To Be Held Against Us – Russia’s First World War & The Process of Unforgetting

To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, Russia is trying something totally different. They are actually erecting monuments commemorating their involvement in the war. The first ever national monument for the war on Russian territory has just been dedicated in Kaliningrad. This is rather astonishing. After all, more than nine million Russian men were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoners of war. That total was greater than the entire population of such wartime belligerent nations such as Canada, Australia, Serbia, Romania and Belgium. Despite their suffering, Russian soldiers did not get a single national monument to memorialize their sacrifice.  This was a direct result of the Russian Revolution and creation of the Soviet Union which followed. The Bolsheviks would not allow any commemoration of the conflict which they termed a capitalist war. Conveniently they ignored the fact that the war caused dissension, bitterness, political upheaval and starvation which led directly to the Revolution.

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

Held Against Us – The Russian World War I Experience
How the Russian experience of the war would be viewed was accurately predicted by at least one officer during the conflict. In the dark days of December 1916, just months before the first revolution took place, a Russian General told his soldiers, “I have a feeling that, after all this is over, we are not going to be thanked for all the hardships and privations which we are going through now. Rather, that this is all going to be held against us.” Those words predicted both the immediate and long term remembrance of the First World War in Russia.

As Catherine Merridale states in her classic work Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia, “It (World War I) shaped the way even the revolutionaries saw their world, colored their view of death, brought millions of their future subjects into contact with violence and fear for three long years before they came to power and brought it to an end. It claimed not tens, but millions of lives. Because it was not commemorated after 1917, however, it vanished from the Bolshevik foundation myth. Few stories illustrate the power of social memory more clearly. There is no Soviet National Monument to the First World War.” The vast and dramatic effect of the war on Russia and what would become the Soviet Union are not in dispute. It is hard to imagine that without the cataclysm of World War I, Russia would have had the type of revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Russia may well have had a revolution anyway, just not one that would turn out to be as radical and deadly. The war had set the precedent for what was to come.

Russian Troops marching toward the front - gone and nearly forgotten

Russian Troops marching toward the front at the start of World War I – gone and nearly forgotten

Konigsberg to Kaliningrad – The Prize & Price of War
It is fascinating that the first Russian national monument to the war has now been placed in Kaliningrad (Konigsberg, East Prussia during the war). Ironically this was a place the Russians were never able to occupy during the war. Early on, they attempted to besiege the city, but their effort was short lived. The Battle of Tannenburg further to the south destroyed the entire Russian Second Army. The First Army, which was given the job of investing Konigsberg then found itself in a fight for its existence. It soon gave up a siege which had barely begun. Soon the Second Army lost the First Battle of Masurian Lakes, causing a Russian retreat from Prussian soil. They would not return again until exactly 30 years later, now as the Soviet Army, during one of the final campaigns of World War II. Once again they found themselves on Prussian ground and this time they made sure it was the last. Within a year of their arrival, Prussia ceased to exist. Konigsberg was soon renamed Kaliningrad. Even after the Soviet Union crumbled, the Russians kept this exclave of territory as a lasting prize from the Second World War. Konigsberg had been the seat of power for Prussian kings throughout the centuries. It was said to be the heart of Prussian militarism, a scourge that had scarred Russia and the Soviet Union badly in each of the two wars. By imposing Soviet style communism on it, they eradicated nearly every lasting vestige of its former Prussian self.

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral - Kaliningrad looms in the distance

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral – Kaliningrad looms in the distance

The Process of Un-Forgetting
The brand new, eleven meter high monument in Kaliningrad now stands as a testament to both the various groups who sacrificed so much during the war and also a process of un-forgetting that is slowly taking place. Three soldiers are portrayed: a nobleman officer, a peasant and a third who represents governmental workers and lower court officials. It suggests commonality, a shared unity among all three groups that must have been present to a greater or lesser degree throughout the first two and a half years of the war. That unity eventually frayed as the empire suffered one catastrophe after another. It is hard to imagine how any other state could have stayed together under the circumstances. Considering the millions of lost lives, it is even harder to imagine how it lasted as long as it did. The eleven meter high monument is one of several that will be dedicated this summer. The piece de resistance will be unveiled this August in Moscow. These monuments can never make up for lost time, but at least do a bit of justice to the memory of millions who lost their lives.

A Temporary Form of Insanity: Viktor Ilyin & the Attempted Assassination of Leonid Brezhnev

It was freezing cold in Moscow on January 22, 1969. The long, hard Russian winter was at its peak. Just outside the gates of the Kremlin a crowd of people stood in the bone chilling cold. They were waiting for the arrival of a motorcade carrying Soviet cosmonauts who had just completed the first ever manned to manned docking of space vehicles in history. The cosmonauts would be traveling from the airport to the Kremlin for a ceremony celebrating their achievement. In the early afternoon, as the sun began its slow descent toward the horizon, the motorcade suddenly appeared. It was supposed to include not only the cosmonauts, but also the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev. Standard operating procedure was for Brezhnev’s vehicle to be the second in line. This time though, the second car, a black Zil limousine was filled with cosmonauts.

Borovitsky Gate - one of the entrances to the Kremlin

Borovitsky Gate – one of the entrances to the Kremlin

Guns in Both Hands
Standing just outside the Kremlin walls, at the Borovitsky gate, was a man dressed in a policeman’s uniform. The man’s name was Viktor Ilyin. He had been in the area for over an hour, figuring out the best place to stand. Strangely, the uniform he wore was a summer one. He must have been freezing. As the cars began to pass, Ilyin suddenly pulled out two Makarov pistols, with one in each hand he let lose a stream of gunfire. The second car was his intended target. Its driver was killed almost instantly, several other passengers were wounded. Reports say that somewhere between eight and sixteen shots were fired. None of these came anywhere near the intended target, Brezhnev was not in the vehicle. His car had taken a different gate into the Kremlin. Ilyin’s shooting spree had done quite a bit of damage, but not to the man he wished to assassinate. A guard on a motorcycle spotted the assassin and ran him down. Ilyin then proceeded to have a seizure. The incident was over in a matter of minutes.

A photo of the Brezhnev assassination attempt made just seconds after it happened

A photo of the Brezhnev assassination attempt made just seconds after it happened

A Monopoly On Violence
One barely noticed, but notable aspect in the history of the Soviet Union was that none of its leaders was ever assassinated. Despite the Soviet state’s history of violence and suppression (or perhaps because of it) every one of its leaders died of natural causes. The lack of an assassination may have been largely due to the fact that the state had a monopoly on violence. For instance, during the period of Stalin’s rule, when state controlled terror was rampant, tens of millions of Soviet citizens were killed. Conversely, there was only one known assassination attempt on Stalin that came even remotely close.

Some of the most dangerous times for the seven men who led the Soviet Union took place in the years before they gained supreme power. The tsarist regime imprisoned or exiled both Lenin and Stalin. A more energetic state security apparatus would never have allowed either of them to see the light of day again. Especially after multiple arrests for conspiracies to overthrow the government. Rather than receiving the death penalty (as Lenin’s brother did) they were shipped off, either to Siberia or forced into foreign exile. Lenin was almost assassinated after he came to power in the chaotic early years following the revolution. A 1918 attempt by a female socialist came close, but failed. Khrushchev and Brezhnev escaped Stalin’s purges by helping carry them out. In this way, they saved themselves from the fate of thousands of other fellow Communist Party members. Andropov and Chernenko also managed to avoid the various Stalinist purges during their early years in politics. As for Gorbachev, he came late enough to the scene that the worse excesses of the system were a memory.

Leonid Brezhnev - the target (Credit: Bundearchiv)

Leonid Brezhnev – the target (Credit: Bundearchiv)

The Limits of Dissent
It seems that a state such as the Soviet Union would have executed anyone who had attempted an assassination of its leader. This would certainly have been true during Lenin and Stalin’s time, but by the time Brezhnev had come to power the system of repression was more benign. The state now committed dissidents to mental institutions. This would be Ilyin’s fate. Only a few hours after his attempt on Brezhnev’s life, Ilyin was interviewed by the head of the KGB and future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. The upshot of Andropov’s interrogation was that Ilyin was declared insane. Whether Ilyin was insane or not is open to question yet he did have a logical line of reasoning that supported his action. He had been conscripted into the Soviet army against his will in 1968. That same year Brezhnev made the decision to send Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring and voices calling for greater freedoms. Ilyin vehemently disagreed with this decision. He ended up deserting the Soviet army, then then making his way from St. Petersburg to Moscow where he would carry out the assassination attempt.

A Temporary Form of Insanity
Whether or not Ilyin’s attempt on the life of Brezhnev was insane is subjective, but one of his ideas was definitely crazy. Ilyin believed that once Brezhnev was dead, that he, Viktor Ilyin, would lead a new moderate government. Obviously this never occurred. Instead he was sentenced to twenty years of solitary confinement in a mental asylum. In 1990, a Supreme Court ruling took place in Ilyin’s bed chamber, he was soon a free man. He is still alive today, living in a small flat in his hometown of St. Petersburg. The apartment was provided by the government since Ilyin is considered disabled. He also receives a small pension. His situation today is so normal that it almost defies believability.

How can a man who tried to murder one of the most powerful people in the world, the leader of the world’s prime totalitarian state at the time, eventually be set free? Many people disappeared in the Soviet Union for lesser crimes, even during Brezhnev’s day. Chalk up Ilyin gaining his freedom to the insanity plea. Also by 1990 the Soviet state was much milder due to Gorbachev’s reforms. Ilyin may or may not have been insane, perhaps it was temporary. The truly insane thing is that Viktor Ilyin became a free man and would outlive not only his oppressors, but also the oppressive Soviet state.