Who’s Afraid of a Counterfactual (Part II)? What if Leningrad Had Surrendered to the Nazis in World War II?

There is little doubt that wondering “what if?” about the past can be controversial, but a new flap in Russia shows the extent to which some will go to silence counterfactual speculation.

One of the country’s last independent television channels, Dozhd (which has been critical of Vladimir Putin’s government) recent posted a poll on its website asking its viewing audience if they thought whether the city of Leningrad should had surrendered to the Nazis during World War II in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives.  As is well known, the Nazis besieged the city for some 900 days from 1941-1944 and contributed to the death of around one million people from starvation.

Shortly after posting the question (to which 54% of respondents apparently answered in the affirmative), Dozhd was besieged with public protests and quickly withdrew the poll. However, the incident led to the channel being pulled from a number of leading cable providers.  Certain Russian politicians vowed to see if the channel violated any laws, leading to suspicions that opponents of the anti-government channel are looking for any excuse to pull it from the airwaves.

The flap highlights the ways in which “what ifs?” shed light on historical memory.  Raising the question of Leningrad’s surrender clearly violated a taboo in Russia’s memory of the Great Patriotic War.  Ever since the war itself, as Marita Sturken’s book, The Cult of World War II, has shown, Russians have glorified the war into a major patriotic struggle in which Stalin’s leadership helped triumph over Nazi evil.

Counterfactually questioning whether Leningrad should have held out or surrendered, by questioning Stalin’s insistence that the city persevere (and calling to attention to the many instances where flawed decisions by political officials worsened the situation), challenges his wartime leadership and raises the possibility that a different strategy might have spared some of the country 27 million wartime casualties. This revisionist fantasy clearly has a political agenda insofar as challenging Stalin implicitly challenges his present-day apologist, Putin. 

Yet the fantasy that history might have turned out better – while it aptly highlights discontent with the present – may be historically naive. For it it assumes that the Nazis would have spared any Russians who actually surrendered.

According to a Russian media report, the “President of the Academy of Military Sciences Makhmut Gareyev noted that the creators of the poll showed their ignorance of history, as the described choice never existed – Hitler ordered his troops to completely destroy Moscow and Leningrad and eliminate the populations of these cities.” 
He argued counterfactually that “If Leningrad was handed over everyone would have been killed. In reality at least some of the residents survived.”  In other words, surrender would have brought about a nightmare scenario of history turning out worse than it did in reality.

Some politicians went further.

As another Russian media report noted, “MP Irina Yarovaya of centrist conservative parliamentary majority United Russia said the poll was in fact an attempt to rehabilitate Nazism,” noting: ‘These things all look equally disgusting – the parades of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, the demolition of monuments to war heroes and the sly, fake and counterfeit polls,” Yarovaya told Itar-Tass. “And every time the same thing is behind these actions – the justification of Nazi crimes and the desecration of the historical memory.”
As Tim Snyder notes in his latest New York Review of Books article on the current violence in Ukraine, the slur “Nazi” is currently being utilized by Russian nationalists and Yanukovych supporters to defame the anti-government protesters in Kiev, while, if anything, it is they themselves who, by virtue of their dictatorial behavior, are displaying fascist traits. 
Clearly, the controversial counterfactual involving Leningrad’s surrender highlights how wondering what if can re-open unhealed wounds of memory.


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