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Painful memories

June 21, 2011

On June 22, 1941, Hitler's brutal onslaught on the East began when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. After almost 70 years, the memories live on as veterans and historians try to come to terms with the tragedy.

German tanks invading the Soviet Union
Millions lost their lives during the German invasionImage: DPA

Moscow veteran Stepan Karnauchov still remembers the outbreak of the war as if it were yesterday.

"It was a very hot day. I was getting ready to take an exam, when a relative of mine came in suddenly and screamed 'Germany has attacked us,'" he said. "I immediately ran to the dorm and looked for a room with a radio with some boys who had been playing volleyball in the backyard. We were young and naïve and placed bets on how long the war would last before we won. Some said two to three months, others guessed six months."

Karnauchov will celebrate his 87th birthday in a couple of weeks. On June 22, 1941, he was living in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, but went on to serve at the front between 1942 and 1945; first as an anti-tank gunner and later as a radio operator.

Shared experiences

According to Russian historian, Irina Sherbakova, his account of the day war broke out is typical in many Russian families.

"I know exactly where my mother, my father and my grandmother were on June 22, 1941, and how they learnt about the outbreak of war," she says. "That day marked the end of their old life and the start of a new one."

Russian veteran, Stepan Karnauchov
Today, Stepan Karnauchov doesn't blame wartime horrors on modern GermanyImage: Stepan Karnauchov

There is hardly a family in Russia, which has been untouched by the events of the war.

Despite an initial onslaught of Soviet propaganda which declared that the end of the war was imminent, it soon became clear to everyone that it would be a bitter fight for survival.

When Hitler announced his brutal plans for an "extermination campaign," these fears were confirmed.

The Soviet propaganda dubbed the war "the Great Patriotic War" and called on people to remain resilient and to persevere. In the event, this appeal was heeded and the war was passionately supported by the civilian population.

Indeed, there was scarcely a time in the history of the Soviet Union, when the objectives of the communist government tied in so closely with those of its citizens.

But June 22, 1941, is now remembered as the beginning of a great tragedy, which ultimately cost the lives of at least 27 million Soviet citizens.

Forbidden memories

Irina Sherbakova, argues that, for a long time after the war ended, the horrors associated with June 22, 1941, were pushed to the back of the government's collective consciousness.

Two German soldiers surrendering in 1943
Many facts were brushed under the carpet in Russia's recollection of the warImage: AP

"This date carries with it a whole series of uncomfortable questions," the historian says.

"It raises questions about the overwhelmingly insufficient preparation for war, about responsibility for the huge number of casualties as well as the high level of collaboration at the start of war."

"In connection with this date, the disastrous defeats suffered in the first months of the war also have to be explained. These questions contradict our mythologized and patriotic interpretation of the war and have been almost entirely deleted from the account of our victory," she asserts.

It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s that the taboos surrounding the USSR's unflattering wartime secrets were finally lifted.

Today, Moscow hosts an annual Victory Day parade on May 9 to celebrate the German army's surrender in 1945. The day has assumed an important role in Russian culture as an untainted, joyful day, where Russia can commemorate its ultimate triumph.

No anger or hatred

Anger or hatred towards the Germans has long ceased in Russia. This is a fact which is often confirmed in opinion polls. According to Sherbakova, numerous factors have played a role in normalizing relations between the former enemies.

Russian historian, Irina Scherbakova.
Irina Scherbakova says it took decades for Russia to come to terms with the pastImage: Irina Scherbakowa

"Firstly, Russia did eventually win the war and the Germans were quick to adopt the role of the defeated," Sherbakova explained.

"Secondly, the surviving witnesses of the years immediately following the war were mostly children and young adults at the time and can only remember the Germans as unhappy and hungry prisoners who participated in the reconstruction."

"Finally, the good relationship between the Soviet Union and East Germany, however you may want to interpret it, did have a positive impact," says Sherbakova.

Normal human contact has also contributed to the reversal of the demonization of the Germans. Indeed, "Operation Barbarossa," the code name for Hitler's attack of the USSR and the blitzkrieg in the east, has long taken on a second meaning in Russia. In a figurative sense, the term now stands for big plans which aren't realizable.

Recovering relationship

Stepan Karnauchov, who is an activist in the Moscow Veteran's Council, says that his relationship with the Germans changed almost immediately when the war ended. They first made a good impression on him when he witnessed victory in Berlin in 1945.

Russian officers march during Victory Day parade at Moscow's Red Square
Russia celebrates its triumph over Germany every yearImage: AP

In the years that followed, he took trips to communist East Germany several times and even visited West Berlin.

"Yes, we were once enemies," he says. "But we have come to realize that the German people are not responsible for the crimes of their former leader. A Hitler will come and go, but the German people have remained."

He no longer sees the Germans as the enemy: "On the one hand we were the victims of Hitler's regime, but on the other hand, the Germans were as well."

On June 22, the 86-year-old veteran will attend a memorial service at one of the main railway stations in Moscow, from which trains took soldiers to the front.

At the service, he hopes to meet some of his former comrades, including his former regiment commander. "He is 94 years old," Karnauchov says proudly.

Author: Olga Sosnytska / ccp

Editor: Michael Lawton