When Russian and American Soldiers Embraced as Brothers
That bright beautiful blooming April day—there by the ever-flowing Elbe--72 springs ago this spring. What a moment! They were all so happy! So hopeful! So united! So strong! With victory over fascism just around the corner! What could our two great nations, working together, not achieve?
There was good reason for optimism.
On that very day, Wednesday, April 25,1945, no less than 50 nations convened in San Francisco to begin the careful task of drafting the United Nations Charter, led by Vyacheslav Molotov of the Soviet Union and Harry S Truman of the United States.
Though I’m sure that the US under our newest neocon, Donald Trump, would have only vicious, ignorant things to say about the role of the Soviet Union in these historic Proceedings, the truth is that no nation more wanted a lasting peace than the Soviet Union—with its 10 million dead service men and women and its 17 million slaughtered civilians.
The Death Camp at Leningrad
Just look at what Hitler did to Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg)—Vladimir (“Volodya”) Putin’s hometown.
According to General Zhukov (generally regarded as the single best authority on the subject), of the 1.8 million residents of Leningrad who either could not or would not evacuate the city over the “Road of Life” (aka “Road of Death”) across Lake Ladoga (which was under constant Nazi shelling and machine-gun fire), no less than 1.5 million of those remaining residents died of starvation-related causes, between Sept 8, 1941 and January 27, 1944, when the siege was finally lifted by the conquering Red Army. .
Yes, 1.5 million dead. That’s more people than died at Auschwitz. That’s more people than died at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Nanking, Dresden, Hamburg, or Berlin.
Indeed the Holocaust at Leningrad constitutes the greatest urban catastrophe the world has ever known.
It is hard to conceive of death and suffering on such a horrific scale.
On the left, an older boy ignores the hunger within him and the horror around him by reading, while a younger boy lies dead beside him. In the center, a heap of corpses awaits burial in a mass grave. On the right, in 1960 (16 years after the end of the siege), little Volodya Putin, now age 8 (born 1952), sits staring at the camera ("ferociously" staring, paid-Putin-hater and Pussy-Riot-defender, Masha Gessen, would have us believe), between his lost-in-thought paternal grandfather, Spiridon Ivanovich1 Putin (former chef to Rasputin, Lenin, and Stalin), and his war-hero father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin—seen warmly embracing his son, despite the incessant, excruciating pain from all the inoperable shrapnel in both legs, received during the decimating defense of Leningrad.
It tells us something—tells Americans something—about the Russian people that so many voluntarily remained in Leningrad to sew clothes for the troops and care for the starving and dying when these very caregivers were starving and dying themselves out of compassion and love.
Putin’s Forgiving Mother
Such was the case with Putin’s own mother, Maria Ivanovna2 Putin, according to her best friend and Putin’s “second mother” (as well as primary school teacher), Vera Gurevich, during that first terrible winter of the siege in 1941-42, when temperatures plunged to -30o C for days and nights on end. And Maria became too weak to hunt for food or kindling for the stove with which to warm herself and their baby son, Viktor,3 while her husband was away at the front and then in the hospital without her knowing. So she and her baby just lay there wrapped up in her coat and froze. Till 2 women, saying they were “sanitation workers,” came and took Viktor away to an unnamed “hospital”—only to return and say he had died.4
A few days later, Putin’s mother fell into a stupor from starvation; was discovered in the Putins’ one-room apartment by authentic sanitation workers, who carried her downstairs and threw her onto a heap of corpses in front of the building for internment in a mass grave, thinking she was dead—when someone heard her groan; and so she was saved.
Yet, according to Putin's own account, as well as Vera’s in her biography of Putin, neither of his parents ever showed the least hatred towards those Nazi soldiers who enforced the siege against them and their loved ones. As Volodya’s mother explained to him as a child within the moral framework of communism (keeping her own Christianity hidden from him until well after the fall of communism in 1993 when he was 41):
"What hatred can we have towards these soldiers? They were simple people and perished in the war too.... What could they do? They were just ordinary workers, the same as we. They were forced to go to the war fronts.”
As simple as that. So sincerely said. I’m sure that Putin is right about the depth of his mother’s forgiveness. And her friend, Vera Gurevich, says the exact same thing. Maria Ivanovna was a very “forgiving” woman by nature.
But was this just her nature? Or was this part of her Russian nature? That is, are Russians naturally forgiving by nature?
I’m sure I’ll be called an old fool for saying so. But I’m too old to care.
And so I will say that compared with, say, us Americans, I think that Russians really are more forgiving by nature than we are.
But what does that mean exactly?
For openers, it does not mean anything stupid like all Russians are forgiving and no Americans are. Or that all Russians are good-hearted and no Americans are.
Rather, I am speaking (statistically) about the whole Russian population, on the one hand, and the whole American population, on the other, as 2 normally-distributed bell-shaped curves, in which a small percent of people in both populations are extremely forgiving (like Maria Ivanovna) and another small percent in both populations are not forgiving at all—while most people in both populations are somewhere in-between.
With that in mind, I will say—for what it may be worth—based on my personal and professional experiences over a fairly long life (starting with my Russian friends and their families in Kansas City during the 1940’s and ‘50’s; Indeed there were folks in Strawberry Hill who only spoke Russian) —that Russians do tend to be more forgiving as a whole than Americans as a whole—at least from what I've observed.
Whether that is a valid observation or not (I just put it out there for debate), it certainly is the case that forgiveness is conducive to healing. Witness the great success of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings between victims and victimizers, following the end of Apartheid.
Domestically, of course, Stalin pursued the opposite course—to the point of inventing literally millions of “enemies” where they did not exist, beginning with The Reign of Terror in the 1930’s. But that was one man’s paranoid delusions, enacted on a national scale.
Internationally—as paranoid as he was—Stalin seemed willing to reconcile with anyone, even Hitler, if it seemed to him to serve the pragmatic goal of “building socialism in one country.”
And the same was even truer after the War—with much of the Soviet Union in ruins.
While Stalin was ruthless in acquiring a buffer zone of Eastern European countries to protect Mother Russia from an attack by the West, there is no factual evidence that he ever planned to invade the West—let alone engage in “world conquest,” as Truman was to claim. Witness Stalin's early withdrawal from Austria, Manchuria, and Iran.
Thus it’s my impression of Stalin that as psychotic as he could be domestically at times, internationally he was always sane enough to seek peace with the West for purely pragmatic reasons. Like most paranoids, his focus was inward, not outward. He was the opposite of Western-import, Trotsky (whom many have called The Founding Father of Neoconservatism) in that regard.
In short, I don’t believe that Harry Truman had to atom-bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to keep Stalin from invading France, as Hitler had. Even under Stalin, the Russians were never Germans.
Why Truman thought the Russians were—or at least acted as though they were—I will discuss in the second half of this essay, to be published separately under the title, “Betraying the Better Angels of Our Nature,” after our could-have-been, should-have-been “best buddies forever!”—the Russians—are forced to celebrate Victory Day without us on May 9.
Why We Don’t Celebrate Victory Day Together
It’s not because the Russian people don’t want us to join them.
And it’s not because the American people don’t want to join with them in Victory and live with them in Perpetual Peace.
That’s what the “surprise” election of the deceiving Donald Trump was all about. Despite the constant demonization of Russia, in general, and Putin, in particular, the American people still elected Trump, in part, because he claimed to favor détente—just like Obama and even Bush Jr. before him in their first Presidential campaigns.
Ordinary people of all nations always want peace—unless their rulers can fool them. Not just because it is “we the people” of every country who do the fighting and the dying, as well as paying for all the weapons and all the wars.
But it is also because it is the ordinary people of all nations who believe in a God of Love and a God of Peace Who wants them to repudiate those ruling elites who would impose the sorrows and sufferings of war upon them that in the words of Isaiah 2:4:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.
That’s certainly what those jubilant young Russian and American soldiers in the lead-in photo of this essay must have hoped for that bright April day.
April is the cruelest month….
As T.S. Eliot says in The Wasteland. For April not only saw the hopeful meeting of the Russian and American Armies at the Elbe and the meeting of 50 nations in San Francisco to begin drafting the Charter of the United Nations, but also the death of this great man—the President of my birth—Franklin Delano Roosevelt (shown here happily behind the wheel of his custom-made convertible which he could drive with hand-controls for the brakes and the gas as his legs were paralyzed from polio by then).
What made Roosevelt great in the opinion of ordinary people around the world was that he—an American “nobleman” if noble men of spirit we have—truly, deeply, empathically cared for them—the ordinary people of this world—out of a well of compassion created by his own constant suffering—which rather than wither his heart, served to expand it to include all people everywhere. As expressed in his concept of The Four Freedoms which he believed all people should enjoy. Namely: (1) Freedom of Speech: (2) Freedom of Worship; (3) Freedom from Want; and (4) Freedom from Fear. And the vision of a United Nations that would lead the world in seeing that all peoples and nations achieved, preserved, and protected these Four Freedoms was “FDR’s” also.
With the keeping of the peace given to the Four Great Powers: namely, Britain, China, the USA… and, yes! The USSR. He called them The Four Policemen. Imagine such a thing. Roosevelt really believed that Stalin could actually be trusted to help keep the peace of the world—because that would be in the Soviet Union’s own interest. Was “the cripple” (as the contemptible George W. Bush contemptuously called FDR) smoking dope or what?
In my experience, even paranoid personalities can be guided to make rational decisions involving themselves and others if they are sane enough to understand the Judo moral/martial-arts concept of Jita Kyoei (or “mutual benefit”)—which is one of the pillars of Putin's foreign policy. And Jita Kyoei sets a low bar for sanity indeed. Even an acutely psychotic paranoid in a locked prison ward with a sharpened screwdriver in his hand can often “get” why it would be of “Jita Kyoei” for him to put that “shank” down. (Though I wouldn’t use Japanese with an American locked-ward paranoid.)
And Stalin was considerably higher functioning than your garden-variety locked-ward paranoid.
Though it took a good deal of effort, Roosevelt also convinced Stalin to include Freedom of Worship as one of the Four Freedoms the Soviet Union as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council would guarantee to uphold with all nations and peoples.
And I would not be surprised if FDR did not have a hand in persuading Stalin to halt his persecution of Orthodox Christianity and other religions within the USSR during the Great Patriotic War.
But then came April 1945. And just as the War against Germany was drawing to a close, FDR died. Just as in April 1865, just as the Civil War was drawing to a close, Abraham Lincoln died. And April was the month when Martin Luther King died too.
Roosevelt died in Warm Springs Georgia. And all along the tracks from Warm Springs to Washington, black folks and white folk lined up to watch his funeral train go by and cry. Such a man! Such a President! He had seen them through the Great Depression. He had seen them through the worst of a 2-front World War. And now he was gone.
To be succeeded by my father’s former haberdasher, Harry Truman. (Harry Truman operated a haberdashery store from 1920 to 1922. And as luck or fate or Providence Divine would have it, my father bought a hat there in 1922 at the age of 22.) That’s cold-blooded Harry on the right there, grinning from ear to ear as he was about to go on air to announce the incineration of Hiroshima—a monstrous crime against humanity to intimidate Stalin (Good luck with that one!) that cost him “not a wink of sleep” his whole life, he boasted towards the end.
Truman’s Presidency marked an evil turn in American history. But more on that in my next essay.
Instead, I’d like to close by talking about…
Russia’s Two Great Victories Over the Nazis
The One Great Victory over the Nazis that everyone knows is the Great External Victory over the Nazis, symbolized by the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag.
But then there is a Second Great Victory over the Nazis I never hear talked about and may not even be recognized as far as I know and that is the Great Internal Victory over the Nazis in terms of the Russian People’s Rejection of Their Own Internal Nazification—a pathogenic process to which the American ruling elites, as well as many ordinary Americans, have largelysuccumbed.
It’s striking when I think about it as a psychologist—given the horrific trauma to which the Russian people were exposed. Words cannot express it. Only photos can begin to convey.
And yet the Russian people and their leaders did not turn into a bunch of hate-filled Nazis—laughing at the news of a mutilation murder as Hillary did on TV. Or bragging about getting “really good at killing people” as Obama did with his aides.
If we look, for example, at Leningrad children of Putin’s generation—the generation born right after the War and the liberation of that once lovely city turned terrifying death camp, we do not see “ferocious” feral children of the sort that Masha Gessen describes. She claims to be Russian. But it’s her public Americanization that she’s profitably projecting.
What we see in these children, instead, is overflowing love. Love of books. Love of brothers. Love of babushkas for their grandsons. Love of caps and coats and uniforms of soldiers living and gone as fanciful guardian animals look on.
It is all about love in mourning and love in memory and love in going on—the living lovingly connected with lost loved ones even in what they wear.
I was born during the War. I was kid when these kids were. But in Kansas City I didn’t know one kid whose dad or brother or uncle got killed in action. Because America lost so few. Only 400,000 American service men and women got killed on both fronts in the whole War. So there were no uniforms for kids in loving memory to wear.
But if our losses had been greater, would we be more like the Russians? More like the Germans? Or just like we are?
The late insightful writer, Gore Vidal, wittily entitled one of his works, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia.
That’s us, alright. As a nation—as a people—we don’t know how to remember or what to remember. We are even losing the ability to remember. And our schools, our media, won’t teach us what or how. That’s part of our Nazification. We are supposed to look only forward—never back. Like robots. Not humans.
It’s a crying shame. I mean that literally. Even our “Great Generation” will soon be forgotten. Whereas Russia’s Immortal Regiment will live on and on. Because the Russians know that it is the connectedness of all with all in loving acts of memory that keeps us loving humans.
Dr. William Wedin is a licensed clinical psychologist and long-time human rights activist who lives and practices in New York City.
1 The suffix, “-ovich” means “son of” in Russian.
2 The suffix, “-ovna,” means “daughter of” in Russian.
3 Viktor Putin is officially listed as being buried in the Piskaryovskoye Mass Cemetery in St. Petersburg, though the body was never found.
4 I will deal with suspicions regarding Viktor’s disappearance in a later article.
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