Monday, May 9, 2011

Victory Day


For anyone with a non-trivial connection to the old USSR or to the states that have become its heirs, today is Victory Day.

One of my grandfathers went through the whole war, was wounded, got back to the front, came home alive. Two of my great-grandparents died during the German occupation of Pochep, Russia. As a kid I used to play with my grandfather's "Victory Over Germany" medal, brushing my hands over the mustached face on the front, thinking of all the hundreds of Russian movies I'd seen about The War, imagining myself in it.

It's interesting to think about why we won and they lost. Some would tell you that Hitler's big blunder was starting his Russian campaign on June 22nd instead of a month or two earlier. A May start would have given him more time to try to take Moscow and Leningrad before the winter set in. But actually the war would have continued even if he took the capital - Stalin had plans to move the government to the Urals.

Some say that Hitler lost because of a failure to divide and rule. If he promised the Poles, the Balts, and, most importantly, the Ukrainians, independent states after the war, then perhaps more of them would have joined him in his drive against Russia. But even if he was willing to make such promises, how many would have believed him?

Prolonged all-out wars are anomalies, evidence of a miscalculation on somebody's part. It makes no sense to go to war unless you think you can quickly win. The German effort against France only lasted a few weeks because both sides quickly agreed on the vitally-important question of who was stronger.

In the Great Patriotic War the two sides did not agree. 

Even though all of my known ancestors were Jewish, I grew up immersed in Russian culture and feel that perhaps I have a little bit of an insight into it. Russians are unique in being extremely altruistic without being fussy. Going through the countryside you see terrible roads, leaning houses. A surprisingly small percentage of the fences are fully vertical. The constant need to always have everything sparkling clean, perfectly upright and by the book, which is so characteristic of Germans, is absent from the Russian character. It's actually absent from the national characters of a great majority of the Earth's peoples, including mine. But unlike this great majority, Russians are extremely altruistic in a crisis.

It's an unusual combination and not everyone picks up on it. If you frame an issue, almost any issue, in terms of selfishness vs. altruism, in terms of sticking by one's buddies when they're in trouble or abandoning them, in terms of being morally good or bad, then your average Russian will respond more altruistically than almost anybody on Earth. One can call it the Chernobyl syndrome - a lackadaisical everyday attitude occasionally leads to screw-ups which are then followed by unbelievable feats of heroism, which are later shrugged off as nothing special.

There is a cognitive dissonance here. I can easily imagine a German officer thinking "how can a country with such roads be a threat?"

Well, in many Russian minds the question of whether or not one should do one's absolute best for filthy lucre, for a wage, on a regular weekday, does not involve honor or morality or anything of the sort. And if your boss is unhappy with your work, that may well be his problem - a normal human being endowed with a soul and some empathy, someone who is not a brute or an automaton, wouldn't expect his employees to slave away for hours on end over some meaningless who-knows-what anyway. 

But the question of one's duty before a friend in real trouble, before the whole community in trouble - that does involve morality, shame, pride, etc. very directly. And unlike many other peoples, Russians are perfectly able to trust, feel loyalty to and sacrifice for entities that are much larger than extended families. If need be, this very strong altruism can be felt about hundreds of millions of people.

It seems to me that Hitler might well have misunderstood the Russian national character, and consequently underestimated Russia. He went in because he thought that Russia would have been as easy to overrun as all the other countries with bad roads. In fact it is not.

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