World War II means many different things depending on where in the world one finds itself. Where I grew up and in my family, it was a war that both of my grandfathers fought in, one as a pilot over Normandy and the other as a gunner on Okinawa. It was something that shaped the rest of their lives and that forever influenced their world perspective.
In America, we like to say that we “won” World War II. There’s a whole bevy of satirical merchandise for sale that says “USA: Back To Back World War Champs,” obviously joking. But in the former Soviet Union, World War II is thought of quite differently. A year ago, I wrote about Victory Day, the 9 May holiday that marks the end of the War, because it was the 70th anniversary, and I watched the spectacular military parade in Moscow on television. I later learned that it was the largest and most lavish parade held in Russian history, and even included a group of Kyrgyz soldiers (as did the Chinese Victory Day parade held in September).
This year, I wanted to explore a bit deeper into the significance of this holiday of remembrance and its history, and why it is such an important holiday.
The first sign of difference is that World War II here is not called World War II. It is called the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная Война in Russian and Улуу Ата-Мекендик Согуш in Kyrgyz) by the USSR, and the World Anti-Fascist War in many other places. It may sound a little grandiose, but the truth is that World War II had an enormous impact on the Soviet Union’s population and identity.
See, in World War II, the US lost 419,400 people to war-related causes, or about 0.32% of the population. 17 other countries lost more people. That includes the US territory of the Philippines, which itself lost more people than the rest of the US combined (527,000 people, or 3.29% of its population). France lost 600,000. India lost around 2 million (or 4 times the rest of the British colonies combined). Poland lost about 6 million (about 17% of its population, mostly civilians were killed), Germany lost about 7 million (about 5 million were military). In short, a LOT of people died, and people in just about every country were affected.
The USSR? They lost 27 million people. About 10 million were military, roughly twice as many as Germany. Another 10 million died due to direct military activity (i.e. Stalingrad). And another about 7 million died due to disease and famine (World War II heavily impacted agriculture in the USSR, but Stalin’s policies didn’t help). That was 13.7% of a population of almost 200 million people, and more than the entire population of all but 15 countries at the time.
In the US, a lot of our classes on World War II focus on the strategy of it, of the work with the British and the French, and on the Pacific campaign against the Japanese. We also focus on the Holocaust, because in case we all forgot, 6 million Jews and 5 million “other undesirables” were systematically murdered by the Nazis. That represented roughly 78% of the Jews of Europe. The scale of it is so horrifying, so unimaginable, that it is what has stuck in our minds. And rightfully so – the Holocaust does not require justification for being taught and remembered. We have proximity to both the Holocaust and the rest of the US soldiers who fought in World War II because we know many people had family who fought or who survived the Holocaust. These are the key forces that have shaped America’s perspective on the war.
I know that comparing these horrors is morally problematic, but bear with me for just another second for a thought experiment. Imagine what our national identity might have been if we had lost 3.29% of our population and been left to be invaded, like the Philippines. Imagine if we had lost 13.7% of our total population, like the USSR. Imagine how your would have felt if 78% of your identified group had been systematically exterminated by the Nazis, including your grandmother’s family. Imagine how that might change the way you look at the world, and how we reflect upon what happened from 1939-1945.
In 1939, the US had 131 million people. An equivalent scope of death to the USSR would have meant that about 18 million Americans would have died. That’s more than twice the population of New York City at the time. It would be as if the entire population of the US’s five largest cities at the time were wiped out. Witnessing such atrocities and death would change the entire way we view the world, wouldn’t it?
Putting ourselves in the shoes of the former USSR, China (who, by the way, also lost 15-20 million people in World War II) and many other countries and groups to learn about this difference in perspective is critical to fostering peace and understanding, just as remembering the stories and experiences of Holocaust victims and survivors is critical to nurturing tolerance and acceptance. We can learn and build a better world from it.
(Interestingly, this exercise has recently come up again around President Obama’s upcoming visit to Hiroshima, and how the US and Japan are trying to navigate very different national perspectives on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with the common goal of emphasizing working together towards peace.)
Kyrgyzstan itself was not immune to the war; about 363,000 Kyrgyz men went to fight in World War II, and by some counts 160,000 did not return. Many other civilians died during the war as well. For a country of barely 1.5 million at the time, this was an unbelievable burden – over 10% of the population, or 20% of the men of the country. Every village, even a village of less than one thousand, lost someone. Every family knew someone who had died. On top of that, World War II was when many ethnic minorities in the USSR were deported to Central Asia, also a disruption of their lives. It was a difficult time.
Today, Kyrgyzstan marks the occasion with solemn marches, parades, and fireworks. Every city, town, and village has a memorial listing the names of every person from that place who did not return home alive. Many of the larger ones have an eternal flame and a Kyrgyz take on a Pietà-esque statue (although obviously not in a religious sense). It is a time when the remaining veterans take to the streets in full uniforms, and the families of the deceased march with flowers and photos of their loved ones.
When it comes to World War II and the Holocaust, the experiences and perspectives of our countries are different, but the inscription on every one of these monuments around Kyrgyzstan is a sentiment that the world shares:
Эч ким унутулбайт, эч нерсе унутулбайт
Никто не забыт, ничто не забыто
Not one person, not one thing will be forgotten