To Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians, few historical events loom as large as World War II. One would be hard-pressed to find an Eastern Slav who doesn’t have some relative who fought in the war, died in a war or lost something to the war. Many Eastern European cities still have lasting scars.
I grew up in St. Petersburg, a city that survived the nearly 900-day Siege of Leningrad, where over a million people perished from bombings, disease and starvation. A ring of mass graves around the city’s former outskirts serves as a lasting reminder of the sheer scale of the toll. My grandmother on my mom’s side was only 6 when the Siege happened, and she lived through the first year before she was evacuated.
Grandma Nina never sugarcoated the realities of the war.
“One winter day, I was playing in the yard when a young couple approached me,” she told me. I couldn’t have been older than 9. “They said, ‘Little girl, would you like some candy?’ But I knew better. There was no candy during the Siege. So I ran into my building as quickly as my little legs would carry me. And it’s a good thing I did — otherwise, I would’ve gotten eaten.”
Grandma Nina wasn’t my only connection to the war. Three of my great-grandfathers served in the military, in some capacity or another. My Belarusian grandfather and his sister (also named Nina) lived through the Nazi occupation of what is now Belarus. Even the relatives who barely saw any fighting have war-related memories.
When I was a kid, there was a lot of emphasis on the toll the war took, how we must remember this toll because we must never allow anything like that again. But I feel like something shifted in the last 20 years, as members of my great-grandparents’ generation, and even older members of my grandparents’ generation, died of natural causes in growing numbers.
There was less talk about pain and suffering, and more emphasis on the glorious Red Army heroically overcoming odds and triumphing over Nazis. Talking about some of the harsh realities of the war suddenly became controversial.
When I was growing up, calling someone a Nazi was about the worst thing one could do to another person. Our teachers told us to use the word carefully because “words have meanings.” But whatever restraint there was seems to have completely evaporated.
In 2014, when Russia encouraged separatists in the Donbass region and the war broke out, Russians and Ukrainians accused each other of being Nazis. It wasn’t that unusual to see social media posts and news segments where World War II veterans encouraged their grandchildren to fight against Nazi invaders. Aside from the language and national signifiers, they sounded practically identical.
Now, as the long-simmering conflict erupted into a full-fledged war, the Nazi labels flew with renewed vigor. The Russian government quickly positioned the “special operation” as “denazification” of Ukraine, and as the attacks intensified, Ukrainians were quick to call Russians Nazis.
Of course, what’s different this time is the sheer scale and devastation of the attacks. When I saw photos of people huddled in Kyiv and Kharkiv subways to escape the bombings, I immediately thought of people hiding from Nazi bombings of Moscow. When I read about Mariupol getting encircled by the Russian army, its besieged residents huddled in the cold, it’s hard not to think about Grandma Nina talking about burning everything there was to burn in the house just to stay warm. When I see families fleeing west, I think of Grandpa Gena talking about how he was only 5 years old when his family tried, and failed, to outrun the Nazi advance.
“When the war started, my dad went off to serve, so it was just me, my mom, my older brother, Nikolay, and my younger sister Nina,” he told me. “I remember when we were trying to flee, my mom carried Nina in her arms, while I ran with her.”
I was taught to be careful about using the word “Nazi,” and I’m not going to stop now. But when one gets that kind of association … I know it makes at least some Russians pause. A couple of days ago, I saw a photo of a flier somebody put up in St. Petersburg. “A city that survived the Siege is against the war!” But so far there is also plenty of support, including from some of the people who were kids during World War II.
This war will end someday. Kyiv, which was shelled during World War II, will rise again, just like it did last time. And the scars of war will linger.
Maybe this time, the generations to come will not so easily lose sight of the toll the war takes.
Maybe this time, Russians won’t need a personal connection to understand the horror the war inflicts.
Igor Studenkov is a Chicago resident and regular contributor to Wednesday Journal.