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539. The taming power of the small (XII)

Various images from the invasion in the Ukraine show Russian tanks topped with the old hammer and sickle flag. In this case, it is unlikely to represent Communism; rather, it stands for transgressive martial ferocity. When a Russian soldier flies this flag he invokes the Red Army’s triumphal entry into Berlin—he calls upon the spirt of his great-grandfather or grandfather to aid him. The act is transgressive; probably it technically breaks some Russian army regulation, but in a war nobody really pays much attention to such things.

So the red flag stands for martial ferocity in general, it is a battle standard—militaries are highly traditional and conservative partly because loyalty to the standard, as in the Roman legions, aids morale and cohesion. Similar transgressive unofficial pennants are sometimes seen in Western militaries; for example, a few years ago an Australian unit was in trouble for a swastika flag flown in combat in Afghanistan. As with the Soviet flag, this was not about the idea behind the flag so much as the way that flag bloodied itself in combat.

The National Socialists were an Indo-Aryan Taliban: the purest expression of European nature possible—Greek classicism, a berserker war ethic, and a pagan-gnostic religion. So those Australian soldiers adopted the flag as an expression of the purest Western warriorship—and perhaps also in the same sense as Americans name their attack helicopters “Apaches”, you absorb the defeated foe’s energy when you adopt his symbols.

The Soviet legacy presents certain challenges: Stalin killed a great many people within the Soviet Union; he retarded the entire country. However, he also led the country to victory over Hitler, albeit after a rocky start. This creates an ambivalence, since it was clear Hitler would have been worse for everyone who lived in the USSR if he had won; his behaviour in the occupied territories demonstrated that he was worse than Stalin, though Stalin was bad. So Stalin saved the Soviets from Hitler, even as he—if you like—abused them. The situation was analogous to some single mother on a council estate whose partner beats her, yet beats her less badly than any other man would—and occasionally fends off other aggressors down the pub.

Putin seems to be largely anti-Bolshevik in his stance, in that he does not think Bolshevism had many—if any—redemptive aspects for Russia; and yet the nation must still negotiate with the pride that came about through victory in WWII, the fact that Stalin was better for Russians than Hitler, and the actual sacrifice of millions of their ancestors—all this cannot simply be repudiated as “evil Communism”; and, of course, it is a component in Western propaganda to create in cosmopolitan Russians a “guilt complex” similar to the German guilt complex over Hitler and the Jews, except over Stalin and his actions—particularly as regards national minorities, such as the Chechens. So a leader like Putin, substantially anti-Communist, has to negotiate his own ambivalence over Communism, his respect for ancestral sacrifices and military tradition, and Western attempts to emotionally manipulate the Russians to undermine them.

Hence Soviet symbology occupies a complex and contested space; it is a space in the war of ideas that goes on both within Russia and from the outside. It is not possible to simply repudiate history, especially such a substantial and eventful block of time—the USSR lasted almost a century. Consequently, the red star crops up on Russian unit ensigns; especially on Russian military aircraft, probably because the history of the Soviet air force is practically the history of the entire Russian air force ever—the advent of war in the air was coterminous with the birth of the Soviet Union, whereas the Russian army and navy have ancient pre-Bolshevik histories to call upon. Historic memory is inherently connected to politics, and the path to reconcile a nation’s history with a “most unnatural period” without denigrating its ancestors or being manipulated by hostile foreign elements remains fraught.


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