WORLD AFFAIRS. As May 9th, Victory Day, approaches and celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany take place throughout all the post-Soviet states, it may be worth remembering that many members of the Red Army traded in their heroism and self-sacrifice for criminality and rapine in the last days of the war.

Here’s Cooper Union historian Atina Grossmann:

It has been suggested that perhaps one out of every three of about one and a half million women in Berlin at the end of the war were raped—many but certainly not all during the notorious week of “mass rapes,” from April 24 to May 5, 1945, as the Soviets finally secured Berlin. The numbers cited for Berlin vary wildly; from 20,000 to 100,000, to almost one million, with the actual number of rapes higher because many women were attacked repeatedly. [Two German scholars] speak, perhaps conservatively, of about 110,000 women raped, many more than once, of whom up to 10,000 died in the aftermath. At the same time … they announce on the basis of Hochrechnungen (projections or estimations) that 1.9 million German women altogether were raped at the end of the war by Red Army soldiers. This may be a horrifically accurate estimate… (“A Question of Silence: The Rape of German Women by Occupation Soldiers,” October, Spring 1995, pp. 42–63.)

According to Stanford University historian Norman Naimark:

It is highly unlikely that historians will ever know how many German women were raped by Soviet soldiers in the months before and years after the capitulation….. [R]ape became a part of the social history of the Soviet zone in ways unknown to the Western zones ... it is important to establish the fact that women in the Eastern zone—both refugees from further East and inhabitants of the towns, villages, and cities of the Soviet zone (including Berlin)—shared an experience for the most part unknown in the West, the ubiquitous threat as well as the reality of rape over a prolonged period of time. (Ibid.)

Here’s Yale University historian Timothy Snyder:

[T]he outburst of violence against German women was extraordinary…. In some villages, every single female was raped, whatever her age…. Gang rapes were very common…. German women often committed suicide, or tried to kill themselves, to prevent rape or to evade the shame of having been raped. As one recalled her flight, “With the darkness came an indescribable fright. Many women and girls were right there and raped by the Russians.” Hearing their screams, she and her sister slit their wrists, but survived… They were spared during the night, probably because they had passed out and seemed to be dead. Indeed, death was one of the few defenses against rape. Martha Kurzmann and her sister were spared only because they were burying their mother. “Just as we had washed our dead mother and wished to dress her body, a Russian came and wanted to rape us.” He spat and turned away. That was the exception. (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Europe. New York: Basic Books, 2010.)

And, finally, historian James Mark about the Red Army and Hungary:

During the Soviet occupation of Budapest at the end of the Second World War, it is estimated that around fifty thousand women in Budapest were raped by soldiers from the Red Army. After Berlin, the women of Budapest suffered in greater numbers than those of any other Central or Eastern European capital. (“Remembering Rape: Divided Social Memory and the Red Army in Hungary 1944–1945,” Past & Present, August 2005, pp. 133–61.)

All of the USSR’s nations and nationalities—Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Georgians, Armenians, Central Asians, and many others—were represented in the Soviet armed forces. Keep that in mind when you watch aged veterans taking part in Victory Day celebrations.

Now let’s ask a few exceedingly uncomfortable questions.

Were Red Army soldiers who fought bravely but also committed rapes heroes or villains? Should they be celebrated or condemned?

On the one hand, there’s no doubt that they made enormous sacrifices in World War II. Without them, Nazi Germany might not have been defeated. So in that sense they are clearly heroes.

On the other hand, who could possibly condone mass rape? So in that sense they are clearly villains.

Does it matter that their heroism lasted four years and their villainy two weeks? Do millions upon millions of war deaths negate thousands or hundreds of thousands or even 1 to 2 million rapes?

Should they be punished for their crimes? Should they be stripped of their medals? Or, at the least, reminded of their villainy?

Can any of these measures be undertaken without at the same time undermining the still-powerful Soviet-era myth of the “Great Fatherland War,” which served to legitimize the Soviet Union and which still legitimizes authoritarian rule in a host of post-Soviet states, especially Russia? Are the peoples of the former Soviet Union ready to come to grips with one of the most shameful moments of their history? Are their Western fellow travelers?

And just who should judge the “hero-criminals”? Surely not the likes of Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych. Russia? No way. Ukraine? Too divided. Civil society? Too abstract. Europe? Too indecisive. The West? Too compromised. Intellectuals? Give me a break. You and me? Hardly.

Let’s end with two questions with easy answers and one question with no easy answer.

Can heroes commit crimes? Of course. Can criminals be heroic? Why not?

Can we accommodate moral ambiguity, stop dividing the world into only two categories—saints and sinners, heroes and villains, victims and victimizers—and realize that there’s far more gray around than black and white? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog


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