Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
‘D-Day holds a special place in our nation’s story,’ writes the BBC’s James Lansdale, reflecting on the 75th anniversary commemorations on Thursday. But what’s the place, and what’s the story?
Sometimes it seems that our memory of D-Day is hard-wired into our nationhood, prompting thoughts about heroism, duty, and the saving of the world. At any rate, this is how it looks through the spectacles of the UK media.
My historian colleagues have tried to take the spectacles off. Karl Qualls reminds us on Twitter that there is another story: of the overwhelming Soviet contribution to victory, a point contextualized by David Reynolds here, in the New Statesman. Mark Harrison weighs up the specifics of the Soviet sacrifice in response to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ more general claims about it. And Alexander Titov draws some lessons for Russian-Western mutual understanding for today.
My grandfather, who served in the Royal Air Force throughout the Second World War and flew on countless missions for Bomber Command, would have disliked the D-Day commemorations. Never keen to talk about the war himself — his was a youth of slaughter, pain and loss — he hated any hint of the glorification of war. And for all their sombre tone, politicians last Thursday were doing things he distrusted: pushing emotional buttons, inhabiting grand commemorative displays, and mouthing clichés (sacrifice, freedom) that stood for the terrible reality (blood, bombs).
Historians who study memory – both memory as it exists today and memory as it was constructed in the past – have to engage with its personal and individual aspects, and its organized and communal dimensions. In both cases, memory is related to politics, which means it is open to dispute and reforging.
As much as we revere the wartime generation, our process of remembering them should also be an active one: it should decentre our assumptions and defy our expectations. A useful public memory is one that cultivates an instinct for doubt, caution and accountability rather than celebration and agreement.
I doubt that British people agree about the place of D-Day in our national story any more than we are sure of what our national story really is. Narratives of wartime memory are specific in every family. They intersect with official narratives in complicated ways. This is true in Russia, too. Faced with a different approach to the past behind every family door, historians struggle to reconstruct memory either in the past or in the present. But reflecting on this variety in a spirit of scepticism is itself an act of commemoration. It is another way of honouring those who came before us.