The Return of the Peaceful Soviet Citizen
My interest piqued greatly while reading the following article on BBC’s website: “Russia row over Nazi massacre site in Rostov-on-Don.” In Rostov-on-Don, Russia a new plaque has been unveiled to commemorate the 27,000 people murdered at Zmiyevskaya Balka in 1942 by the Nazis. One might think that such commemoration should go off without a hitch in Russia (I mean it’s not Ukraine!), but that wasn’t the case. It turns out the plaque read: “peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners-of-war”, despite the fact more than half of the victims were of Jewish origin and were killed as a part of the larger genocidal project we now call the Holocaust. As a result, the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC), among others, is not happy.
What the article does not elucidate is that this phraseology has very specific historical roots. The Extraordinary State Commission (known as ChGK) was created in 1942 to document the Nazi crimes in the Soviet Union. The commission produced millions of pages of evidence of what happened during the occupation over a two-three year period. Much of the material was used in various publications about the war for the next fifty years and parts were even utilized during the Nuremberg trial.
In its various final products, ChGK is well-known for subsuming Jewish victims, who certainly had been singled out by the Nazis for unique extermination, into the ambiguous phrase: “peaceful Soviet citizens.” You will find this phrase ad nauseam in official ChGK documentation. You might ask: well weren’t they peaceful and also citizens of the Soviet Union; what’s the big deal? I’m sure many victims fit into both of those categories, but the phrase was consciously used by Soviet authorities to downplay, if not, outright ignore the Holocaust in Soviet publications. Some in the Kremlin felt it was dangerous to allot a special status of victimhood to the Jews, despite the fact everyone knew this was in fact true. The argument has been made they wanted to downplay Jewish victim status so as to not aggravate other ethnic groups and their sacrifices during the war, who might see the Soviets as being too sympathetic to the Jews.
In noting this tendency, some historians of Soviet and Jewish history, have therefore questioned the validity of ChGK as a research source and even some of my colleagues (the more hysterical among us) called it such things as a “tool of Stalinist falsification.”
While Jews and other victims were white-washed in final reports, publications (ChGK had a set of books), and newspaper articles, the commission’s holdings do discuss explicitly the Holocaust at great length for many places in Soviet Union. Local officials who were in charge of canvassing their own communities did not get instructions to ignore the Holocaust, therefore the picture presented in these local reports greatly differs from the later versions. Therefore, I believe, regardless of the final reports, the ChGK collection remains the single greatest resource we have on the Holocaust in the East. The collection of testimonies taken immediately after the war allow the historian to get incredibly close to ground zero of the occupation. It’s hard to imagine what our knowledge of the war in the East would look like without these documents.
It would not be until the 1970s and 1980s, and of course, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the special status Jews held as victims of the Nazis was articulated in this part of the world. Once this official silence was broken, many monuments were built that did recognize the reason they were murdered and their identity.
When the Rostov local government utilized the phrase “peaceful citizens” (careful to drop the “Soviet” part of it), they were evoking a well-known terminology that has a history in Russia. This background makes it even more ironic that the Communist MP on the Nationalities committee in the Russian parliament (Duma), Tamara Pletneva, dutifully as a Communist replied: “The memorial should commemorate all the war victims… the Soviet Union saved Jews, Russians saved Jews… so why single out Jews? We shouldn’t single out any ethnic group.” But of course, Tamara, it was all just one big, happy family (druzhba naradov) of victims, wasn’t it?
For further reading see the excellent article by Karel Berkhoff: “‘Total Annihilation of the Jewish Population’: The Holocaust in the Soviet Media, 1941-45” in Kritika. Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 10, no. 1 (Winter 2009) (also translated into Russian, in the journal Holokost i suchastnist).
(All photos belong to the author (c))