at least on the Eastern front) was waged for dominance, not for liberation.
Strangely, this interpretation promoted by the anti-Stalinists in Europe, help the Russian Stalinists: Refusing to view the U.S.S.R. as being on the right side of an epic moral battle, it turns all the millions of Soviet dead from heroes who fought against evil into fallen martyrs spreading the influence of Soviet might.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine society ready to abandon such a huge martyrdom – it does and it will determine the value system of Russians for generations to come. However, the meaning of this martyrdom may be interpreted differently, and there is not a good option for cutting out the Soviet side from the liberation of Europe.
This year of anniversaries is full of troubles. However, let us see the longer-term perspective. The history of the U.S.-Russian relationship extends more than two centuries into the past and continues into the future. Let us work to make the future better and our mutual understanding deeper.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.