Widely denounced as tasteless, the so-called “Auschwitz on Ice” figure-skating dance performed in Moscow on Saturday is only the proverbial iceberg’s tip when it comes to Holocaust memory in Russia.
There is no accounting for taste, of course, and the controversial routine was, after all, created by a Jewish choreographer who used images and a song from the 1997 Holocaust film “Life is Beautiful.” However, for some critics of the Putin regime, Shoah-related ice dances — of which there have actually been several — only scratch the surface of a more sinister problem with historical memory in Russia.
The majority of Russians view the word Holocaust, a Western term, in the context of a Russian Holocaust, or the murder of more than 20 million Soviet civilians during the Nazi occupation. Among those slaughtered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the so-called “Great Patriotic War” were 1.3-million Jewish Holocaust victims.
Until the 1990s, Europe’s devastation in the Shoah was hidden from the Russian public’s view — along with the role of Soviet citizens who collaborated with the Nazis to murder Jews. Additionally, the united struggle against Nazism did not include space for a Jewish-specific genocide, removed as it was from the Communist framework of class warfare and the needs of Cold War diplomacy.
“While the West came to regard the Holocaust as the main tragedy and lesson of the Second World War, in the USSR, the focus was on the tragedies of the Nazi occupation of Soviet territories and the heroic victories of the Soviet people; the word ‘Holocaust’ was barely known,” wrote editor Masha Lipman last year.
For two generations, Soviet citizens had little access to information about the Kremlin’s conduct during the war, much less details about the Nazis’ “Final Solution” in occupied Soviet lands. Only after the Iron Curtain was rolled back did a specifically Jewish Holocaust begin to appear in Russian schools and culture. For the first time, former Soviet countries were granted access to historical accounts other than Soviet propaganda, including their own sealed archives.
According to critics, these positive trends in memory work have been rolled back by Putin’s regime, which is accused of hoisting its own version of history onto the Russian people.
On numerous Russian-language websites, the Shoah is described as a hoax perpetrated by Jewry to benefit Israel
“In recent years, the dark episodes of Soviet history that were exposed in the late eighties have once again been buried, and Russia has restricted the official narrative of the war to an impeccable record,” wrote Lipman, who has criticized the Russian government for limiting the extent to which the Holocaust can be taught.
“The school history curriculum rightly highlights the wartime heroism of the Red Army, but devotes little attention to such things as life under Nazi occupation and the role of collaborators and the Resistance,” according to Ilya Altman, a founder and co-director of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center.
Russian youth obtain most of their information from the Internet, where Holocaust denial is rife, wrote Altman. On numerous Russian-language websites, the Shoah is described as a hoax perpetrated by Jewry to benefit Israel. The Russian government plays a role in fanning these flames, believes Altman.
“Around the turn of our new century, Russian publishers brought out blockbuster editions of ‘compositions’ written by Holocaust deniers and [other] publications have been trying to persuade us that the subject should not even be raised in Russia today, since it belittles not only the heroic exploits of the Red Army, but people of other ethnicities who died in World War II,” wrote Altman.
‘Around the turn of our new century, Russian publishers brought out blockbuster editions of ‘compositions’ written by Holocaust deniers’
Prior to Putin, there had been less Holocaust denial in Russia than elsewhere in Europe. In concert with other far-right trends, however, denial has grown in recent years. According to the Kremlin, its 2014 law against distorting history was meant to target Holocaust deniers. However, critics say the law is intended to crack down on free speech in general, and that it will be used to target subjects far removed from the Holocaust.
A case in point is the largely forgotten Holodomor, or “death by hunger,” in which Soviet authorities imposed a famine on Ukraine during the early 1930s.
During this pre-Holocaust genocide, millions of Ukrainians died of starvation or disease. Today, some warn that Putin and his government are burying memory of the Holodomor, and that the “Holocaust denial” law will be used against — for instance — those seeking to research the Soviet-installed “collectivization” framework of the so-called “Great Famine,” during whose peak up to 30,000 Ukrainians perished on a daily basis.
“Russia’s open era of glasnost is long gone, sadly,” wrote linguist Paula Chertok. “…Stalin is again popular, and once again we’re even back to the systematic denials of the Holodomor’s significance, cause, and any responsibility for the millions of Ukrainian deaths,” wrote Chertok in 2015.
Last Saturday’s “Auschwitz on Ice” performance in Moscow was offensive to many people, including Holocaust survivors. So was the French Olympic synchronized swim team’s attempt in 1996 to perform an Auschwitz-themed routine with Jewish women heading toward the gas chambers.
The Holocaust will never mean the same thing to everyone, both literally and as a symbol. More concerning to some than ice dances are attempts by Russia to roll back the clock on education about the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and any subject not helpful to government branding.
“Putin’s use of the Second World War as a tool to consolidate his power has superseded the memory of the war itself, in which Russia fought together with its Western allies,” according to Moscow observer Lipman.