Some glorious victories also come with appalling human costs. Each triumph can be used by various official narratives... But sometimes the commemoration of heroes can be a double-edged sword, as Russia has realized. All the more so as the initial alliance with the Third Reich weighed on its military unpreparedness when Hitler finally attacked the USSR in 1941. The scathing defeats of this summer almost came to a fatal outcome. Only the crucial battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942 enabled the Communist power to turn the situation in its favor. Stalin and his successors were well aware of this, therefore repeatedly changing their memorial policy.
During the war itself, two strategies coexisted: building small cemeteries with Sovietized crosses or burial mounds (derived from Lenin's Mausoleum…) and the preparation of titanic memorials. Among others, the architects Nikolai Gaïgarov (1909-1996), Lidia Komarova (1902-2002) and Leonid Pavlov (1909-1990) contributed from 1942 to this first hypothesis, adapting Russian funeral traditions to Communist ideology. However, these modest individual tombs did not satisfy the authorities, which already intended to mobilize the architects to celebrate in a pompous way the Red Army heavy sacrifices.
So immediately after Stalingrad’s victory in January 1943 very different builders envisioned memorials on a superhuman scale. Andrei Burov (1900-1957) drew a strange funeral pyramid for Stalingrad – between quotes from ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian America! – whose hollow concrete structure would have sanctuarized the ruins left by the battle. Vladimir Krinsky (1890-1971) imagined a Partisans Pantheon as an abstract mineral cone, seeming more derived from Sumerian antiquity... Ivan Sobolev (1903-1971) wanted to place a long memorial on the Volga bank, inspired by Split’s Roman Imperial Palace of Diocletian… These former constructivist innovators adapted there to Stalinist historicism, proposing imaginative solutions for patriotic propaganda. Similar approach among the more traditional Georgi Goltz (1893-1946) and Grigory Zakharov (1910-1982), the first drawing for Stalingrad a monumental pylon inspired by Luxor’s Egyptian temple of Amun, the second thinking of a Dantesque burial mound with access as triumphal arches in the Roman style… Unrealized, these colossal visions tested at least different memorial responses.
Soon, the capture of Berlin represented the hard end of the fighting. Over 80,000 Soviet soldiers perished in this crucial last battle. The eloquent photograph of the red flag on the Reichstag, shot by Yevgeny Khaldeï (1917-1997), immediately symbolized this pricey triumph. But Stalin intended to gain his hold on the German capital as quickly as possible. A solid symbol was therefore undertaken in May 1945: carried out in all haste by a team including the architect Mikhaïl Gorvitz (1919-1991) and the sculptor Lev Kerbel (1917-2003), the Tiergarten memorial was conveniently inaugurated on November 7, 1945. This tied the Revolution anniversary to victory against the other great totalitarianism. Some stones from its curved double portico were even taken from the nearby new chancellery, which Albert Speer (1905-1981) had designed for Hitler ... Another obvious way of signifying Soviet revenge!
Then, two monumental Soviet necropolises were commissioned in 1946 to celebrate deceased heroes, while serving large-scale propaganda. That of Berlin Treptow is the result of the close cooperation between the architect Yakov Bielopolski (1916-1993) and the sculptor Yevgeny Voucheticht (1908-1974). This duo took care of the symbolic progression in space: a triumphal arch underlines the entrance, then an avenue of trees creates an atmosphere of meditation, before arriving at a statue incorporating the Mater Dolorosa Christian codes. These devices actually heralded the cemetery itself, framed by two piles of red granite lifted up in fasces, abstractly depicting the triumphant Soviet flags. Here the suprematism of the 1920s now served the Stalinist regime glory... This expressive decor frames the necropolis, a vast grassy esplanade punctuated with commemorative stelae (such as the stages of Christ's Calvary), leading to a tumulus crowned with a colossal statue of Soviet soldier with an anachronistic medieval sword and carrying a little girl… This effigy adapted the memory of the protecting knights according to the realistic socialist criteria. Ideological lie, erasing the rapes and murders committed by the soldiers when they entered Berlin! Embarrassing abuses, while Stalin was intriguing to create the German Democratic Republic… In addition to Christian references, Treptow assimilates other heritages: the ancient hippodromes, the regular French garden, the British cemeteries of the First World War… The authors visibly meditated the English merging of constructions and plantations – of course without admitting this dependence on a capitalist model! In this deliberate syncretism, the USSR effectively used the previous funeral and military celebrations at the service of its propaganda.
Built just after, the Pankow necropolis – a work notably signed by the little-known architect Konstantin Soloviev (dates unknown) and the sculptor Ivan Perchudchev (1915-1987) – has a similar conception. The porch bas-reliefs are openly inspired by François Rude’s (1784-1855) La Marseillaise, on the Paris Champs Elysées triumphal arch! The memory of Napoleonic victories now served the Stalinist victory... Here too the overall symmetry, the trees cut into French squares cast the shadow of the Versailles gardens on the graves of the Russian soldiers. Curious memory assembly!
This atmosphere of meditation between melancholy and glory was even more noticeable in the Piskarevskoye memorial cemetery in Leningrad. There, in 1956 Yevgeny Levinson (1894-1968) put triumphalism on the back burner, giving the site greater gravity. Appropriate gesture, to respect the memory of almost a million victims of Leningrad’s ruthless blockade. If the symmetry of the place is still inherited from the French gardens, the moving mass graves have more spontaneous landscape sobriety – more in tune with the spirit of Russian forests.
Another approach in Stalingrad. Although the city was renamed in the early 1960s following de-Stalinization, the battle which was the real turning point of the Second World War absolutely had to be celebrated with an appropriate symbol. The tandem formed by Bielopolski and Voucheticht, therefore, continued their common commemorative work at the Mamaev Kourgan, erected between 1959 and 1967. They took up the principle of symbolic progression in space: an axis of symmetry leads from access stairs to the Motherland colossal statue. A rectangular pond – another quote of the French gardens – a memorial rotunda - with a dome having an oculus, as in the Roman Pantheon – a circular basin with a fierce soldier statue – patriotic transposition of Versailles groups in the antique style! – all articulated via steps or ramps, the whole refines a route punctuating the great hours of the battle.
This leads to the culmination of the memorial: the hillock dominated by the female statue wielding a sword, calling for the ultimate battle against the invader. This aptly summons the memory of the Central Asia kurgans, instilling an artificial continuity between the Neolithic tombs and the Red Army heroes. As for the figure of the Motherland, it is openly inspired by the Victory of Samothrace... Its colossal size (85 meters high) and its material (concrete) give it a martial presence. This probably refers to the Greek colonies of Asia Minor, of which at the end of the 18th century Catherine II had revived the memory during the capture of Crimea. In short, this work amalgamated cultural and political references, in an optimal commemorative synthesis. Its authors fulfilled their mission well: to celebrate the sacrifices of Stalingrad with epic brilliance, where each historical quote glorified the Soviet struggle for liberation.
However, it is the countless small war memorials dotted around the USSR that best describe the regime's memory slips. First, soon after the victory, memory enclosures were often erected in the villages simply with modest cement statues, representing either a grieving mother or soldiers or partisans. This was initially sufficient to ensure the memory of the deceased. Then, a relative occultation occurred. Reconstruction concentrated efforts – the regime also hesitating on organizing the memory of the conflict. Indeed, the embarrassing German-Soviet pact, the stinging military setbacks at the start of the invasion, then the slow rise of the Soviet counter-offensives: how to construct a coherent and rather convincing patriotic narrative to transcend the memory of a conflict where the Stalinist leadership had struggled to emerge victoriously? Stalin and then Khrushchev, therefore, considered that the large memorials would be enough to celebrate the USSR victory, relegating to the background the exhausting suffering endured by the population and the heavy losses among the combatants.
The 1970s changed that. The growing difficulty in realizing the communism ideological and economic promises gradually forced Brezhnev to urge another political fiber. So the celebration of the 1917revolutionary saga alongside the 1943 patriotic response experienced a new wave of instrumentalization, with increased pomp. This logic led many municipalities to erect additional memorials. Their modest size does not compare to their civic importance. Under the supervision of Boris Roubanenko (1910-1985), Togliatti used the majestic landscape of the Volga banks for a sober stack near a terrace with a rock, while poplars complete this minimalist commemorative setting. Or in Belarus, Yuri Gradov (1934-) multiplied them. The one he made in Orcha consists of two simple superimposed rectangular masses, covered with black granite and adorned with a red star. On the site of the Hatyn village – burnt down and its population massacred by the Nazis – he created a sober commemorative landscape, dotted with geometric pillars or stelae. More memories of the abstract suprematism of the first Soviet decade.
For the largest sites or heroic cities, this second memorial shot gave rise to achievements of ostentatious monumentality. The offensive began in 1971 with the fitting out of the Brest-Litovsk Belarusian fortress – the scene of a sacrificial defense in 1941. The architects – including Vladimir Korol (1912-1980) and Georgi Sisoev (1919-2010) – preserved the ruins riddled with shrapnel and placed a solid mass of concrete on one of the fort's gates, with a chiseled star-shaped opening. Then, in the heart of the enclosure, near some barracks remains they installed a device linking a slender steel obelisk with a squat block of concrete. Sculptor Aleksandr Kibalnikov (1912-1987) molded it with the martial face of a titanic Soviet soldier, clearly determined to stop the invader at the cost of his life. In addition to the propaganda tales, the transformation into a patriotic myth of the Brest defenders thus obtained its monumental concretization.
Then Leningrad completed its previous memorials, endowing in 1974 one of its entrances with a new monumental complex, designed by Sergei Speransky (1914-1983) and the sculptor Mikhail Anikushin (1917-1997). With its statuary groups of heroic defenders, the hieratic obelisk, the ring of the buried court, this efficient memorial carefully balances ideological exaltation and liturgical lamentation. In their Magnitogorsk rear front memorial, Bielopolsky and his new partner, sculptor Lev Golonitsky (1929-1994), opted in 1979 for an equally monumental approach. The formal party is quite ambiguous, with two gigantic statues wielding a sword, supposedly forged in the city steelworks. Here the disproportionate esplanade leaves a certain uneasiness, that of a superhuman space crushing its spectators under the weight of proud rhetoric.
Finally, initiated at the beginning of the 1980s, the Great Patriotic War memorial in Moscow was to be the apotheosis of Brezhnev's memorial policy... Started by Anatoly Polyansky (1928-1993) – creator of the Soviet pavilion at the 1958 Brussels exhibition – the monument was completed after the USSR collapse by Yevgeny Rozanov (1925-2006) – architect very in favor under Brezhnev, notable the author of the Tashkent Lenin Museum in 1970. Adapting the memorial to the new regime, Rozanov added a chapel and replaced the Soviet symbols with a statue of Saint George fighting the dragon… The site still commemorated Russian heroism, but modified by the Orthodox patriarchate to have it serving a religious reconquista!
In fact, in the USSR or the Eastern Bloc, the war memory has always remained subject to different political agendas. While Moscow carefully controlled the creation of places commemorating its fighters, Poland and Romania gave rise to two crucial exceptions.
The Warsaw Soviet cemetery was designed in 1949 by the Polish architect Bohdan Lachert (1900-1987). No doubt Stalin thus spared this proud country, where he installed a vassalized Communist regime. Modern by conviction, Lachert used devices similar to those of Berlin Pankow, nevertheless seeking to keep the obelisk and the processional alley in relative formal abstraction. Different situation in Bucharest – whose monarchy had been Hitler's ally. There, Stalinization was more brutal from the seizure of power by the Communists in 1945. However, Horia Maicu (1905-1975) – previously also a modern builder, who escaped the Jews deportations during the war – made in 1958 of his monument (supposedly dedicated to the people heroes who fell for freedom and socialism) a synthesis between geometric abstraction and Stalinist emphasis. An approach already experimented by him in 1952 at the Casa Scînteii – a project greatly reshaped under the Stalinist Moscow skyscrapers' influence. However, the Carol Park Mausoleum, with its pentagonal red granite arches set on a circular black granite plinth, echoes both Lenin's Mausoleum and the country forme innovative researches. Paradoxical achievement, accepting the big Soviet brother models and asserting his national culture!
Modest or majestic, these sites signal how the use of memories changes according to each leader and their respective strategies. All these memorials express in their own way the meaning of the war memory in Soviet culture. Many of these architects and sculptors took part in the conflict: they knew the reality of the front lines. In addition to serving power, their monuments also reveal their mourning for deceased comrades. The complex memory capture undertaken by communism reveals in passing the construction of an imaginary still widely shared by Russian society. Under the stern splendor of commemoration, the Great Patriotic War legacy remains sacred.