Elder Brother, Loyal Friend, and the Stalinist Myth of War: Recasting Soviet Ethnic Hierarchy, 1945-1953

Jonathan Brunstedt. Ab Imperio. Issue 3, 2019.

On the evening of January 11, 1948, Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, telephoned the Kremlin requesting clarification on a soon-to-be unveiled monument in Kyiv. The monument was dedicated to General N. F. Vatutin, the former commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front, who was killed in 1944 by members of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The monument consisted of a simple figurative representation of Vatutin in a greatcoat atop a pedestal. A Ukrainian-language inscription at its base read: “To General Vatutin from the Ukrainian People.” Just weeks before the monument’s planned dedication, however, Khrushchev received objections from multiple high-ranking officials, including the deputy head of Agitprop and the chairman of the Ukrainian State Committee of Arts, who questioned the appropriateness of an inscription that singled out the Ukrainian people. “That would be a [Ukrainian] nationalist inscription,” one of the authorities protested. “The monument was established by decision of the all-Union government,” argued another. “It would be better to give an inscription on behalf of the entire Soviet people.” Khrushchev, who had first proposed the inscription, countered that there was quite simply nothing untoward about it. Moreover, it had an obvious benefit. “Ukrainian nationalists will go out of their minds,” he added, “if an inscription is dedicated in the name of the Ukrainian people to a Russian.”

The dispute over Vatutin’s monument provides a window into an important aspect of World War II’s memory in the USSR: its function as a vehicle for what Frederick Barghoorn termed the “doctrine of Russian leadership.” Historians generally accept that an overriding trope of Russian wartime liberation and guidance undergirded official war memory among non-Russian Soviet peoples. Since the mid-1930s, the press had celebrated Russians as “first among equals” and “elder brother” in the Soviet family of nations, while touting Russian cultural, scientific, and, especially, military achievements of the prerevolutionary era. But the war saw this tendency soar to new heights, a phenomenon that persisted even after Germany’s defeat. In late May 1945, Stalin delivered a widely publicized toast in which he singled out the wartime role of the Russian people for their “clear mind, staunch [stoikii] character, and patience,” which had earned them “general recognition as the guiding force of the Soviet Union.” This apparently went hand in hand with a campaign in non-Russian republics, where the so-called zhdanovshchina (era of Zhdanov) sought to bring unique republican historical narratives in line with a centuries-long “Russian grand narrative.” The late Stalinist war myth, in this reading, functioned primarily to remind the multinational Soviet people that Russians have “always been the greatest, wisest, bravest, and most virtuous of all nations.”

However, while Khrushchev relished the prospect of antagonizing nationalists with his message of Ukrainian deference “to a Russian,” he makes the case in his memoirs that a more complex dynamic was at work than the mere reiteration of a Russian-led hierarchy of peoples. If Khrushchev’s recollections are to be believed, his intention was never to depict an unequal relationship between elder (Russian) and younger (Ukrainian) brothers, but rather to demonstrate that, unlike “bourgeois” nationalists who feed off ethnic antagonisms, Soviet patriots privilege, above all, those supra-ethnic values that bind Soviet citizens regardless of ethnicity. As Khrushchev elaborates,

This inscription testified to the merging of the thoughts and actions of both the Ukrainian and the Russian people in a single effort, in the common struggle against the invaders. And that’s actually the way things were, because not only Russians and Ukrainians but also Tatars, Jews, Bashkirs, Belorussians, and representatives of other nationalities died on the same battlefields and for the same cause. Their political and moral unity was displayed in this effort, when all the peoples of the USSR rose up against the enemy to defend our homeland.

“Our strength was not in our differences,” Khrushchev observes elsewhere in his memoirs, “but in unity and monolithic solidity. The war convincingly confirmed this.” More than brotherhood, which indicates a vertical, hierarchical relationship, Khrushchev might have applied the metaphor of friendship to his idealized characterization of wartime ethnic relations. “Friends after all are equivalent to one another,” writes Ronald Suny, “their relationship is about trust, devotion, dependability, affection, and reciprocity.” It is unclear precisely how much of this later justification about “political and moral unity” made it into Khrushchev’s evening phone conversation with Stalin; but his defense of the inscription eventually won out. “Tell them to go to hell! Do what you propose,” was Stalin’s alleged response. The monument was unveiled as originally planned on January 25, 1948.

This article explores ideological production in the late Stalinist USSR through the lens of the fledgling myth of the Great Patriotic War. It focuses in particular on how the intentions of the center were often reinterpreted in non-Russian republican contexts. Although the war as an object of commemoration had nowhere near the profile it would achieve during the war cult of the 1960s-1980s, there was nevertheless a relatively vibrant, if overlooked, official discourse about the nature of Soviet multiethnicity at war, which became instrumental in defining belonging during the late Stalinist period (particularly during the zhdanovshchina campaign). The essay contends that dominant elements within the party leadership disseminated a myth of the war that was intended less as a complement to broader notions of Russian primacy and primordialism than a counterpoint. While Russocentric historical narratives of the prerevolutionary and early Soviet eras continued to stress the Russian people’s benevolence and assistance on the path to revolution, the official story of the war provided a parallel but countervailing ideological current, which aimed to flatten hierarchical configurations.

Of course, this leveling was not extended to groups suspected of collaboration or other acts of disloyalty. As Amir Weiner and others have demonstrated, the war narrative relegated or excluded ethnic communities, especially those deported wholesale in wartime-Soviet Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, and so on-from the informal “hierarchy of heroism.” But for most others, the state employed two distinct mythologies of integration in the years after 1945. The first promoted Russian guidance and ethnic diversity, but principally concerned prerevolutionary or early Soviet ethnic relations. The second centered on the theme of the war and tended to limit displays of the singular role of the Russian people and heterogeneity more generally in favor of a largely undifferentiated Soviet imagined community. Although these twin mythologies each served the ends of social integration, they advanced contradictory notions of the Russian people’s place within Soviet society, something that bred ideological inconsistency and improvisation during the early years of the war myth’s creation.

As we will see, it was frequently left to ideologues and cultural intelligentsia in the republics to interpret the inconsistent signals from above. This partly explains why Russocentric accounts of the war continued to appear toward the end of Stalin’s life. In line with the dominant postwar narrative, many local agitators and party officials homed in on the themes of multiethnic friendship and shared “Soviet” heroism without a mention of Russian wartime leadership. Others, meanwhile, articulated a deeply Russocentric understanding of victory, often as a means of assuaging the concerns of central authorities over potential manifestations of “local” (non-Russian) nationalism. As a result, some of the most noteworthy efforts to steer the war narrative in a more Russocentric direction came, paradoxically, from non-Russian party organizations.

The potential for variability between the center, which I argue increasingly moved away from the war as a signifier of Russian “elder brotherhood,” and the periphery, where representations stressed Russian leadership and national diversity, highlights an important facet of the Soviet “imperial repertoire”: the fluidity of hierarchical configurations at the top. This finding is broadly in line with Erik R. Scott’s concept of “domestic internationalism” as the guiding logic of Soviet multiethnic governance. Although the USSR, like other empires, practiced a “politics of difference” as a means of enforcing central authority, the Soviet case arguably belongs to a much smaller subset of empires characterized by an ill-defined or nonexistent core nation. In contrast to the distinct nationalities at the periphery, the imperial center was not composed of ethnic Russians but rather an amorphous, multiethnic collection of “Soviet” peoples. This dynamic not only enabled Soviet authorities to reconfigure hierarchical relations, or ignore them outright, as circumstances dictated, but also necessarily curtailed unambiguous assertions of Russocentrism from the center. The present study suggests that such a logic was most fully on display in representations of the war. The article joins a number of important recent contributions that have highlighted the war’s role in Soviet nation-building and in the process of negotiation between the center and periphery. But whereas this wave of scholarship has focused primarily on the wartime integration of non-Russian peoples, the analysis here centers on the ambiguous place of the dominant nationality, ethnic Russians, as reflected in postwar representations.

The Varieties of Postwar Patriotism at the Center

Stalin’s toast “to the Russian people” was not the final word on the war’s significance during Stalin’s lifetime. By 1946, the leadership had issued two equally foundational statements. First came a widely publicized address by Stalin to a meeting of Moscow voters in February. In his comments, Stalin clarified what he considered to be the ultimate “summation” of victory in the war:

Our victory signifies, first of all, that our Soviet social system was victorious … Second, our victory signifies that our Soviet state system was victorious, that our multinational Soviet state passed all the tests of the war and proved its viability … Now the issue is that the Soviet state system has proved to be a model multinational state, that the Soviet state system is a system of state organization in which the national question and the challenge of cooperation between nations have found a better solution than in any other multinational state. … This, in the main, is the summation of the war.

Nearly a year removed from Germany’s capitulation, Stalin’s overall analysis of the war highlighted the socialist system and multinational unity while remaining silent on the singular role of the Russian people.

It was left to Zhdanov to clarify the place of Russians in the postwar account of victory, which he did in a major publication in August. “We are no longer the Russians we were before 1917,” the party secretary asserted. “Our Russia [Rus’] is no longer the same. … We have changed and have grown along with the great transformations that have radically altered the face of our country.” Writing as a Russian from a blatantly Russocentric point of view, Zhdanov’s article is nevertheless significant for the ways it attempted to restrict Russians’ sense of self. To be Russian in the postwar era, Zhdanov suggests, meant severing primordial ties with the distant past and embracing instead Russianness in its purely Soviet condition. The article also elaborated on the nature of the war. “Where are such splendid human qualities to be found as those displayed by our Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War?” Zhdanov mused, before characterizing the war along purely ideological lines as a “brilliant victory for socialism” and a “brilliant victory for Marxism.” In the aftermath of a war in which state propaganda sometimes appealed to a sense of Russian nationalism and primordialism, Zhdanov’s decision to deliver a message on the increasing irrelevance of prerevolutionary identity ties from a Russocentric vantage point is understandable. But the effort to curb Russians’ excessive identification with the pre-1917 era was only the first step; within a year, Stalin rejected outright a reference to the “great Russian people who rightfully occupy the leading position in the Soviet family of nations” from the draft of the newly proposed party program.

It was not merely that postwar public culture had to accede to Stalin’s toast; in many respects, the Russocentrism of the toast had to accommodate official pronouncements and texts that emphasized an inclusive, pan-Soviet victory myth and stressed a curtailed, if transformed, role for Russians within the heroism hierarchy. Indeed, a broad reading of postwar histories suggests that the sentiments expressed in Stalin’s toast, and echoed in key writings, such as the later work of the historian Anna Pankratova, represented merely one pole in a spectrum of competing narratives of the war. Alongside odes to the “great Russian people” stood an alternative genre of patriotic texts that departed from the framework of Russian guidance. The war’s formal representation in these cases emphasized all-Soviet liberation of occupied territories, often in conjunction with local, underground participation, a role reserved for members of the titular nationality (for example, Ukrainians in the Ukrainian SSR). Crucially, such texts could claim an equally authoritative lineage. Whether the 1946 clarifying remarks by Stalin or Zhdanov noted above, or an earlier strand of wartime appeals and statements that emphasized “Soviet” themes and imagery, official postwar victory narratives were rooted in seemingly contradictory discourses. By drawing on certain canonical statements while excluding others, ideologues exerted no small amount of agency in crafting the war myth. Numerous examples testify to the fact that it was possible to articulate a Soviet victory myth that existed wholly outside the narrative of Russian exceptionalism.

Emblematic of the pan-Soviet genre was Aleksandr Sobolev’s 1948 lecture-turned-pamphlet, On Soviet Patriotism. With an initial print run larger than that of Anna Pankratova’s oft-cited The Great Russian People, Sobolev’s text ignored Stalin’s toast altogether and instead focused on the war’s role in forging a new Soviet people. In doing so, he preempted Nikita Khrushchev’s similar elaboration of this concept in 1961. Thanks to the victory of socialism and success in the war, Sobolev observed, “there has arisen a new historical community of people, the sovetskii narod, having a common socioeconomic structure of life, a common worldview, common goals and challenges in the construction of a communist society.” Aping the pan-Soviet rhetoric of the later war years, Sobolev emphasized that the new patriotism was “qualitatively different” from that which inspired Russians in the past. “It is,” wrote Sobolev, “a new, higher form of patriotism” and “a deeply conscious patriotism … based on an understanding of the superiority of the Soviet social and political system over any other, non-Soviet systems.” “Our superiority,” he concluded, “is not national, not biological, but historical and social.” For writers of this ilk, it was not the Russian people or their “great ancestors” that animated patriotism during the war, but rather socialism, the Soviet social system, and the new imagined community-the “great Soviet people.”

Other ideological producers used the Russian leadership theme selectively, stripping it of its prerevolutionary historical conceits. It was only “under Soviet conditions” that this new supra-ethnic community could “pass through the fire of … the Great Patriotic War,” wrote S. G. Kolesnikova. Russians, like the various other ethnonational constituencies that made up the Soviet people, “are no longer their former selves” (uzhe ne prezhnie liudi). Such texts remained, for the most part, broadly inclusive and deferential to the shared Soviet sources of victory. As a leading postwar school textbook-also edited by Pankratova-puts it:

Under the leadership of the great Russian people, Ukrainians and Belorussians, Georgians and Armenians, Uzbeks and Turkmen, all the peoples of our vast Soviet country fought heroically on the fronts of the Patriotic War. Within the glorious family of Heroes of the Soviet Union, there are many names of Soviet patriots of various nationalities. The Russian pilot and three-time Hero of the Soviet Union Aleksandr Pokryshkin, the Ukrainian partisan Sidor Kovpak, the Belorussian partisan Sosnovskii, the Kazakh Tulegen Tokhtarov, the Georgian Mikhail Pakhokidze, the Latvian Ianis Vil’khel’ms, the Estonian Meri, the Jew Gorelik and many others are now the pride of the peoples of the Soviet Union. The courageous representatives of all peoples of the USSR fearlessly went into battle with the cry “For the motherland! For Stalin!”

The Pankratova school text and others like it thus overlaid notions of Russian leadership and ethnic difference (for instance, the order in which ethnic heroes were listed) with distinctly Soviet elements: the leadership of Stalin, the party, multiethnic friendship, the Soviet system, socialist ideology.

Hence, although certain authors structured their texts around Stalin’s toast and implied a close link between victory in the war and centuries of Russian exceptionalism, this approach was neither requisite nor congenital to the postwar victory myth. Ideologues such as Sobolev and Kolesnikova chose not to reference the toast, whereas others did so in passing, extracting only the most vital mention of the Russian people’s faith in the Soviet government. This pattern is not entirely surprising. David Brandenberger has shown that Stalinist priorities had never been to foster Russian nationalism, but rather to couch Marxist-Leninist themes in more accessible patriotic forms drawn overwhelmingly from the Russian past. What is striking is the way theoreticians of the late 1940s translated this objective as it related to the war. Not only did they routinely preserve an inclusive, all-Soviet variant of the war narrative, but also frequently asserted its preeminence vis-à-vis the message offered in Stalin’s toast. Those hybrid narratives that attempted to merge Soviet and Russian patriotic elements tended to privilege the former and explain away the latter.

Even Stalin’s toast could be successfully channeled in a multiethnic and supranational direction. P. E. Vyshinskii, for instance, prefaced his coverage of Stalin’s toast with nearly twenty pages of exposition clarifying the vast differences between Soviet patriotism and that of the prerevolutionary Russian variety. “Soviet patriotism,” Vyshinskii reminded, “is qualitatively different from the patriotism of the old society. … Most of all, Soviet patriotism is the love for the Soviet, socialist motherland, where working people, freed from exploitation are the absolute masters of their country.” After reiterating the Russian people’s wartime “patience, perseverance, courage, clear mind, [and] trust in [the Soviet] government,” Vyshinskii placed these sentiments in a larger context. Stalin’s toast had signified that “Soviet patriotism is not anational.” While the Russian people’s national character was on display during the war, so too, Vyshinskii pointed out, was the Georgian people’s innate “spirit of freedom,” and the Ukrainian “tradition of courageous struggle for freedom” against external enemies. Stalin chose on the occasion of the Kremlin reception to single out the Russian national contribution to victory. But the more salient point was the way certain national traditions “unite and bring all the peoples of the USSR closer together into a single multinational Soviet people.” Soviet patriotism, Vyshinskii continued,

presupposes the love of Russians for their great national culture, for their language, for their national traditions; the love of Ukrainians for their nation and their culture; the love of Georgians for Georgia, for the national culture of the Georgian people, etc. However, the most important feature of Soviet patriotism is the love of Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Georgians, Armenians, and all other peoples of the USSR for their common socialist homeland, for the Soviet state, and for a single socialist culture.

Whatever the effects of Stalin’s toast on official culture, a pan-Soviet alternative vision was alive and well among the country’s central ideologues in the years before Stalin’s death.

Taken as a whole, texts produced by the central ideological establishment suggest a deep ambiguity at the heart of official conceptions of the war victory. While the selective celebration of Russian history and culture continued unabated across the Union, the leeway granted many of the war myth’s articulators to deviate from the more rigid Russocentric framework of Stalin’s toast was connected to broader sociopolitical concerns. Indeed, the endurance of the pan-Soviet genre of patriotism was based in part on the leadership’s recognition that prerevolutionary imagery and Russocentric phrasemaking were hampering the consolidation of a supra-ethnic patriotic identity.

From Elder Brother to Loyal Friend

In the republics, too, Stalin’s toast competed with a host of alternative official statements regarding the hierarchical nature of wartime patriotism. In January 1944, Stalin had provided a prototypical statement of sorts on non-Russian participation in the war. The occasion was a Politburo discussion about Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s screenplay for the war film Ukraine in Flames. Among the problems with the script were several characters’ fairly explicit rejection of class struggle and their promotion of a Ukrainiancentered patriotism. Stalin lambasted Dovzhenko for failing to represent the class nature of the Great Patriotic War, for ignoring the fact that this was a struggle between ideological systems, and for criticizing the policies of the 1930s. Most egregious, however, was that Dovzhenko had implied that Ukrainians were fighting first and foremost for the Ukrainian nation. To this, Stalin responded,

It is clear how untenable and incorrect such views are. If Dovzhenko wanted to tell the truth, he would have to say, no matter where the Soviet government sends you: to the north, south, west, east, remember that you are fighting and defending our Soviet Union, our common motherland, in collaboration with all the fraternal Soviet peoples [narodami], for defending the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics means also to defend and protect Soviet Ukraine. Ukraine as an independent state will be well preserved, will get stronger and flourish only within the Soviet Union as a whole.

The Ukrainian people, Stalin went on, understood something that Dovzhenko did not:

All the nations [narody] of the Soviet Union fight for Ukraine. During this fight, the areas of Ukraine that had been captured by the enemy during the early part of the war are now liberated. This was made possible thanks to the combat partnership of Russians and Ukrainians, Georgians and Belorussians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs and Moldavians, Turkmen and Uzbeks, all peoples of the Soviet Union.

Stalin concluded: “If one judges by Dovzhenko’s screenplay, it is not representatives of all the nations of the USSR that are fighting the Great Patriotic War, but only Ukrainians.” Tellingly, it was not the trope of the Russian elder brother and liberator that Stalin called on to remedy the script, but pan-Sovietism. Soviet patriotism, the Soviet leader reminded those in attendance, had no place for either the glorification of a unique prerevolutionary past or the celebration of “narrow national limitations” in the present.

The pan-Soviet orientation of Stalin’s critique set the tone for the war myth’s subsequent elaboration among non-Russian party organizations. At minimum, this amounted to promoting a “loyal” ethnonational community’s involvement in the war and wartime “friendship” with the Russian people-a Russocentric formula insofar as Russians were the common denominator in “Kazakh-Russian friendship,” “Ukrainian-Russian friendship,” and so on. However, while accounts of the distant past, the 1917 revolution, and the early history of the USSR placed Russians squarely in the lead by virtue of their historical, cultural, and numerical significance,40 it was lateral rather than vertical familial ties that suffused the prevailing pan-Soviet myth of the war. As a party lecturer in the Yakut ASSR put it in September 1947, the Yakut contribution to victory over Germany was rooted in the “great friendship between the Yakut and Russian peoples,” “tempered in the fire and labor of the Great Patriotic War.” It was “loyalty,” not subordination, to the Russian people that undergirded this friendship, while guidance during the war was attributed to the Bolshevik Party and “the brilliant leadership of Stalin.” Again, the emphasis on friendship as opposed to brotherhood implied more or less equal status among Soviet peoples.

Even in the formerly occupied western regions late in the war, it was increasingly the “Soviet component,” to borrow Weiner’s phrase, and not Russian liberation, that informed the war narrative’s official manifestations. This was partly due to concerns within the Central Committee (CC) that communities in formerly occupied territories might perceive the Soviet state as a tool of Russian domination. In 1945, the Agitprop deputy head, M. T. Iovchuk, together with his associate, E. N. Gorodetskii, wrote to Georgii Malenkov regarding “the state of political work among the population of the western regions of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.” The authors complained that the party was not carrying out enough agitational work in areas where the Nazis had previously organized mass propaganda campaigns aimed at inciting ethnonational antagonism toward Soviet authority. It was these efforts that had supposedly contributed to the lasting presence of hostile Polish, Belorussian, and Ukrainian nationalists. The letter called for the immediate publication in local newspapers of “articles promoting the role of the Soviet state and the party of Lenin and Stalin during the Great Patriotic War.”

In response, the CC intensified mass political work in the western borderlands, which included a two-month crash course to prepare party cadres in Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldavia, and elsewhere. Given claims over the anti-Russian character of “local” nationalism in these areas, the CC opted to underscore all-Union friendship bonds rather than Russian guidance in the ensuing propaganda offensive. In the language of a CC resolution directed at western Ukraine, “Party organizations … must convey to the population that only the Soviet state, based on the friendship of the peoples, can provide workers of the western regions of Ukraine with genuine freedom, material well-being, and rapid cultural recovery.” There was also a renewed emphasis on class. Indeed, CC authorities saw class rhetoric as an antidote to the idealization of prerevolutionary national histories, something that would become more pronounced under the Zhdanovshchina. This was true for the RSFSR as well. In Vladimir oblast, for example, in apparent response to the indiscriminate celebration of Russian historical themes in party work, the CC instructed local party officials to deepen their coverage of class struggle alongside the war. The directive called for future party work to center on the lives of workers and peasants under tsarism, the nature of capitalism, the origins of the Bolshevik Party, the construction of the Soviet state, and the “reasons for the Soviet people’s victory in the Great Patriotic War.”

The minimization of the Russian liberation theme in favor of all-Union “friendship” and class struggle, however, could not fully negate hierarchical notions of wartime heroism. As Weiner and others have underscored, Russians continued to provide the greatest number of publicized Heroes of the Soviet Union, while the press largely ceased identifying members of deported ethnic communities and the ethnic identities of Jewish heroes, effectively erasing the latter’s unique contribution and fostering an anti-Semitic legend that Jews had shirked their wartime duty. However, the language of late-wartime dispatches and Central Committee resolutions reflected both the highly limited nature of the Russian wartime guidance theme and an overriding commitment in Moscow to all-Union bonds and the greater pan-Soviet imagined community.

Shortly after Victory Day, Aleksandrov prepared a summary document on the war’s significance as it stood circa mid-May 1945. The document-a draft resolution justifying the policies of the 1930s through the prism of the war experience-targeted local party organizations primarily in the Ukrainian SSR, which had suffered disproportionately during collectivization and where armed resistance to Soviet authority persisted. The draft urged that the party leadership “every day explain to the working people” the link between Stalin’s foresight during the previous decade and victory: “The [Central Committee of the Communist Party] and comrade Stalin warned that the coming war will be severe, prolonged and bloody, and stressed the need in this context to prepare all peoples of the country for the upcoming war.” According to the document, Germany’s defeat was to be cast as the result of the combined efforts of the whole Soviet people, for its “willingness to make sacrifices,” “selfless work in the name of victory,” and “ability to provide the country with more metal, aircraft, guns, shells, tanks, cars, fabrics, … cotton, bread, beets, potatoes, and other types of industrial and agricultural products.” Although the document predated Stalin’s toast honoring the Russian people by less than two weeks, it was far more anticipatory of a toast he delivered in late June in honor of the “little screws” (vintikami) running “the great machine of state,” the “simple, ordinary, modest people,” “without whom, all of us marshals or commanding officers of the fronts or armies wouldn’t be worth … a damn.” Stalin’s postwar statements on the sources of victory thus linked up with late-wartime threads emphasizing all-Soviet heroism and sacrifice as well as the continued importance of class, threads that did not so much entwine with Stalin’s toast exalting the Russian people, as circumvent it.

Negotiating Russian Elder Brotherhood at the Periphery

If postwar Kazakhstan is any indication, the developing war myth would continue to provide a means of combating perceived local nationalist tendencies through the idiom of pan-Sovietism rather than Russian guidance. Here, the Russocentric deluge that accompanied Stalin’s toast appears not to have necessitated a shift toward a more Russian-dominated victory narrative. At the same time, postwar ideological campaigns placed elements within the Kazakh party bureau and scholarly community under particularly severe scrutiny for ideological errors, which included the promotion of supposed anti-Russian interpretations of the past and insufficient deference to Russians in the present.50 Such accusations and denunciations, and calls for all-Union intervention into republican affairs, culminated only in 1952, with the suppression of a historical work by the widely respected Kazakh academician E. B. Bekmakhanov, and his ultimate arrest and imprisonment. Authorities’ sensitivity to the slightest deviation from ideological norms in Kazakhstan makes for a revealing case study of the Stalinist victory myth’s agitational role in a non-Russian republican context.

In June 1945, a letter by Konstantin Nefedov, the editor of Kazakhstanskaia Pravda, began making the rounds among Moscow authorities. In the letter, Nefedov complained to the high-ranking Georgii Malenkov that not enough had been done to publicize the bourgeois-nationalist errors found in the first edition of the once lauded History of the Kazakh SSR. Edited by Anna Pankratova and the head of Agitprop for the Kazakh Party Central Committee M. A. Abdykalykov, History of the Kazakh SSR had come under fire in mid-1944 for supposedly denigrating the historically progressive role of the Russian people. Although the book’s faults were widely discussed and the matter was considered closed, Nefedov now asserted that Abdykalykov, together with other leading party figures, was actively suppressing details of the book’s shortcomings. While the earlier debate over History of the Kazakh SSR centered on its account of Russian-Kazakh relations primarily during the nineteenth century, Nefedov’s letter focused on enforcing Russian primacy in a Soviet context. During party meetings and discussions, Nefedov claimed, “it is not stated that Soviet Kazakhstan owes its present to the great Russian people, to the brotherhood of the peoples of the Soviet Union. And if it is said, then, in general terms, it is [done] unconvincingly.”

Notably, Nefedov complained that party officials were ignoring the role of Russians during the war: “Here there is a tendency … to exorbitantly exalt the historical role of the Kazakh people, particularly in the [Great] Patriotic War, while remaining silent or trying to silence the role of the great Russian people.” He went on to recount the mistreatment of a surviving member of the famed 28 Panfilov Guardsmen at the hands of the republican government. It was well-known within the republic that two surviving Panfilovtsy resided within the Kazakh SSR. One of these, an ethnic Russian named Vasil’ev, was invited to Alma-Ata to attend a gala event. However, his clothing and boots were in such poor condition that Nefedov’s editorial office, with little to no help from the local party organization, struggled to acquire decent attire on Vasil’ev’s behalf. In the end, the office was only able to provide Vasil’ev with suitable boots. By contrast, according to Nefedov, when multiple ethnic-Kazakh Heroes of the Soviet Union visited for a similar event months later, Kazakh party and government agencies provided the men and their families, “not a few of whom were drunk,” with 50,000 rubles’ worth of new clothing and shoes “simply because [they were] Kazakhs.” Hence, a component within republican officialdom was supposedly seeking at every turn to elevate the remembrance of Kazakh wartime heroism at Russians’ expense. Nefedov called for Central Committee intervention “to fix the situation that has arisen.”

Nefedov, an ethnic Russian, clearly believed that accusations about the lack of attention accorded Russian wartime leadership in the republic would provoke the outrage of the center, and he looked to direct that outrage at his rivals, including Abdykalykov. This was a fairly standard tactic. As one historian has noted, the late Stalinist “antinationalist campaign in Kazakhstan was not the result of pressure by all-Union government bodies, but rather of the local initiative of ‘internationalists’ from among the creative and scientific intelligentsia, who were settling accounts with longtime enemies.” Significantly, the all-Union center frequently acted “to prevent such local ‘initiatives.'” Although the Central Committee did launch an investigation in the summer of 1945, beginning a years-long cycle of personnel shakeups and public condemnations over suspected bourgeois nationalist tendencies, it finessed the issue of Russian leadership in the war.

As in other republics, the Central Committee investigation in Kazakhstan uncovered instances of overzealous celebration of figures and events from the prerevolutionary past. This risked undermining the official line, which held that the process of unification with the Russian people was wholly benevolent and progressive. To remedy these persistent deviations, central authorities renewed their call for a shift in focus among the republic’s scholars, ideologues, and creative intelligentsia, away from distinct national histories toward a focus on the shared Soviet experience.

Consonant with Nefedov’s accusations, the report generated by the Central Committee investigative team also faulted republican portrayals of Soviet-era accomplishments, which included examples of authors writing Russians out of the war in favor of more exclusively Kazakh narratives. The chief offender in this regard was the manuscript for “My Frontline Friends” (Moi frontovye druz’ia) by the Kazakh Hero of the Soviet Union Malik Gabdullin. Drawn from the author’s firsthand experiences as part of the famed 8th Panfilov Rifle Division during the defense of Moscow, the work was accused of promoting an “anti-Russian spirit.” Gabdullin glorified the Kazakh battalion commander Momysh-uly and depicted harsh frontline measures of discipline, including summary executions of traitors and cowards. However, the CC report noted incredulously, “all these cowards, violators of discipline, traitors to the Motherland, turn out to be Russians.” Hence, Gabdullin had provided a “deliberately perverted description of the role of the Russian soldier at war” and “described events in such a way that only Kazakhs fought heroically outside Moscow.” To make matters worse, after a local party official earmarked the manuscript for further review, Abdykalykov reproached the official, an ethnic Russian, remarking, “Don’t be so stubborn, and don’t forget where you live and work.”

The team assigned to assess ideological shortcomings in the republic thus took aim at republican-level portrayals of the war from an unabashedly Russocentric perspective. The direct subordination of Russian wartime heroism to that of another, non-Russian variety was flatly denounced. Nevertheless, the critique of Gabdullin’s manuscript and several other works remained very much in line with Stalin’s earlier pronouncement on Dovzhenko’s Ukraine in Flames. There was nothing in the report noting the absence of Russian wartime guidance or deeming Russians more innately heroic than other peoples of the Union.60 On the contrary, the report summarized its review of works on the Soviet era by chiding the Kazakh party organization in rote terms for failing to “reflect the heroic character of the Soviet people, their struggle for the freedom and independence of their socialist Motherland, [and] the friendship of the peoples of the USSR.”

Subsequent Central Committee reports connected to the investigation of summer 1945 were even more circumspect regarding depictions of Russian wartime centrality. One follow-up report sent by the Russian first secretary of the Kazakh SSR, G. A. Borkov, to Malenkov, downgraded Gabdullin’s violation from propagating an “anti-Russian” war narrative to “incorrectly treating the image of a Soviet officer,” with no comment on the portrayal more generally of the Russian people at war. This was accompanied in the report by assurances that the republic’s party organization was at work addressing its prior ideological errors, promoting Soviet-oriented themes-mainly the war-and carrying out additional measures aimed at encouraging all-Union friendship rooted in the shared experience of the war. For example, the party organization had established a program to foster exchanges between Kazakhstani veterans of the Panfilov Rifle Division and residents of the Hero Cities of Stalingrad and Leningrad.

Borkov’s report was not silent on the issue of Russian guidance. “Kazakh newspapers,” the report pointed out, “have started to publish more articles on the friendship between the Russian and Kazakh peoples, the role of the Russian people in the creation of the Soviet state, the formation of the Kazakh Republic, and so on.” Elsewhere, Borkov advocated the study of “Russian people’s fraternal assistance to the Kazakh people in their political, cultural, and economic development.” However, Borkov’s summary as well as later communications with the Central Committee appeared unconcerned with the issue of Russian guidance during the war. As the war was fast becoming the paramount Soviet-era theme among the republic’s agitators, criticisms of war-themed works produced in the republic centered not on insufficient deference to Russians but on tone and the need to provide positive portrayals of Red Army soldiers and their experiences during demobilization. As one Kazakh control committee report noted, several short stories dealing with the return of Kazakh veterans to their villages were guilty of “libel against the Soviet people” for emphasizing the infidelity of the soldiers’ spouses while they were at the front.


By June 1946, with the onset of the Zhdanovshchina, the Kazakh party organization could confidently outline its revamped ideological priorities. During a July conference in Alma-Ata on propaganda work within the republic, Abdykalykov called for a major overhaul of every aspect of mass political work, which henceforth was to center on promoting Soviet-era achievements. The war was of paramount importance for the new Soviet orientation. “We must put an end,” he declared, “to the situation in which all the activities of [party and state] institutions focused mainly on topics of the distant past of the Kazakh people.” Rather, it was time to “require of them the complete and deep development of modern themes … to show throughout [the republic] the extent of the heroic deeds of the people of Kazakhstan at the front and in the rear during the Great Patriotic War.” Instead of the culmination of some age-old struggle between Germans and Slavs, which Stalin had implied in a Victory Day speech, Abdykalykov stressed the contemporary nature of the war’s origins and credited the “conditions of socialism” and the established Soviet system for making victory possible. In this vein, Abdykalykov reprimanded republican propagandists who had erroneously traced fascism’s origins to reactionary movements of previous centuries. On the contrary, Abdykalykov urged that fascism was “the product of modern imperialism, and fascists-the most reactionary element of monopoly capitalism.” In other words, the war against fascism had nothing to do with a primordial struggle between Germans and Slavs, but was instead a clash of ideological systems.

The other speakers at the conference, mainly members of the Kazakh party establishment, reiterated the new, Soviet-centered focus in ideological work. The editor of a local newspaper, one Taikumanov, urged propagandists “to create new works that reflect our great Soviet era-the era of world-historic victories, the grand era of construction in the years of Stalin’s five-year plans.” N. Stepanov, the Agitprop deputy, called for greater emphasis on the unshakable cohesion of the Soviet people at war, which was rooted in ideological adherence and patriotic devotion to the socialist motherland.70 The concluding speaker, named Maslin, argued that the war theme must reflect the new era in social relations. Victory, according to Maslin, had strengthened not only friendship between ethnonational groups, but especially the attachment of those groups to the larger, supranational body:

If the wars of the past always led to a sharp increase in antagonism between the people and the state, the [Great] Patriotic War has shown that the interests of our people and those of the Soviet state have become even more inseparable. … If the wars of the past have led to the aggravation of ethnic strife, and sometimes to the disintegration of multinational states, as a result of the Great Patriotic War our multinational Soviet state became even stronger. The friendship of the peoples of the Soviet Union is the greatest and indestructible foundation of our state.

While victory in the war had increased the national consciousness and pride of every Soviet nation, its overriding significance, in Maslin’s view, was “an even greater commitment to the multinational state.” Hence, what began as the Central Committee’s involvement in the affairs of the Kazakh party organization for local nationalist tendencies and insufficient deference to the Russian people, resulted in a decidedly pan-Soviet official conception of victory. Although republican officials, including Abdykalykov, would continue to fall afoul of central authorities, subsequent violations would center on portrayals of prerevolutionary events and not republican representations of the Great Patriotic War.

The case of the Kazakh SSR suggests that there was no formal doctrine of Russian primacy tied to the war victory. In the aftermath of repeated disciplinary measures designed to affirm Kazakhstan’s “voluntary” union with Russia before the revolution, there remained a concern among republican authorities that victory in the war be presented as the shared achievement of all Soviet peoples. This is evident in a series of meetings on museum work within the republic in January 1953. During the sessions, Kazakh museum officials complained of the poor state of republican museums, especially the lack of museum exhibits reflecting the Soviet period. The Soviet era, one museum director noted, “concerns us more than all the history from primitive times up to the revolution.” Where museums had developed Soviet displays, these were often sloppily put together and blended with exhibits from other time periods. One regional museum’s lead exhibit on the Great Patriotic War, for example, inexplicably consisted of a mock-up of the 1760 taking of Berlin by Russian soldiers during the Seven Years’ War. This revealed not only an inattention to historical detail, but, more disconcertingly, a potential failure among rural museum administrators to comprehend the vital ideological distinction between Russian and Soviet military feats. Despite the lack of success in portraying Soviet events in the republic’s museums, however, the discussion participants were clear on the war’s significance in future museum work. The acting museum director for the Dzhambul region, one Esmurzaev, outlined the revised thematic plan for the republic’s museums in the coming year, which included the fixture “Kazakhstan in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945.” In addition to providing an overview of the main events of the war, the exhibit would highlight the Kazakh people’s unflagging response to the party’s call to take up arms in defense of the common socialist motherland. Esmurzaev and his colleagues made no mention of Russian leadership or even friendship in the war, but rather stressed ways the war theme could complement “our country’s ideology of equality of all races and nations … the great sense of Soviet patriotism, [and] deep love and devotion to the great party of Lenin and Stalin.”

At the same time, however, we have seen that elements within the republican party committee and local intelligentsia, such as Konstantin Nefedov, the Russian editor of Kazakhstanskaia Pravda, called on central authorities to enforce the notion of Russian wartime guidance in republican-level representations, a plea the Central Committee ultimately ignored. Indeed, the impetus for many of the controversies over local nationalism within the republic, as Sattar Kaziev has shown, emanated from republican officials themselves. Thus, while the question of Russian wartime leadership became a key wedge issue for settling local disputes and a perceived means of displaying loyalty and deference to Moscow, it was not a Central Committee priority.

The People’s Friendship Recast

Although processes in other republics no doubt varied, developments in Kazakhstan were hardly anomalous. The historian Serhy Yekelchyk has demonstrated convincingly that local bureaucrats in the Ukrainian SSR-often ethnic Russians, but not always-could be greater “chauvinists” than their Russian counterparts at the all-Union level. Also noteworthy is an observable wartime practice among certain communities of broadcasting patriotism through expressions of devotion to “Russia” and the “Russian people.” In a fascinating diary entry from early in the war, Khrisanf Lashkevich, an ethnic Russian resident of the Crimean city of Simferopol, noted the “suspicious” behavior of the city’s Tatar community, which became increasingly garish in its displays of affection for the Russian people. Recalling a conversation over a game of chess with a Tatar acquaintance, Lashkevich pondered the meaning behind the sudden wave of Tatar Russophilia: “Why does he love the Russian (precisely the Russian) people, and not the peoples of the USSR as a whole? Why does he speak like that about only the Russian people and not about our shared homeland?” It was during a discussion with another Tatar man, this time over a game of cards, that Lashkevich realized why the notion of Tatar deference to the Russian people appeared so unusual to him.

So that’s how it is: Tatars do love Russia. The surprising thing for me, a Russian, a devout patriot, is that “Russia” has long dissolved into the close-knit mass that is the USSR. If by habit I sometimes said the word Russia, then I always identified it with the concept of the USSR. But it is not me, an elderly Russian man, throwing around and asserting the word Russia, but Tatars.

As with Nefedov or the various cultural intermediaries identified by Yekelchyk, it scarcely matters whether these Tatar expressions of singular pride in the Russian nation were genuine or calculated. These examples speak to the complicated and inconsistent way ethnic hierarchy, and particularly the ascendant place of Russians, was understood and enforced in the late Stalinist USSR. They demonstrate that Russocentrism connected to the war experience could manifest in non-Russian contexts with perhaps greater ease than it could in all-Union or major Russian centers.

This apparent feature of Soviet rule might explain why several depictions of the war as a predominantly Russian event emerged during the final months of Stalin’s life from non-Russian party officials. In early 1953, the ethnic Azeri party boss of Soviet Azerbaijan, Mir Dzhafar Abbasovich Bagirov, submitted a chronicle of Russian greatness to the journal Kommunist that included the following synopsis of the war:

The friendship of the peoples of our country, forged in the struggle for the victory of socialism, in the struggle for communism, rallied to their elder brother, the great Russian people, with particular force during the difficult years of the Great Patriotic War. … The Great Patriotic War clearly confirmed that only by rallying around its elder brother, the Russian people, only with them, only under their leadership, are the peoples of our country invincible. … Noting the decisive role of the Russian people in achieving victory in the Great Patriotic War, comrade Stalin said at the reception of the commanders of the Red Army on May 24, 1945: [full text of Stalin’s toast]. … The Russian people deservedly enjoy the title of first among equals, by rights they are the elder brother in the family of peoples of the Soviet Union.

An additional example from the Ukrainian SSR substantiates the trend among non-Russian party officials to push the war myth in a more Russocentric direction than central authorities may have intended. Yekelchyk contrasts the Dovzhenko Affair, in which the issue of the Russian elder brother did not play a role, with a similar event several months later involving the Ukrainian poet Maksym Rylsky. In March 1944, Fedir Ienevych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, issued a report criticizing a 1943 lecture on Ukrainian history by Rylsky. Rylsky’s speech had praised Ukrainians’ “uninterrupted” historical contributions from the earliest times up to the present war with Germany. Ienevych’s report condemned Rylsky for excessively glorifying prerevolutionary Ukrainian culture and for ignoring the guiding role of the Russian people, an accusation that extended to the present war: “It was necessary to stress in this speech … the most important, decisive role that the great Russian people played in liberating Ukraine from the German imperialists.”

Unlike the controversy over Ukraine in Flames, which featured Stalin’s personal involvement, Ienevych’s criticism of Rylsky did not occasion a more general denunciation. Ienevych was in fact fired in 1947, and he attempted to redeem himself by relaunching his assault on Rylsky’s speech that year. This resulted in a resolution by the Ukrainian CC retroactively denouncing Rylsky’s “nationalistic mistakes” and his treatment of “the history of Ukraine in isolation from the history of other peoples.”80 However, Rylsky’s inattention to Russian wartime liberation, a deviation in the eyes of the Ukrainian authority Ienevych, did not play any role in the affair’s subsequent trajectory. Instead, criticisms fixed squarely on the prerevolutionary past. Nevertheless, Ienevych’s report, Nefedov’s letter of complaint to the Central Committee, and publications toward the end of Stalin’s life by figures such as Bagirov, all speak to a propensity among party officials in non-Russian republics to curry favor with and exhibit deference to the Kremlin through the promotion of Russian-dominated accounts of the war and liberation.

But if the Russian elder brother theme was inconsistently adopted at the periphery, it largely disappeared from the rhetoric of central officialdom. Even during the anticosmopolitan campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which so clearly played on deeply entrenched xenophobia and the anti-Semitism of certain Russian nationalist currents, the war’s pan-Soviet character remained largely unaffected. Although beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that while Jewish critics were censured for misrepresenting the “national character of the Soviet Russian man,” such condemnations typically set apart the patriotism of the Soviet people during the war, which remained supra-ethnic. As with the initial stage of the anticosmopolitan campaign, war-themed works by Jewish academics and writers throughout 1949 most often came under fire not for failing to promote the leading role of Russians but for insufficient criticism of the policies of the United States and Great Britain during the war. Of course, this only underscores the fact that authorities routinely couched the fight against cosmopolitanism as a defense of pan-Soviet patriotic values; the supra-nationalism of the war myth could be every bit as insular and chauvinistic when wielded against “otherness” as the narrower Russian variety.

In some respects, the pervasive Russian chauvinism and antisemitism of the era further divested official war memory of residual Russocentric elements. Paradoxical as it might seem, by widening the range of possible outlets for Russocentric expression, while simultaneously attempting to preserve the war myth’s all-Soviet character, the anticosmopolitan campaign effectively channeled notions of Russian primacy away from the war theme and into the contained Russocentric spaces of pre-Soviet arts, sciences, and revolutionary activism. Stalin’s toast, for example, made a rather dramatic comeback during the later stages of the anticosmopolitan campaign. In line with broader trends, however, the toast became a tool for highlighting a vague notion of Russian historical exceptionalism that had little directly to do with the war. In April 1949, the deputy director of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences, V. I. Shunkov, attacked several Jewish historians affiliated with the organization for trying to silence “the historical role of the great Russian people who are ‘the most outstanding nation of all the nations that make up the Soviet Union’ (from the speech of Stalin of 24 May 1945).” This direct quote from Stalin’s toast preceded a discussion on insufficient attention to prerevolutionary Russian achievements and the transformed Soviet Russian person with no mention of the war or the toast’s connection to it. Thus, the heightened Russocentrism and anti-Semitism of the late 1940s and early 1950s did not imply the Russification of the war’s memory. On the contrary, it may have played a role in preserving its supra-ethnic and postrevolutionary orientation.