Moscow is a low, wide city expanding in a series of rings out from the Kremlin and Red Square, spreading over some nine hundred square miles of land cleared in a cold northern forest, near where Arctic taiga blends into Sarmatic mixed forests. It’s a mistake to think Moscow is part of Europe: the city looks more like Saskatoon than it looks like Berlin, all monstrous boxes built up out of nothing as if to compensate for the puniness of the human animal in the immensity of so much space, and it feels and sounds like something else yet again. To visit Europe is to tour a giant mausoleum dedicated to centuries of war, rich with the booty of global empire: a cemetery turned into a shopping mall. Going to Moscow is like visiting a Turkish moon base built in the 1950s. Cyrillic script and Slavic phonemes mesh in the air with so many oo’s, shch’s, and ve’s, uncannily similar enough to a Latin alphabet to look both familiar and wrong, unbroken by any tourist-friendly English. Like its script, Moscow is at once familiar and strange. Russia and America are siblings in many ways, both countries of the twentieth century, both conquerors of vast spaces, both abstract and callous and massive and dangerous.
How much do we see each other, and how much do we just see negative mirror images of ourselves? The classic late–Cold War American joke about Russia, endlessly variable, was based on a simple reversal of subject and object: “In America, everyone watches television. In Soviet Russia, television watches you!” “In America, everyone drives a car. In Soviet Russia, a car drives you!” . . . “In Soviet Russia, the police call you!” . . . “In Soviet Russia, the party finds you!” . . . “In Soviet Russia, the law breaks you!” . . . “In Soviet Russia, the war wins you!”
My trip to Moscow seemed to be an exercise in such a reversal: I was going to give a paper at an American Studies conference at the Russian State University for the Humanities, which conference was on the topic “War in American Culture.” My paper would be about Wallace Stevens, James Jones, and the problem of the hero in American World War II literature, and it just so happened that the conference was scheduled the week after Victory Day, May 9, the holiday celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, perhaps the most important anniversary in modern Russian history.
The coincidence was serendipitous, as it seemed likely that the celebration would mark a historical footnote: leaders from Britain, France, and the US refused to attend the anniversary, rebuking President Vladimir Putin (and insulting the Russian people) for Russian military intervention in Ukraine, while NATO staged military exercises in Latvia and Estonia and the US deployed para- troopers to Kiev to train soldiers in Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only Western leader to break the boycott, though she skipped Victory Day proper and came a day late, to lay a wreath at Moscow’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While Barack Obama and David Cameron turned their backs on Putin, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping did not, meeting the Russian president in Moscow on May 9 with open arms, standing with him to watch the traditional parade of Russian soldiers, tanks, and missile launchers. Meanwhile, in the Black Sea, Russian and Chinese sailors trained together in a joint military exercise.
On May 7, 2015, two days before the big parade, I went to the State Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which is what Russians call World War II. The museum sits on the vast grounds of Park Pobedy (Victory Park), across the Moskva River from the old Arbat and the new business district with its hypermodern skyscrapers. A long promenade leads to a towering spire topped with a horn- blowing angel, who hovers high over a plaza framed on the west by the massive colonnaded arc of the museum proper, capped by a great dome. At the base of the spire there is a statue of Saint George slaying a dragon. As with most of Moscow, the scale is gargantuan and theatrical, at once imposing and absurd.
Halfway down the promenade, a line of old women and families shuffled through security checkpoints to wind into a small chapel dedicated to Saint George. Down the hill, a path leads to an outdoor museum of military hardware from the war, everything from T-34 tanks and Katyusha rocket launchers to the torn tail of a wrecked German Messerschmitt. Among the birches and lawns of the park around the museum, sculptures stand honoring the dead. There is a sculpture for the Allies, one for the Spanish Civil War, one for those missing in action. The most remarkable is Zurab Tsereteli’s sculpture dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, called Tragedy of Peoples: enormous naked men, women, and children, bald and emaciated, rise up out of or sink back into a falling line of stones. On one side is a pile of personal goods, shoes, a stuffed rabbit, eyeglasses, and so on.
It was a bright, clear, blue-skied sunny day. The park and the museum were packed, full of families, children in miniature World War II–era Soviet military uniforms, and old women, everyone wearing a black and orange Saint George’s ribbon commemorating the war, celebrating their collective unity and patriotism. Groups of students on field trips were led through the Museum’s dioramas illustrating the major battles of the war—the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Kursk, the Siege of Leningrad, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Fall of Berlin. They stood in the Hall of Memory and Sorrow, where 2.6 million bronze pendants hang from the ceiling symbolizing the 20 to 40 million Russian dead. They looked carefully at the exhibits of weaponry, uniforms, and memorabilia from the war.
Over the next few days of celebration, I would see the same crowds all over the city, with the same enthusiasm, wearing the same orange-and-black Saint George’s ribbons. I stood in a surging, endless crowd near the Byelorusskiy train station watching the state military parade thunder down Tverskaya Street, swept up in the crowd’s ebullient cheering as armored personnel carriers and tanks rolled by. In the crowd, the red, white, and blue of the Russian flag flew alongside the red and gold Soviet banner. Families carried framed pictures of their dead grandfathers and grandmothers through the streets of the city.
In June 1941 German Panzers crossed the Brest-Litovsk line that had divided Poland in two since 1939, engaging ill-prepared Russian troops and advancing through them at an astonishing pace, replicating the speed and ferocity of Germany’s victories the previous year in the Battle of France. By the time winter hit, the German Army had rolled the Russians back more than six hundred miles along a thousand-mile-wide front from the Black Sea to the Baltic. Elements of the Fourth Panzer Army had reached the outskirts of Moscow, barely twenty miles from the Kremlin. Leningrad was under a siege that would last nine hundred days. Kiev, Odessa, Sevastopol, Kursk, Kharkov, Minsk, Smolensk, and Riga had all fallen to the Nazis, who now controlled the Slavic heartlands of Byelorussia and Ukraine. Over the winter the Russians counterattacked and took back small pockets of land here and there along the front, but when the 1942 spring thaw came, the Germans launched a new offensive, in the south, driving another three hundred miles to Stalingrad while simultaneously pushing southeast toward the oil fields of the Caucasus. That winter the tide turned, and Russian reinforcements began to push the Germans back. Over the next two years, the Russian Army killed its way back across the blood-soaked plains of Ukraine and Byelorussia, destroying the German Army and eventually sacking Berlin.
The scale of devastation on the Eastern Front boggles the mind. The Battle for Kursk, for example, was and remains the largest armored battle in history: 940,000 Germans with more than 3,000 tanks and supported by more than 2,000 aircraft faced 2.5 million Russians with more than 7,000 tanks supported by around 3,000 aircraft, in an area about the same size as West Virginia. In that battle alone, the Germans suffered 198,000 casualties (including wounded and MIA); the Russians, 863,000. By May 9, 1945, when the fighting was over, more than 30 million people had died on the Eastern Front, around 26 million of them citizens of the USSR, including around 15 million civilians. Russia suffered more, lost more, and killed more than any other nation in World War II. All told, the USSR had seen between 13 and 14 percent of its population killed—more than one person in ten.
How could anyone make sense of 26 million bodies? Is it a tragedy or a gospel?
To understand what those numbers mean, imagine a conquering army killing more than 43 million Americans as it burned its way across Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, and Missouri. By way of contrast, only 750,000 Americans died on both sides of the Civil War, out of a total US population of, at the time, some 31 million: a death rate of about 2 percent, which is very high but nowhere near Russia’s in World War II. Most Russians living today had at least one relative within two generations die in the war. To Russians, the war represents incalculable horror and destruction, and the Russian people’s greatest moment on the world stage: their stalwart defense of the Russian homeland. The Soviet Union was the primary force responsible for defeating Nazi Germany: without the Russians in the East butchering German soldiers by the thousands, D-Day would have been impossible. As a living memory of suffering, terror, and victory, World War II is for Russians a personal, visceral historical event—both tragedy and gospel—unlike any other.
Much of the war was fought in Ukraine. Today, while hawks in Washington, D.C. and the New York Times say that it’s Russian president Vladimir Putin who is aggressively pushing into Ukraine, Putin and most Russians see it differently. They see an expansionist NATO, led by the United States, the avowed enemy of Russia for most of the twentieth century, propping up and supporting an anti-Russian regime in Kiev. They see the US allying with Ukrainian fascists, the European Union working to separate Ukraine from Russia’s economic and political influence, and American politicians calling for military buildup all along Russia’s borders. They see this in a context of fourteen years of unilateral American military aggression in the Middle East, a global American campaign of torture and assassination, political instability throughout Central Asia, and a melting Arctic that promises to ignite a resource war over massive oil fields suspected to lie beneath the ice.
I heard the roar of the crowd wash over me on Tverskaya as strategic bombers flew overhead like death-metal condors. I heard the cheers drowned out by giant ICBM launchers rumbling past. These people were proud of their military strength, proud of their nuclear force, proud of their nation, their leader, and their history.
Later that day, after the military parade was over, I met a Russian poet and video artist named Kirill Adibekov beneath the statue The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman, an eighty-foot-high stainless-steel monument to the Soviet proletariat built for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. The two figures in the monument, a muscular, hammer-wielding man and a powerfully built woman with a sickle, stand shoulder to shoulder, arms upraised, towering over a traffic intersection, blazing brilliant silver in the sun, striding confidently into a utopian future. Kirill sat beneath them, a thin artist with long, dark hair and a gentle smile. We walked from the statue through VDNKh, the Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Economy, a massive Soviet-era expo and park in the north of Moscow celebrating the economic achievements of the far republics of the Soviet Union: Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Leningrad, Karelia, and the others. He pushed his bike along while we awkwardly weaved through the thick Victory Day crowds. Occasionally we would stop so I could photograph some oddity, like the riding field or the girl on high-tech suspension stilts. We paused for a while at a café beside a lake, which Kirill told me reminded him of the Crimea; we had beer and khachapuri, a Georgian hot cheese bread.
Along the way we talked about state censorship, politics, poetry, the Saint George’s ribbon, Russia’s current economic recession, and many other things. Kirill was glum about the political and economic prospects his country offered but happy in his work as an artist, connected to a lively art world that, though the artists within it couldn’t really come out in direct opposition to Putin’s regime, did offer an independent and vaguely countercultural attitude that didn’t seem all that different from the apolitical anti-authoritarianism of metropolitan hipsters and much contemporary American literature. He was saddened by how readily his fellow Russians seemed to accept the nationalist propaganda being broadcast on Russian television and websites, but he was philosophical about it. “You have to remember,” he said, “Russia was a slave state until the 1860s. I think sometimes that we’re still working our way out of that moment a hundred and fifty years ago.”
Toward the end of our talk, Kirill pointed out the entrance to VDNKh, an enormous arch, and told me that in the 1950s there had been a giant statue of Stalin between it and the first pavilion. The statue of Stalin had been to scale with the arch, Kirill said, to show that he was a leader on a vast scale, and to turn the entrance to VDNKh into a theater of his power. “So much of Moscow is theater,” he said, “the giant spaces, the great monuments—it’s all a set for a play.”
His comment about theater provoked a moment of realization: “That helps me make sense of this Gertrude Stein quote I’ve been puzzling over—I’m not sure where it’s from—where she says that Americans and Russians are alike because they are both abstract and cruel,” I said.1 “I understand what she means about America being abstract, but I’ve been trying to puzzle out how that relates to Russia. All these giant figures, they don’t seem abstract at all, at least not in the sense of abstract painting. But they are abstract, in a figural sense, like an allegory, or theater. They are the giant abstraction of a characteristic, of a character, the idea of a person rather than a person itself.”
“What’s more,” I went on, “what you said about Russia only ending slavery in the 1860s suggests another similarity with America, which reflects back into this problem of abstraction and theatricality, because America was also a slave state until the 1860s. The difference between Russia and America, though, is in the relation between the masters and the slaves. In America, the relationship was seen through race, a concept predicated on the idea of biological, physical difference, fundamentally blood. Skin color and phenotype were too variable to reliably mark racial identity, so it always came back to the idea of white blood and Negro blood. You can’t see blood, though, and it’s all red anyway. This epistemological instability at the heart of the American political order was a profound problem for the ruling class. How do you know who is ‘really’ white and ‘really’ black? We might imagine that ruling-class anxiety about this problem is part of what gave rise to American literary and cultural fixations on ‘realism,’ since the most terrifying and troubling question gnawing at the soul of the white ruling class is precisely the question of how you know what is real.”
I looked out across the motley Muscovites dressed for a holiday swirling around the massive architecture, almost all of them wearing their black-and-orange ribbons. “In Russia, on the other hand, the masters and the slaves are the same, from the same country, probably looking much the same, sharing a religion and a culture going back centuries. In Russia, there is no ontological fact separating the rulers and the ruled, but rather the ruling class must rely for its power on the performance of its role as the ruling class. This explains the performative anxiety of all this massive sculpture, but it also suggests a way of looking at the dramatic quality at work in Russian literature and culture, from Tolstoy to Nabokov. It also helps explain Putin, it seems to me, and the current impasse in American-Russian relations, in that Obama’s staff seem to take Putin for a player of realpolitik; they read him by asking themselves what he ‘really’ wants or ‘really’ plans to do, whereas Putin is in a position where he feels he has to perform tough leadership, perform the reconstitution of Russia as a world power, perform the thuggery and daring that has helped him gain power and earned the respect of his people and the fear of the world.”
“That’s very interesting,” Kirill said. “You know, of course, that the first actors in Russia were all serfs, right? They put on plays for the aristocracy.”
“Wow,” I said. “Like minstrelsy in the US. Blackface dramatizes and discharges ruling-class anxiety about the epistemological uncertainty at the heart of the political order. If race is just a performance, then there’s nothing holding up the dominance of white privilege. So race must be performed, under the gaze of a white audience, in order to ritually enact the very hierarchy the idea of its being a performance calls into question. Like in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. The ruling class has to play with the question of race in order to reassure itself that, at the end of the day, it retains the power to define reality.”
Excerpted from the essay “The Idea of Order I Can’t Breathe,” which appears in his latest essay collection, We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change.