Russia's Lost War

– Izabella Tabarovsky

The official narrative of Soviet victory in World War II erases uncomfortable truths. Can Russians reclaim the forgotten human stories of those who defeated Nazi Germany?

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, there is an image. Is it from a movie? A picture seen in childhood?

It was a picture of a man in a Soviet standard-issue gray cotton-felt quilted jacket and a cocked ear-flapped hat sitting awkwardly on a low, rough-hewn wooden platform held up, not by wheels, but by four ball-bearings – a primitive skateboard of sorts. He has no legs, and his trousers are fully turned in. In each hand, he holds a thick, rounded block of wood to propel himself forward.

This image of a severely disabled veteran of the 1941-1945 Soviet-German War, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, has stayed with me. It is pertinent now. Earlier this year, the Soviet Union marked the 75th anniversary of its victory in the war against Nazi Germany.

Others are recalling these veterans now as well. In an essay titled “The Invalid. Victory Day. A Postscript,” Lyudmila Ulitskaya, one of contemporary Russia’s most celebrated writers, revisits how thousands of veterans, disfigured by war, flooded the streets of Soviet cities in the post-war years.

Ulitskaya observes that there were millions of them, adding in an accompanying video that “this is not an exaggeration: it’s an understatement.” She continued:

According to the data of the Military-Medical Museum in St. Petersburg, 46 million, 250 thousand Soviet citizens were wounded in the course of the Great Patriotic War. Of these, 10 million returned from the front with various forms of physical disability. Among these: 775,000 with head wounds; 155,000 with one eye; 54,000 blind… With one arm: 3 million 147 thousand. With one leg: 3 million 255 thousand. Without both legs: one million 121 thousand… With partially torn off arms and legs: 418,905.

Thousands of veterans, disfigured by war, flooded the streets of Soviet cities in the post-war years.

In the totalitarian society of the late 1940s USSR, there was little kindness toward these newly-helpless warriors. They were given insulting nicknames. “Scooters” were legless veterans, while “kangaroos” hopped on their remaining leg. The partial limbs of men called “turtles” looked like flippers. “Flounders” looked out at the world with one eye. Perhaps the most heartbreakingly cynical nickname was given to men who lost their arms and their legs: “samovars.” There were 85,942 such limbless survivors in the post-war USSR.

The concept of post-traumatic stress disorder did not exist then. And, in any case, the usual form of psychiatry practiced by the Soviet state was punitive. Many veterans had no one to come back to after the war. Others feared going back and becoming a burden and stayed away; their families believed them to be missing-in-action. The ones who did return exhibited many of the symptoms of untreated post-traumatic stress: explosions of anger and physical violence; binge-drinking and panhandling; an inability to maintain intimate relationships and hold down a job; indigence and homelessness. They gained a reputation for being unbalanced, which pushed them further to the margins of society.

In the eyes of the authorities, the men and women who returned from the war with such severe disabilities spoiled the picture of post-war Soviet cities. At some point in the late 1940s (apparently, in the run-up to Joseph Stalin’s 70th birthday), the authorities gave orders to clear them off the streets – first in Moscow, and then in other cities. The campaign of erasure gathered speed under Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s. Veterans who could live independent lives received state benefits (including specialized medical care and access to Black Sea resorts), but the challenges faced by maimed veterans led to homelessness and charges of “parasitism” (a refusal to engage in socially productive labor). Both conditions were deemed anti-social behavior, punishable by law, and provided the authorities with a legal excuse to ship these veterans to “Invalids’ Homes” in distant regions.

A work by sculptor Andrei Krasulin commemorating disabled Soviet veterans of World War II.
Image by Dmitry Poshvin

Many of these facilities were established in abandoned rural monasteries, and poorly financed. Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova and Pavel V. Romanov of Russia’s Higher School of Economics write that “the treatment of the residents was in many cases inhumane, and their forcible removal there was tantamount not even to exile but to ‘warehousing.’” The men and women sent to these facilities found it “hard to live but easy to die – forgotten by their loved ones and the country, which they defended and for which they gave their health.”

Another key factor in their treatment was Stalin’s reported fear of the social power wielded by veterans as a group. Having paid for victory with their blood, they came back with a moral authority that must have felt threatening to the dictator. Those who had made it all the way to Berlin would have seemed especially dangerous. They had witnessed life where there was no communist party. Iarskaia-Smirnova and Romanov observe that severely disabled veterans formed their own special category of the politically unreliable. The secret services watched them like a hawk, suspecting these men of espionage, anti-kolkhoz and anti-Soviet propaganda, sabotage, and subversion.

Memory Gaps

The fate of these injured veterans illustrates the profound gaps of memory about the war that exist in Russia today. Anyone who grew up in the post-war years saw these abandoned veterans, but their story has not been incorporated into Russia’s official memory of the war. As the heir to the Great Victory, the Russian state deploys national memory of the war as a tool to foster patriotism, pride, and loyalty toward itself. It also discards whatever undermines the triumphalism of the official narrative – including any notion that Stalin’s regime and its conduct of the war contributed heavily to the unimaginably high price of victory.

The erasure is clearest in the notable lack of photographic images of these wounded veterans in public space. Given their ubiquity in Soviet cities, and the close attention of the secret services, this virtually complete absence of any such record is extraordinary.

Censorship was likely the primary reason. A memo sent by state security services to local war censorship departments in January 1945 ordered these officials to examine letters sent home from the front – and remove any photos depicting individuals or groups with “amputated limbs, disfigured faces, or blind[ness].” The security services argued that such images might be enemy provocations aimed at damaging morale. They may also have anticipated the war’s end, and the likelihood that citizens’ attention would turn from defeating the enemy to welcoming loved ones home to rebuild their lives together. Seeing their loved ones disabled might provoke subversive sentiments.

In the absence of photographs, drawings such as those made by Soviet artist Gennady Dobrov help facilitate essential memory work. Dobrov first explored the lives of veterans in the Invalids’ Homes in the mid-1970s, taking a job as a medical attendant at Valaam – an island in Russia’s north whose former monastery housed one of most famous, or infamous, of these facilities. Dobrov used his spare time to furtively sketch men and women he encountered at Valaam and elsewhere.

Among the most heart-rending drawings is "The Unknown Soldier," from a series entitled “War’s Autographs.” It depicts a youngish-looking man, carefully swaddled in a blanket. His body is tiny, and one must look for a few moments to realize that the man has no limbs. His facial expression is tense, and his eyes are fixed at a point in space beyond both artist and viewer. (Dobrov adds that this man had also lost both his speech and hearing.)

Those who worked at Valaam might have seen this veteran as a man with no name and no history. Yet when Dobrov’s drawings finally saw the light of day in the time of Perestroika, a man claimed to recognize the subject of the sketch as his own father. He came to Valaam and erected a modest tombstone for him in that place. Few others who died in that facility received such a tribute.

Dobrov’s drawings also give us a rare and invaluable glimpse of the special tragedy of disabled female veterans. In the post-war Soviet society, there were 641 men for every one thousand women, and badly-injured male veterans could still find a marriage partner. Severely disabled women veterans’ chances of marriage were close to zero.

Two Faces of Victory

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first Victory Parade in Red Square on June 24, 1945, Russia’s Ministry of Defense unveiled a new section on its website: “The Triumph of a Victorious People.”

Images and film from that parade are a critical part of Russia’s collective historical memory. Among the most iconic images from that day are those of Red Army soldiers carrying trophy Nazi standards pointed toward the earth, and then throwing them at the feet of the Lenin Mausoleum. In another memorable image, Marshal Georgy Zhukov rides into the Red Square on a stunning white stallion to review the parade.

Marshal Georgy Zhukov rides a white stallion into Red Square to review the June 14, 1945 Victory Parade.
Public Domain

The perfectly-choreographed spectacle hypnotizes to this day. The men marching in it had fought in the hellish landscape of World War II just weeks before. They faced unimaginable horrors, fought with extraordinary and incomprehensible valor, and survived long odds to return home victorious.

Yet authenticity fuses tightly with propaganda in these images. The state was meticulous in creating this triumphal picture. Senior officer corps aside, all those who marched that day in the parade were men under 30 years of age and at least 176 centimeters tall. New uniforms were ordered and special banners were produced. Veterans chosen for the spectacle drilled for days to perfect their marching.

A recent Izvestiya article observed that the USSR made a priority of showing its wartime allies watching the parade that the “war had not exhausted and bled the USSR dry: that, on the contrary, it had acquired the most powerful weapon – the psychology of victors… An army consisting of such people can be a terrifying enemy and an effective ally.”

Soviet soldiers with the standards captured from Nazi German troops at the June 14, 1945 Victory Parade.
Northcliffe Collection /​ ANL / Shutterstock

Of course, there was no room for the injured and the disabled in that parade. Nor was there room for women, despite the fact that at least half a million of them served in regular Red Army fighting units as fighter pilots, anti-aircraft machine-gunners, drivers, airplane mechanics, members of tank crews, frontline doctors, nurses, and wherever else they were needed. Millions more volunteered. Some 150,000 came back from the war highly decorated. Yet the only place we see women in the images of that first Victory Parade is among the crowds watching it.

Compare this official visual narrative of the war to the narrative conveyed in Ulitskaya’s essay on disabled veterans. Her piece begins with personal recollections, and evokes the memory of men and women unseen and unremembered in the nation’s official narrative. The juxtaposition of images from that 1945 parade with those presented by Ulitskaya reveals the sharp dichotomy at the core of Russia’s remembrance of the war.

There was no room for the injured and the disabled.... Nor was there room for women, despite the fact that at least half a million of them served in regular Red Army fighting units.

“Our Victory has two faces—one beautiful and the other terrible, all scars, unbearable to look at,” wrote the Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich in her book, The Unwomanly Face of War. One face turns to the human beings disfigured by war, powerless and abandoned by their country; the other face projects only strength, masculinity, and military glory.

Grassroots versus the State

In contemporary Russia, nothing illustrates this persistent duality in war memory better than the story of the Immortal Regiment – the commemorative act of walking through the streets on Victory Day, bearing photos of loved ones who fought in the war.

The concept was created in 2012 by three Tomsk journalists from the independent TV channel TV2. One of the three journalists, Igor Dmitriyev, recalled that the passing of his grandfather – who was a veteran of the war – left him longing for an authentic and personal connection to the annual commemoration. This feeling was so powerful that Dmitriyev and his young daughter would find an elderly veteran in the crowd each May 9 and spend time talking with him.

By creating images of their vanished relatives, Dmitriyev and his Immortal Regiment co-founders imagined that they could bring their grandparents back to march with them – "even if they were [only] in our arms.” Their idea spread like wildfire, shining a spotlight on a popular hunger for an antidote to the increasingly soulless state-driven commemorations. Within two years, citizens in hundreds of Russian towns and villages had organized their own Immortal Regiment processions.

Major Viktor Lukyanov carries a portrait of his mother Valentina Lukyanova, a participant in WWII, as part of Immortal Regiment commemorations during the Victory Parade in St. Petersburg on May 9, 2015.
AP Photo / Dmitry Lovetsky

The explosive growth of this grassroots movement led Russian authorities to immediately seek to coopt it. The loosely-structured nature of the Immortal Regiment initiative allowed officials to pour money into a state-driven version that served their objectives. Soon, dozens of new Immortal Regiment chapters popped up throughout the country, and millions participated in the processions. Kremlin-friendly “cultural exchange” NGOs, working in tandem with Russian embassies and consulates, organized similar processions all over the world, from Washington, D.C. to Germany to China.

The initiative undoubtedly breathed new life into May 9 commemorations, shifting public energies from passive viewing of military parades and personal remembrance to large-scale commemorative action. Yet state involvement transformed the initiative’s original intention. The founders saw it as an independent, bottom-up, and explicitly apolitical movement, which sought to help families “remember their members who endured the war” and tell “stories of personal loss.” These recollections might be entirely unheroic, but deeply relatable on a human level. Carrying photos of loved ones was the central part of their vision.

The Immortal Regiment idea spread like wildfire, shining a spotlight on a popular hunger for an antidote to the increasingly soulless state-driven commemorations.

By contrast, participants in state-driven Immortal Regiment processions often march with photos of strangers handed to them by organizers. Many of these photos are simply discarded after the march. The notions of family history, and reflections on personal grief and loss, disappear. The jingoistic spirit that often characterizes Victory Day commemorations is also directly antithetical to the intentions of the Immortal Regiment’s founders. (“Immortal Regiment reached Washington” blared one headline, echoing wartime dispatches that announced the Red Army’s conquest of Berlin.)

The transformation of the Immortal Regiment is testimony to the strange interplay between grassroots and state memory of the war in Russia. The state ignores complex grassroots memory – until the grassroots has something useful to offer. In this case, Russian authorities saw a way to scale up and replicate authentic expressions of meaning on a mass level, without challenging its own grand black-and-white narrative. Yet, in that process, the original conception of the Immortal Regiment was lost.

Reconciling the Irreconcilable

Another image from the 1945 Victory Day parade holds one of the deepest paradoxes of Russia’s historical memory about the war. As Marshal Zhukov rides into the Red Square on his white stallion, he is met by Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, the commander of the parade, who rides a black horse. Rokossovsky was one of the engineers of Nazi Germany’s military defeat, and a decorated war hero who commanded Soviet troops in crucial battles.

Yet just eight years earlier, Rokossovsky was a victim of Stalin’s purges. Falsely accused of being a spy, he withstood two years of interrogations and brutal torture, including two mock executions. His NKVD interrogators broke his ribs, kicked out his teeth, and drove needles under his nails. He steadfastly refused to sign a false confession.

Rokossovsky was luckier than his peers. Stalin purged the Red Army officer corps in the years before the war, destroying some 80 percent of officers of all ranks, from majors to generals. Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet defense minister after Stalin’s death, later estimated that Stalin’s onslaught resulted in a total of 82,000 executions. But Rokossovsky survived long enough to get a second chance at life.
Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky (on a black stallion) meets Marshal Georgy Zhukov (white stallion) in Red Square at the June 24, 1945 Victory Parade.
[ ([CC BY 4.0](

Soviet leaders released him from prison in March 1940, following the disastrous Soviet attempt to take over Finland. That catastrophe brought home to Soviet leaders that the Red Army needed skilled commanders. Rokossovsky proved himself to be such a leader when Nazi Germany attacked fifteen months later.

In 1956, in his famous “secret speech” about Stalin’s crimes, Khrushchev acknowledged that Rokossovsky had been innocent all along, and referred to him by name as one of the “excellent” and “unquestionably loyal” military cadres of the pre-war USSR: “Those of them who managed to survive, despite severe tortures to which they were subjected in the prisons, have from the first war days shown themselves real patriots and heroically fought for the glory of the Fatherland.”

It is impossible to fully appreciate the extent of Soviet people’s sacrifice in the war – and the true price of their victory – without taking Stalin’s repressions into account. The demolition of the Red Army in purges encouraged Hitler, and also led directly to the catastrophes of the first months of the war, when millions of Soviet soldiers were captured or left to die, unburied, on the battlefields. The meeting of Zhukov and Rokossovsky in Red Square in 1945, under Stalin’s watchful eye, reminds us of this history.

Stalin purged the Red Army officer corps in the years before the war, destroying some 80 percent of officers of all ranks, from majors to generals.

That powerful image also raises a crucial question: How did a people who were, in the words of Svetlana Alexievich, “humiliated, trampled upon, insulted – having gone through Stalin’s camps and treachery”– find the surge of patriotism and self-sacrifice that led them to victory?

One wartime servicewoman interviewed by Alexievich in War’s Unwomanly Face, offers a glimpse of an answer. As the war began, she was a young woman whose beloved uncle was in Stalin’s camps. But she recalled hearing Stalin’s July 3, 1941 radio address, calling on the Soviet people to rise up against the enemy, and remembered her mother saying: “We’ll defend the Motherland and sort it out later.” The woman’s personal response was swift: “Everybody loved the Motherland. I ran to the recruiting office at once.”

Some believed war might change things for the better. Perhaps Stalin finally “would trust his people.” Some found that the outbreak of the war provided a release from the terror-drenched prewar years, during which people “shrank away from another in fear.”

For men like Rokossovsky, war offered the only "hope of salvation." But Stalin’s repressions continued, both during and after the war. As another one of Alexievich’s witnesses puts it: “After the Victory everybody became silent. Silent and afraid, as before the war.”

Stalin’s repressions are no secret in Russia; nor does the state pretend these events didn’t happen. In 2017, Vladimir Putin unveiled The Wall of Grief – a state memorial to the victims of political repressions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the unveiling of a national memorial to victims of Soviet-era political repressions - "The Wall of Grief" - on October 30, 2017.
Alexey Nikolsky /​ Sputnik/ ​Kremlin Pool/ ​ Pool /​ EPA-EFE /​ Shutterstock

Yet, conversations about the war and political repressions rarely happen in the same breath. The main reason: Stalin’s purges – before, during, and after the war – immeasurably complicate the state’s official narrative.

“How to combine the story of us as a victorious country with that tragic, ugly, betrayal-filled memory… the memory of the crimes?” asked Elena Zhemkova, the executive director of Memorial, a Russian NGO that leads the fight to preserve the memory of the victims of political repressions, when we spoke in 2018.

The Dangers of Distance

The complexity of memory about the war in Russia may be why those who shape its official narratives today have followed their Soviet predecessors in focusing on the memories of victory, and not the war itself. War is messy. Victory is more straightforward, and makes finding unity easier.

This gamble has paid off. The popularity of May 9 grows with each passing year. Victory Day is “the least controversial national holiday and a unifying rather than a dividing force for Russian society,” observed Larissa Deriglazova, a professor at Tomsk University.

A work by sculptor Andrei Krasulin commemorating disabled Soviet veterans of World War II.
Image by Dmitry Poshvin

Yet how long will May 9 continue to serve this purpose? The unity it engenders rests on two pillars: a national memory built around scrubbed narratives of heroism and victimhood, and a grassroots memory built around individual and family stories.

The commemorations created by the official narrative alone can feel like noisy, superficial jubilations, veering uncomfortably close to the grotesque. The contemporary customs of dressing up toddlers in Soviet wartime uniforms, conducting children’s military parades, and turning prams into tanks all feed into what many in Russia describe derisively as pobedobesiye – a recent coinage that combines the word “victory” with a word whose root communicates something between “running amok,” “becoming rabid,” and “foaming at the mouth.”

The contrast between pobedobesiye and the simpler commemorative events of the early post-war years is stark. These events were anchored in grief and loss, and a heartfelt desire to never let such horror happen again. As the wartime generation departs the stage, such meaningful connections to the war will become harder and harder to maintain .

“How to combine the story of us as a victorious country with that tragic, ugly, betrayal-filled memory… the memory of the crimes?”

Perhaps one way to preserve this crucially important and personal aspect of war commemoration is to weave lost stories into the national memory. They are the stories of the disabled and the repressed, the stories of the forgotten that the state has erased from the official narrative for decades for ideological reasons.

I think of those countless photos of injured soldiers that Soviet wartime censors snatched from their letters home. Where are they now? It’s time they were located and declassified, and made available at last for public viewing. Doing so would make for a powerful contribution to Russia’s national memory of the war and the victory won by its people.

Izabella Tabarovsky is a senior program associate with the Kennan Institute and a contributing writer with Tablet magazine.

Cover photograph: Residents of St. Petersburg, Russia, carry portraits of family members who served in World War Two on Victory Day in 2014 as part of an "Immortal Regiment" march. (Dmitry Lovetsky / ​AP / ​Shutterstock