According to Dictionary.com, patriotism is a “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.” Similarly, nationalism is a “devotion and loyalty to one’s own country; patriotism.” Ironically, patriotism is often seen as an admirable quality to possess because of the pride one feels for their country, whereas nationalism is often met with a negative connotation and equated with radical extremism. In my mind, the new patriotism the Soviet Union found in the late 1930s can just as accurately be described as nationalism because of the militant undertones it exuded.
In his essay The New Patriotism, James von Geldern states that though “most historians associate the notion of posthumous rehabilitation to the post-Stalin era, the practice was in fact launched in the late 1930s. The positive reevaluation of national heroes from the tsarist era had reached full swing by 1939. The most robust applause was reserved for long-deceased military heroes…” Viewed in the context of Stalinist Russia, the timing of the resurgence of past military heroes is not coincidental; in his book Russia: A History, Gregory Freeze notes that “the Great Purges continue to fascinate and appall. Emblematic of Stalinism, the ‘repressions’… of 1936-8 seem to have been so arbitrary in victimization, so elusive in motivation as to defy explanation” (364). Further, “most scholars assumed that Stalin was intent on eliminating any potential source of opposition, beginning with past opponents but eventually including any who might appear to be unreliable in the future” (365). Because Stalin did not trust anyone around him in the military high command, it would make sense for him to exhume the images of fallen national heroes so that their legacies would be associated with him and the public would be more likely to place their trust in him as a military commander.
This resurgent patriotism also manifested itself through posters, videos, and music.
What is interesting about the propaganda posters shown above is that they all contrast the current, modern Soviet military and its capabilities to the armed forces of the past. Furthermore, they contrast dark and faded colors to bright red in order to catch the viewer’s eye. Also, one can see the progression in weaponry from the past to the present, with both swords and machine guns being pictured, and also in clothing and hair styles as all of the modern soldiers are clean-shaven with short hair and the past heroes have long hair and beards. The purpose of these posters is to show the populace that they are descendants from these great heroes, and therefore inspire them to act in the same fashion.
One famous film from the period was Alexander Nevskii directed by Sergei Eizenshtein, which covers the famous battle on the ice. According to Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “Nevsky here is presented as a paragon of Russian nationalism and leadership, sentiments that would have been out of place in the thirteenth century, but were entirely appropriate to Stalin’s era.” Further, Geldern notes that Nevskii defended Novgorod against Swedes, Mongols, and in 1242, the Teutonic Knights. He also achieved sainthood in Russian Orthodoxy, and his example for the Soviets at the time was manifest “in the explicit identification of the thirteenth-century Teutonic knights that he defeated with twentieth-century German fascists (aka Nazis), highlighted by the similarity of their helmets.”
Lastly, patriotic music was revitalized during The New Patriotism era, with Life for the Tsar by Ivan Susanin serving as the first great nationalistic hymn.
What this period teaches us about Russian history is that all facets of culture, art, film, and music, came together to promote Stalin’s goals; he had complete control over Soviet society and used the great leaders of the past to make up for his own lack of ability and paranoia.
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