Hostages of Mythology

Gregory Carleton’s “Russia: The Story of War” masterfully dissects the fiction of Russia as a country under siege — despite perpetuating its myth.

Sitting on the train connecting Moscow to Minsk, roughly halfway through, travellers will notice a stop called Vyazma. It’s a town of roughly 60.000 inhabitants sprinkled with orthodox churches, a branch of the University of Smolensk and a couple of youth associations. It’s also honoured with the title of “City of Military Glory”, a designation reserved for cities that suffered greatly during the Second World War — or better, Great Patriotic War. And for good reasons: approximately 80.000 people were killed in a nearby concentration camp, and after the war only 716 survivors remained.

Vyazma’s past isn’t unique in this regard. One of the most estranging perceptions Western Europeans have about Russia is the ubiquity of war in the country’s public space; while citizens from the rest of Europe are familiar with marmoreal, dismissive monuments to the fallen, cities like Vyazma proudly tout eternal flames. Similarly, in countries like France or Italy, “civic education” means learning how society and government are organized; in Russia, it involves teaching first aid to girls and a pre-draft exercises for boys. “Our” schools train how to evacuate in case of fire; “theirs” how to wear gas masks in less than 30 seconds. Russian scouts shoot with AK-47s, while Europeans sell cookies for charities. The political implication is straight-forward: Russia has been in arms for so long that war has become the only language it will ever understand.

Given these perceptions it’s surprising how little historiography exists on a seemingly omnipresent aspect of Russian culture. Russia: The Story of War (Belknap Press) is the most recent — and prominent — academic work dealing with the topic. Beyond the strengths and weaknesses of the book itself, author Gregory Carleton has a substantial advantage as an academic: he’s not a historian of war. Despite how paradoxical it may seem, observing war as an immense tragedy rather than a science (or even a political phenomenon) allows for an original and unique understanding of its repercussions.


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