The Russians are celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany this weekend. It is fair to say that in that defeat the Soviet Union did the lion’s share of the fighting, the Soviets suffering more than twenty million war dead. For all their heroism and suffering , the Soviets were still enslaved to a tyranny just as bad as the Third Reich, with that system now extended throughout Eastern Europe. This cold fact is why Churchill entitled the final volume in his World War II history: Triumph and Tragedy.
The clip from the film Alexander Nevsky at the beginning of this post underlines the tragedy for the Russian people of World War II. A true work of genius by Sergei Eisenstein, who somehow pulled off the feat of making a film about an Orthodox Saint, an aristocratic Prince and pillar of the Church, and ladling it with Communist and anti-religious propaganda, and yet having the final result not be laughably absurd. The film was among the first efforts of Stalin to rally traditional Russian patriotism against the looming threat of Nazi Germany. Poor Eisenstein found himself in the doghouse soon after the release of the film due to the Nazi-Soviet pact. After the onset of Operation Barbarossa, the film was once again released and played to packed houses throughout the war. The Russian rallying song in the film was composed by Sergei Prokofiev. The lyrics roughly translated are :
Arise, ye Russian people,
to glorious battle, to a battle to the death:
arise, ye free people,
to defend our beloved country!
All honour to the warriors who live,
and eternal glory to those slain!
For our native home, our Russian land,
arise, ye Russian people!
Needless to say talking about a free people in Stalinist Russia must have struck many of the listeners as an example of black humor.
However, Stalin was onto something. Most Russians, not to mention Ukrainians and the other subject nationalities, were ready to greet as liberators virtually any invading army to free them from their Communist oppressors. In one of the great tragedies of history they were invaded by an army all too eager to slaughter them as untermensch, fit only to be killed or to be slaves. Appealing to traditional Russian patriotism, Stalin rallied the nation to fight. Stalin understood this. He remarked to a British diplomat while reviewing Russian troops marching off to the front. “We are not so fond as to think they perform these miracles for us, but for Holy Mother Russia.”
That of course is why Stalin also enlisted the aid of the Russian Orthodox Church which he had done his best to obliterate. He made a joint radio address with the Metropolitan of Moscow appealing for resistance to the invaders and reopened some of the churches the Communists had closed. The Orthodox responded with enthusiasm, preaching a crusade against Nazi Germany and raising funds to equip an armored division which fought under the Orthodox banner. Russian grandmothers and mothers, from the start of the war, sent off their men to serve in an atheist army with crosses around their necks, even if the crosses consisted of two nails twisted together. The irony of Stalin, a Communist Georgian atheist, being saved by traditional Russian patriotism and religious fervor is richly self-evident. Here is a rendition of the Arise Ye Russian People sans movie: