On May 2, 1945, the Red Army raised the banner of victory over Berlin’s Reichstag after the fall of the German capital. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker less than 48 hours before. He had slaughtered 25 million of the Soviet Union’s people to wipe out the “Judeo Bolshevik menace” once and for all, yet failed to break them. After the most titanic, nightmarish war in modern history, after rivers of blood shed from Kiev to Moscow, from Stalingrad to Kursk, the workers and farmers of the Soviet Union had vanquished the most vile killing machine the world had yet seen.
Stalin was eager to exploit the symbolism of storming the Reichstag, the symbolic heart of German power, in time for May Day, and have the red banner waving from the top of the building as a great propaganda victory. The Red Army waged a ferocious battle with fanatical SS die-hards to seize the building.
The first Red Army soldier to scale the Reichstag and raise the flag on top of it was not a Russian but a Kazakh by the name of Rakhimzhan Koshkarbayev, who scaled the Reichstag on April 30.1 However, it was not suitable for a propaganda photograph because it was too late at night. In addition, the building had not been fully secured from the enemy and the flag was taken down by German soldiers the next day. The day after, the last Nazis had finally been cleared from the building, the flag was raised once again and photographed. Accounts differ, but according to the photographer himself the man who raised the flag was a 18 year old Russian soldier from Kazakhstan named Aleksey Kovalev. He was assisted by two other soldiers, a Muslim soldier named Abdulraham Ismailov from Dagestan in the Caucasus, and Leonid Gorychev, from Minsk in Belarus.2
The photographer was Yevgeny Khaldei, a Ukrainian Jewish Soviet naval officer. His father and three of his sisters had been murdered by the Nazis during the war-only his mother survived the war. He was from Donetsk in the Donbass, the coal mining hub of eastern Ukraine, in many ways the West Virginia of the USSR. The young man who raised the red banner went on to live in Kiev for much of the rest of his life, where he served in the Kiev Fire Department, and is buried there.
They were Ukrainians. They were Russians. They were Soviets. They were all these things.
The iconic photograph became the symbol of the Red Army’s ultimate triumph over Nazism.
Exactly 69 years later, on that very exact day, the fascist enemy re-emerged on the soil of the former Soviet Union. War was declared on Russia, the peoples of the former Soviet Union, and on all socialists and trade unionists everywhere in the world. It happened on May 2, 2014.
On that date, in the Russian speaking majority city of Odessa in Ukraine, pro Russian demonstrators, socialists, Communists and trade unionists took to the streets demonstrating against the new Ukrainian ultranationalist government in Kiev, which had taken power in Euromaidan coup against the Ukrainian President Yanukovych a little over two months earlier.
They were rejecting moves to pass laws discriminating against the Russian language, criminalizing Ukraine’s Communist Party, and laws honoring Ukrainian fascists who had collaborated with the Nazis as national heroes. Chief amongst these “heroes” being Stepan Bandera, the aspiring little Ukrainian Hitler whose forces participated in the Babi Yar massacre and Lvov Pogrom against the Jews alongside the Nazi SS, and also committed genocide against 50-100,000 Poles in Galicia and Volhynia.
The demonstrators were viciously attacked by a mob of armed neo-Nazi thugs of Right Sector. They were driven into the old Soviet Trades Union building by the mob. The building was set on fire by Molotov cocktails wielded by the Nazis. People who attempted to flee the burning building were gunned down or clubbed to death. When the embers burned out, the fascists moved in and finished off those who may have still been alive, eliminating the survivors execution style. At least 46 were dead and hundreds wounded. The dead included a pregnant woman who was strangled to death with steel wire, and the youngest victim was a 17 year old boy who was a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party’s Youth League.3
Ukraine’s then acting, later elected President Poroshenko appointed Ihor Palytsia, one of the ultra nationalists who had led the mob, acting governor of Odessa only four days after the massacre. The message was clear- in the new post 2014 Ukraine, Nazis could murder, torture, and rape with impunity. They would not be punished. They would be the law.
This massacre barely registered in the West. It was described blandly in the U.S. and Western European media as the ‘Odessa clashes’ in which both sides were equally at fault. This despite the fact that neo Nazi Right Sector proudly took responsibility for the murders on its own website and praised the perpetrators of the killings as heroes.
In the 21st century, open unabashed Nazis spilled blood the day after May Day, in a house of the working class, in broad daylight. The lack of punishment, consequences or even condemnation for this outrage only made the vile monster hungrier. It had tasted blood now and from here on out, its appetite would only increase.
The lines of battle were drawn.
Just nine days after this atrocity, the people of Ukraine’s industrial coal country of the Donbass, centered around Donetsk(the photographer Yevgeny Khaldei’s hometown) voted to secede from the Ukrainian state. The miners, the working class backbone of eastern Ukraine, took a stand against the reemerging Nazi menace. The people of Donetsk and Luhansk wanted no part in a state where people would be burned alive by fascists for speaking Russian, for being Communists or taking pride in their Soviet past. Like their ancestors had, they took up arms against the swastika.
The fascists mobilized for their counterattack. For eight years- 2014 to 2022- the people of the Donbass were besieged by the Ukrainian military and neo Nazi paramilitaries. They were bombed, they were shelled, they were terrorized and yet they did not bend, they did not break, they did not give in.4 A popular front mobilized to defend the Donbass consisting of Slavic nationalists and Communists alike. Not only ethnic Russians but numerous other peoples- anti fascist Ukrainians, Cossacks, Ossetians, Abkhazians, Chechens, Georgians, Siberians, Spanish communist internationalist volunteers, even Afghans who had supported the pro Soviet communist Afghan government.
Thirteen to fourteen thousand people in the Donbass died in those eight years. Including hundreds of children. No marches. No petitions. No 24/7 trembling proclamations of incredulous outrage on CNN or MSNBC or the New York Times. Not a mumbling word from the ‘civilized’ liberal West, worse, Obama and Biden alike legitimized the Kiev government and armed the fascist killers. Even many Western ‘socialists’ essentially yawned.
Only when the Russian Army, at long last, came to the aid of the Donbass on February 24, 2022, was Western liberal and ‘leftist’ opinion awakened. Only then did we see volcanic indignation. The last to wake up, they will be the first to go back to sleep, when their tech oligarch masters and social media “thought leaders” instruct them to.
Today, this war continues. In the ruins of Mauripol, in the open Ukrainian plains, in the hills of the Donbass. Russian soldiers, Chechen auxiliaries, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians alike die by the thousands as we speak, and Ukrainians witness the destruction of their country as it becomes a battleground between Russia and NATO in the opening salvos of a new Great Power conflict. Russia and their allies in Ukraine have resolved that the Right Sector and Azov Battalion Nazis must be pounded into the dust. The lynchers of Roma, the torturers and rapists of Russian women and children, the architects of genocide and hatred who spent nearly a decade terrorizing the people of the Donbass like wild beasts, cannot be permitted to be their neighbors. And NATO is equally determined to arm these fascists to the teeth, to effectively use all of Ukraine as a human shield for its Great Game of advancing NATO’s eastern flank. This war will not end until one side or the other breaks.5
As heinous as this war is, and whatever criticisms one can make of Russia’s conduct of it, it must be said- Russia did NOT start this conflict. No resolution of the war is possible without an honest reckoning with this fact.
One anticipates all the programmed responses- but Putin is bad. Putin is a monster, Putin is a war criminal, Putin is insane. Putin threatens democracy and freedom and European civilization.
No one wants to be seen as championing an invasion by a stronger country by a weaker one. Yet the history of the USSR reveals that barely more than 30 years ago it was all one country. Being a Russian or a Ukrainian, a Belarussian or a Kazakh, was akin to being a Texan or a Californian, a Michigander or a Virginian. What appears superficially as one nation invading another country is in fact more akin to a civil war- one side of Ukraine identifies as the descendants of those who fought in the Red Army against fascism, while another identifies with those who fought on the side of fascism. NATO is backing one side of this civil war, and Russia is backing the other. The miners of Donetsk represent one pole, and Bandera loving Nazis of Lvov represents the other. And most of Ukrainians are stuck in a hellish battleground between these two different poles. And it is telling which side the Western establishment has chosen.
This is not about this or that leader. It is not about Vladimir Putin’s mind or personal psychology. It is not about the admittedly many flaws, injustices and yes crimes of the current Russian state.
It’s about the Russian nation and the Russian people . And between two warring sides of the Ukrainian people. As well as numerous other countries of the former USSR which have been impacted by the same history(particularly Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, etc). Virtually every family was impacted by the war. Every major city is full of monuments and memorials to the dead. The Great Patriotic War is more than merely another historical event. It is, quite literally, at the very core of the Russian and eastern Ukrainian people’s identities. It was a war in which had they not prevailed, their nations would have literally ceased to exist- they would have either been dead, or slaves of the Fascists. China also has a similar collective memory of its brutal struggle against Japanese fascism in the same world war, with unknown millions giving their lives as well.
The broad masses of these countries know, in their bones, that fascism came within a hair’s breadth of annihilating them as a people. Generation after generation has passed on the message- remember what your ancestors did. Never forget. Never. And never allow it to happen again. Russia and China are the two leading anti fascist powers in the world, since that struggle is foundational to their modern identity.
The West flatters itself too much, and tells fairy tales about how they slew the Axis on their own. Endless brainless and stupid films, video games and Netflix series reinforce this nonsense. The reality is, the Nazi and Imperial Japanese monsters were poised to devour the Earth, only to bash their brains out against the hard rocks of the great Eurasian fortress presented to them by the Soviet Union and China. Had the Axis captured Eurasia’s vast pools of hundreds of millions of people as slave labor, seized their oil, gas, agriculture, and wheat, seized their coal and iron and uranium, Hitler and Hirohito would have ruled the globe. Britain and yes, the United States would have been swallowed. It is insane how this elemental fact is ignored.
Had these people of the former USSR and China not made this sacrifice, we’d ALL be living under the swastika and the Rising Sun. It quite literally decided the fate of all humanity.
And yet neither country gets respect from Western governments and elites in the subsequent 80 years. What they got, and continue to get, is decades of Cold War, arms race, hostility, relentless demonization, and most insultingly- constant equations between their societies and Fascism in popular Western discourse, even by the so called intelligentsia.
Russia(and China) is tired of the insults. Tired of the ingratitude. Tired of the hypocrisy.
The fact is, for all the U.S./European liberal intelligentsia’s pontification about ‘totalitarianism’, of equating Communism with fascism, the reality is that since 1945, the real unholy alliance has been between liberal ‘democracies’ and fascism.
The greatest American President of the last century, Franklin D. Roosevelt, hoped to turn the wartime alliance with Stalin against the Axis into an enduring framework for a peaceful post war global order. There were even plans for the Soviet Union to be a recipient of Marshall Plan aid after the war to help them rebuild.6
Alas, FDR died right before the hour of final victory. And a sinister shift occurred at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Harry S Truman, representative of the more hardline, anti communist and pro business factions of the American elite, took over the Democratic Party. He and his allies decided on a course of confrontation instead of cooperation with the USSR. McCarthyism ushered in a new intolerant climate domestically, to purge American society of all elements that might have supported peace and cooperation with the USSR.
Due to the Cold War, an Iron Curtain descended not only over Europe, but the narrative about the Second World War. The Soviet and also Chinese contributions to the Allied victory could not be honored or acknowledged in the West in any way because that interfered with the consensus that these peoples were now “the enemy”. A revisionism prevailed whereby the Western Allies were the sole authors of the victory over the Axis, while Communism was simply another form of ‘totalitarianism’ equivalent to, and in some ways actually worse than the Nazis.
But even more ugly, the remnants of the defeated Nazi regime merged into the emerging CIA, beginning with the Gehlen Organization. In its global war to vanquish the Communist menace, the American intelligence apparatus recruited over 1,000 former Nazis from the Wermacht, SS, and Gestapo to assist with collecting information against the Soviet enemy and planning insurgency and counter insurgency operations. For these enlisted fascists, they were continuing the same war against the ‘Judeo Bolshevik’ menace that had started in 1941- they were simply working for a different boss.7
A new war to contain and destroy the communist enemy began, directed from Langley, Virginia instead of Berlin. One of its first major operations in 1949 was the CIA arming and supplying Bandera’s Nazis in western Ukraine, who were still waging an insurgency against the Soviet state. Thousands of Soviet soldiers and police died up into the 1950’s, when Bandera finally fled to West Germany for refuge, only to be assassinated by the KGB.8 When the CIA failed to directly destabilize the USSR on its home turf, they began a campaign to choke off the Soviets from international allies in the Third World. Scorch the earth around it, and gradually starve the Bolshevik redoubt economically until it crumbled from within.
As documented by Vincent Bevins in ‘The Jakarta Method’, this was a systematic global campaign to wipe out communist and leftist movements worldwide to ensure the preeminence of the U.S. dominated global capitalist system. In South Korea, Guatemala, El Salvador, Iraq, Vietnam, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and most spectacularly Indonesia, fascist death squads armed, trained and directed by the CIA killed and tortured millions of communists to prevent the Third World from aligning with the Soviet Bloc and China. Over a million butchered in Indonesia alone, 200,000 in Guatemala, 200,000 in South Korea, 60,000 across South America in Operation Condor in the 1970’s and 80’s.
While much of the general population was ignorant of these crimes, the liberal elite, especially those in the educated upper classes were aware of them, and embraced it as necessary for the survival of their ideal society. When Suharto mass murdered the Indonesian Communist Party and its sympathizers out of existence, the New York Times proudly proclaimed that this event was “a gleam of light in Asia”. Liberalism is fine with breaking some eggs to build their omelet, as long as they can outsource the violence elsewhere. The rapists and the torturers can do their nasty work to the wretched of the Earth, and they can imagine their souls are pure.9
And so it continues to this day, with the New York Times readers with their BLM flags and pronouns in their online profiles, cheering for the triumph of the Azov Nazis for ‘democracy’.
American liberalism has thus retained a double character since World War II- liberal freedoms, pluralism and tolerance in the imperial core, which it could afford due to a prosperous middle class satisfied with the status quo. Yet this prosperity was sustained by genocidal violence abroad that enabled the super profits to roll in that made this arrangement possible.
By contrast, the USSR and Eastern Bloc supported countless struggles against Western colonialism across the Third World. National liberation movements from India to Cuba, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, from Vietnam to South Africa received invaluable economic and military aid from the Soviet bloc.
Much ink has been spilled about Soviet and Russian totalitarianism, yet if the words democracy are to mean anything real, the breaking of centuries of Western colonial rule over the darker nations must count as the greatest expansion of freedom and democracy across the globe in modern history. And it was the Soviet Union, not the Western liberal democracies, that made the great contribution to that new dawn of freedom.
This is why even now, so many African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian governments have refused to take sides in the war between Ukraine and Russia, and at the grassroots of much of the Global South there is widespread sympathy for the Russian narrative. The populations of these countries remember who stood for their freedom, and who wanted to keep their populations in chains. The New York Times and the Times of London express bewilderment at this fact. In Delhi and Mombasa, Beijing and Sao Paulo, it is the common sense perspective that liberal ‘democracy’ is little more than a Trojan Horse for Western domination, and that Russia, whatever its flaws, stands as a counterbalance to the dictatorship of New York, London and Paris over the non Western world.
The standard historical narrative of the entire 20th century is wrong. The struggle was not between liberal democracy and the totalitarian twins of Communism and Fascism, but rather between those who wished to preserve Western supremacy over the globe, and those who thought a re-division of the Earth’s spoils in favor of the billions in Asia, Africa and Latin America was more just. ‘Communism’ was just a convenient label to smear the latter camp, whether the antagonists in question were in fact communists or not. Russia had to not only be defeated but humiliated, so that the superprofits of the West were never more threatened. Everything that had been built since 1917 had to be demolished.
This was never more apparent with how American banks and multinationals treated the defeated Russians after the USSR finally capitulated in 1991. As in 1945, there was an opportunity to mend relations between the West and Moscow and have a fresh start. This did not happen.
That opportunity was lost. Instead of providing economic aid and favorable loans to Russia, as American corporations did to Germany and Japan after World War II, the IMF and American free market advisors imposed a brutal neoliberal austerity regime on the Russian working class. Millions died from poverty, alcoholism, disease and crime as the country’s wealth was looted by rapacious oligarchs. The publicly owned economy was gutted so a tiny minority could become obscenely wealthy. The male life expectancy declined by 10 years in just five years. Women were enslaved in the sex trade. Millions of orphans lived on the cold streets, selling drugs and prostituting themselves to survive. It was the greatest demographic disaster Russia experienced since the Nazis invaded, and it was in peacetime.10
The Clintonite liberals and the free marketeers tried to complete what Hitler failed to accomplish-the final and total destruction of Russia as a cohesive social, cultural and economic unit. In the 1990’s it looked very likely that Russia would permanently become a failed state, perhaps itself break up into even smaller and weaker entities akin to Yugoslavia. Mitterand’s derisive quip that Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was little more than “Upper Volta with nukes” wasn’t far from the truth.
In Russia’s moment of weakness, NATO advanced further and further towards Russia’s borders. Advancing 600 miles to the east and encircling Russia with U.S. troops, bases and batteries. This humiliation was swallowed over and over again for 30 years by the Russians.
The rise of Vladimir Putin to power in Moscow halted this disintegration, and brought Russia back from the brink of total destruction. He reigned in the worst excesses of the oligarchs, stabilized the economy, and put some key parts of the nation’s natural resources such as oil and gas under state control. He did not expropriate the oligarchs, but he diminished their political importance. A KGB veteran, he represented remnants of the old Soviet bureaucracy, particularly the intelligence agencies, who wanted to rebuild Russia into a great power. He presided over a regime with one foot in the Soviet past and another foot in the post Soviet kleptocracy, albeit in a more managed form than under Yelstin. For 20 years, this unstable, contradictory transitional state held together, barely.
Putin, representing this alliance between the former Soviet security state and Russia’s business class, wanted a good relationship with the West and did not wish to be an international arsonist. He even attempted to join NATO, but was rebuffed.11 He wanted to play ball with the West, but not at the cost of Russia’s sovereignty. The atrocities in the Donbass reawakened the Russian people from their post Soviet stupor, indifference and despair. The motherland was in danger again. The Russian bear roused itself from its slumber and roared.
In 2020-22, signs that NATO was preparing an all out push against Russia proliferated. One all sides, U.S. backed color revolutions and military provocations popped up on Russia’s borders- first the war by Turkish backed Azeri forces against Russia’s ally Armenia in 2020, then protests against Russia’s ally Lukashenko in Belarus, then the protests/coup attempt against the Russian friendly government in Kazakhstan in January 2022, which Russia sent troops to quell.
Putin didn’t single handedly bring Russia into this war. Had he not acted, he would have lost his nationalist legitimacy with the Russian people. Russia’s oligarchs face the prospect of being permanently marginalized, as this war has led to their investments, properties and hedge funds in the West going up in flames due to U.S./EU sanctions. Putin’s place in the Kremlin stands on shaky ground- antagonizing the oligarchs whose support he has been so reliant on, cutting himself off from the West to go into the arms of Beijing, and riding a wave of Russian national fervor. It could either be a masterful strategic move, or a fatal blunder.
If Putin’s government fails to accomplish the objectives in Ukraine of de militarization and de Nazification, or achieves an unsatisfactory result after all the sacrifices his people have gone through, his government will be swept aside and someone even more hardline will take his place. The Communists, being the best organized opposition party, are the most likely to take the reins of state power in that situation.
Russia will have to patch things together with the other former Soviet republics to halt the NATO drive to the east- which means a break with narrow Russian nationalism. Closer economic and mutual military defense pacts are already in the process of being built between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other former SSR’s.12 And with China’s rise there is an increasingly favorable economic environment in Eurasia for such initiatives. The tribes of the USSR that were apart must come together once again. The alternative is eternal impoverishment, dismemberment, division and humiliation- a return to the 1990’s. It is no longer possible to fence sit or take half measures.
China, facing U.S. military encirclement itself since Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ and confronted with the alarming remilitarization and rearming of its old genocidal adversary Japan with U.S. encouragement, needs Russia at its back just as much Russia needs Beijing at its back. Europe and the West consolidate into one fortress, and Eurasia consolidates into another.
Russian and Belarussian, Kazakh and Armenian, Caucasian and Siberian, Chinese and either all stand together, or they all fall.
In closing, the words of the Soviet poet Olga Bergholz, whose prose is engraved in stone at a memorial to the Siege of Leningrad, is appropriate:
Here Lie Lenin graders-Here are City Dwellers-men, women and children. And next to them, Red Army soldiers. They defended you, Leningrad, the cradle of the Revolution with all their lives. We cannot list their noble names here, there are so many of them under the eternal protection of granite. But know this, those who regard those stones-no one is forgotten, and nothing is forgotten.
Every May 9, not only in Russia but increasingly across most former Soviet republics, hundreds of thousands turn out for the “Immortal Regiment” celebrations. They carry with them the photographs of their relatives and ancestors who fought in the Red Army. Being Russian means honoring the memory of the dead of that war. Had those men and women not prevailed, their nation would not exist. They fight not because they are barbaric, or bloodthirsty, or brainwashed, but because the weight of their historical debt leaves them no choice. They remember.
And yet in the current political discourse in the West especially, everyone is forgotten, and nothing is remembered.
Marius Trotter is a writer residing in Massachusetts. He comments on history, politics, philosophy and theory.
- ↩ m.azh.kz
- ↩ www.spiegel.de
- ↩ ‘Council of Europe issues report on far right massacre in Odessa’ www.wsws.org
- ↩ Donbass: Documentary by Anne Laure-Bonnel, 2016: www.youtube.com
- ↩ For independent journalism documenting Azov Battalions atrocities:
Patrick Lancaster- Youtube www.youtube.com
- ↩ ‘Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership’ by Susan Butler.
Vintage Press, 2016.
- ↩ “In Cold War, U.S. Spy Agencies Used Over 1,000 Nazis’ www.nytimes.com
- ↩ “Cold War Allies: The Origins of the CIA’s Relationship with Ukrainian Nationalists’ www.cia.gov
- ↩ Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method, Public Affairs Press, 2020.
- ↩ “Privatization ‘raised death rate’, BBC News news.bbc.co.uk
- ↩ ‘Ex NATO head says Putin wanted to join alliance early in his rule’ www.theguardian.com
- ↩ ‘Russia, Belarus, Call on Former Soviet nations to help form USSR style union’ www.newsweek.com