A FEW days ago, I chanced upon a brief feature in The Guardian containing Vanessa Redgrave’s lockdown recommendations — movies that one might watch while sheltering from Covid-19. Apart from Ken Loach’s entire oeuvre, they included a couple of Soviet war movies.
One of them was The Cranes Are Flying, which I first saw in the 1970s, about 20 years after it was made. It is a harrowing yet inspirational black-and-white masterpiece that has earned its place in World War II filmography alongside Fate of a Man and The Dawns Here Are Quiet. Redgrave also cited a film whose title was unfamiliar to me: Come and See.
An internet search revealed that, not with standing the film’s unequivocally anti-fascist theme, its director Elem Klimov struggled with Soviet censors for years before its release in 1985 — whereupon it won several international awards. In Soviet cinemas, some in the audience reputedly fainted or threw up while watching it. For Klimov, this particular filmmaking experience was so traumatising that he never attempted another movie.
The title is evocative of Pablo Neruda’s Spanish Civil War poem I’m Explaining a Few Things, which concludes with the invitation: “Come and see the blood on the streets…”. Coincidentally or otherwise, that civil war was a kind of dress rehearsal for World War II. Who can say how the fate of Europe in the 1940s would have turned out had the European powers closest to Spain intervened to avert its descent into fascism in the 1930s.
The World War II narrative remains contested territory.
Come and See views Soviet Byelorussia’s experience of Nazi occupation through the eyes of a fresh-faced teenager who joins the anti-Nazi partisans, and by the end of the movie resembles an old man. Towards the end, a text on the screen reminds us that in what is today known as Belarus, 623 villages, along with their inhabitants, were incinerated by the Nazis and their collaborators.
One such instance of the genocide is memorialised at Khatyn, not far from Minsk, with the site dominated by a haunting sculpture of one of the very few survivors holding his son’s corpse. I gazed upon it as a teenager during a January blizzard many decades ago, and the stark image remains indelibly imprinted on the memory, alongside many of the horror stories surrounding it.
Its experience of Nazi occupation was hardly unique, but Soviet Byelorussia’s population diminished by one-fourth between 1941 and 1945. And whereas across Europe most nations have cancelled or postponed commemorations planned for this week to mark the 75th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day in an inevitable nod to the risks posed by the pandemic, Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus since 1994, plans to go ahead with a military parade on Saturday.
Berlin had effectively fallen to the Red Army on May Day in 1945, with the local Nazi command formally surrendering the following day. But the war officially continued a few days longer because some Nazi officers were determined to be taken prisoner by the Western allies advancing from the other side rather than by the Soviets — arguably a tacit recognition that the war crimes committed on the Eastern Front were utterly unforgivable.
Three quarters of a century after VE Day, the World War II narrative remains contested territory in terms of the unprecedentedly devastating conflict’s causes, consequences, and much of what happened in between. Russia often feels slighted, sometimes for good reason, by Western reluctance to acknowledge that it was the Red Army that effectively severed the spinal cord of the Wehrmacht.
On the other hand, the Russians generally refuse to admit that the Soviet-Nazi pact of August 1939 facilitated the outbreak of war. Nor do they readily accept that whereas Adolf Hitler never had any intention of indefinitely abiding by that agreement, Josef Stalin took the Nazis at their word and chose to ignore impeccably sourced intelligence about the Germans’ impending Operation Barbarossa. The Nazi hordes were able to advance so far into Soviet territory because the USSR was caught relatively unprepared, not least because some of the Red Army’s most competent commanders had been purged by Stalin — who, fearing the worst, retreated into self-isolation for several days in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi invasion.
Six months after Barbarossa, the Japanese army bombed Pearl Harbour. Bringing both the USSR and US into the war ultimately sealed the fate of the Axis — and changed the shape of Europe. Even in the aftermath of the war, though, whereas it’s readily recognised that the Soviets established governments of their choosing across the east, the extent to which the US manipulated politics in the west is far less well known.
Looking back, though, perhaps the biggest disappointment is how frequently the so-called great powers’ 1945 vow of ‘never again’ has been violated in various ways while they have either looked away or fully participated in the desecration of that oath.
Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2020