Memorial conference of Russian political scientists in Kaliningrad

From 27 to 29 April I attended a conference in Kaliningrad at the invitation of the Russian organisation of political scientists. Kaliningrad is a small triangle sandwiched in between Poland and Lithuania, one of the fragments into which the Soviet Union has disintegrated. It is former Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia, which owes its fame to the fact that the 18th-century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, lived and worked there. The university in the exclave, which is now Russian, is of course named after him. 

The city with its approximately one million inhabitants, which I reached by domestic flight from Moscow, in many respects resembled the old Soviet Union, but then inundated with billboards and choked with cars. The conference likewise was a mixture of old and new.

At the opening event in the grand auditorium one of the speakers was my colleague from Kent, Richard Sakwa, the author of Frontline Ukraine, which appeared this year and is required reading for anyone who aspires to a serious judgement on the crisis there. All other speakers at the opening plenary were high officials, such as the governor of Kaliningrad province, the heads of the university and the Russian political science organisation, and the like.

After this we were transported in a caravan of buses to the memorial for 1200 Red Army guardsmen who perished in the battle over the city. There, in the pouring rain and in the presence of TV crews, a company of sailors, a military brass band, and thousands of spectators from the city, wreaths and flowers were laid by the conference participants.

After lunch the conference was divided into three and I was assigned to speak in the panel on the resurgence of neo-Nazi currents in Europe. My thesis was that because of the loss of compromise in capitalism, the system has become a socially destructive and towards the outside, aggressive force. I could not resist expressing the thought that if the Soviet armies would not have liberated Europe from the Nazi scourge, I would have been born in the Thousand Year Reich.

The estimates about the number of casualties in the struggle range from 20 to 30 million on the Soviet side, but there precisely it became clear to what extent old and new in Russia are entwined. For both in the plenary and in my own panel there were reservations concerning these huge losses.

Thus several speakers expressed the hope that Putin in his address on 9 May would not simply praise the military strategy of Stalin and Zhukov without further qualification. After all, millions of Soviet soldiers had died because there had not been any consideration about mass losses. I even heard the number of 13 million, referring to attackers in such human waves who had been slaughtered or taken prisoner by the experienced German Wehrmacht.

Another speaker pointed out that in the First World War, it had taken four years for the Germans to reach Minsk; in the Second, four days. If this kind of reflection would remain under the table, it was argued, the (part) historical truth would fall prey to opposition figures like Navalny. This nationalist, a kind of Russian Wilders, has an audience among new generations in the cities, whose knowledge about the war is very limited and who therefore can be manipulated by (in this case rightful) criticism of the official line if the latter hesitates to face the facts.

This kind of views would not have been voiced at a public event in the former Soviet Union. And here too, there was a sufficient number of speakers who offered fairly one-dimensional views of the struggle, as well as speakers who preferred Western theories on e.g. nationalism instead of their own, rich heritage on this topic.

What was most intriguing was to hear the new, authentic vision on the war that could be detected amidst these other positions, and this made the long trip more than worthwhile. In a period in which the warmongering forces in the West are trying to isolate and undermine Russia because it refuses to lie low, to the point of subordinating the memory of the Red Army’s role in the defeat of Hitler Germany to it, I was happy to have participated in this event. That the leaders of the West, from Obama to our own Mark Rutte, and especially of course, Chancellor Merkel, made the decision not to attend the 9 May celebrations in Moscow is a scandal over which we should be deeply ashamed.

Kees van der Pijl

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