Can history really repeat itself?

Can history really repeat itself?

Our analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, considers the first year of the war in Ukraine

The I Love Huliaipole installation stands among the rubble of the city after months of shelling by Russian troops. (Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/
Future Publishing via Getty Images
The I Love Huliaipole installation stands among the rubble of the city after months of shelling by Russian troops. (Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/ Future Publishing via Getty Images

It’s been just about a year since Vladimir Putin, the angry dwarf himself, ordered Russian forces to invade the sovereign nation of Ukraine. That was on February 24, 2022, about 250,000 dead soldiers from both sides, tens of thousands of dead civilians — including at least 460 dead children — and about 9.5 million displaced people ago.

On February 2, Putin went to Volgograd, as Stalingrad now is called, to deliver a historic speech, our analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, said.

Why does that matter, and how does Mr. Smukler know about its importance?

Mr. Smukler was born in Moscow in 1960; he, his wife, and their oldest children left for the United States in 1991. That means that a little less than half his life was spent there, and a little more than half here. Because he is a successful entrepreneur, he has maintained close relationships in both Russia and Ukraine; because he is an engaged Russian Jew, he has followed the war closely, consulting with sources who still are there and watching and reading news reports comprehensible only to Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers.

Because of his specialized knowledge, two weeks ago he was able to tell us that he believed the reason that Germany was reluctant to send tanks to Ukraine was because the history of World War II — a history that had Germany on the hideously wrong side, and therefore had Stalin, despite his enormous crimes against humanity, at least temporarily on the right side — made such a move symbolically risky.

Last week, we saw how true that theory is.

Putin was commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad, which started on July 17, 1942, and ended on February 2, 1943, 200 days and about two and a half million deaths later. The dead came from both sides, the Soviet and the German; the Red Army also captured almost 700,000 prisoners, including Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus, by the time he and the Germans surrendered. “This was the bloodiest battle in the history of mankind,” Mr. Smukler said. “And now Putin went there to commemorate the great victory that was the beginning of the collapse of the Third Reich.”

The second great victory, “which really was the beginning of the end, was the battle of Kursk, the tank battle that took place during the summer of 1943.

“Hitler tried to take Stalingrad, because it’s a key strategic point, that would open the gate to the Russian oil fields. That’s why it was important for Hitler to take it, and for the Soviets to defend it,” Mr. Smukler said. “Otherwise, the Soviets would lose their oil supply.

“And during Putin’s 22 years in office, he has always called Stalingrad/Volgograd a sacred place, because that’s where their holy grail is kept.”

That holy grail is marked by a truly massive statue, 279 feet tall, called “The Motherland Calls.” Motherland, as it is known, was unveiled in 1967, and was declared at the time to be the world’s tallest statue; it’s still thought to be the largest outside Asia.

“It’s gigantic, built on an enormously huge cemetery where the soldiers of the Red Army are buried,” Mr. Smukler said. “It reminds me of the Statue of Liberty; it’s a woman, the mother of Russia.”

Alexander Smukler

Unlike the Statue of Liberty, however, who holds a golden torch to light the way for the homeless and tempest-tossed to find their way to the new golden land in one hand and a tablet with the date of the Declaration of Independence in the other, the Mother of Russia holds a sword. Unlike the Statue of Liberty, whose face is serene, the Mother of Russia is snarling. “She has a huge, huge, huge, angry face,” Mr. Smukler said.

Putin’s speech was “dedicated to the national pride and the history of Russia defending itself,” Mr. Smukler said. He was most struck by a few lines: “Again and again we have to repel the aggression of the collective West,” Putin said. “It’s incredible but it’s a fact: we are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them.

“And they are again going to fight Russia on the territory of Ukraine with the hands of Hitler’s followers, the Banderites.” Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist, also was at least a part-time Nazi collaborator.

Putin often uses the relationship between some Ukrainians and the Nazis, whom they saw as the enemy of their enemy, the Soviets (and please note that no, this is not an attempt to whitewash them) to label Ukrainians today as Nazis. And many Jews see the often murderous relationship between prewar Ukraine and the Jews who lived there, in what was the Pale of Settlement, as too large a hurdle to jump. This, of course, is despite the fact that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, and some of his relatives, including his great-grandparents, were slaughtered in the Holocaust.

But, Mr. Smukler said, “Putin is making a bridge between World War II and now. His speech was devoted to explaining to Russians that the battle of Stalingrad is not over.

“Now, after 80 years, Putin told his audience and his nation that they will have to stand up and protect the Motherland from the organized West, and that the symbol of that battle is the Leopard tank, with its German military cross.

“But Putin also said in his speech that if the West, which is attacking us, thinks that we will defend ourselves now using the same machinery that we used then, they are mistaken. Now, 80 years later, we have much more powerful weaponry we can use to defend out motherland.

“That is a direct threat,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s about Russia using weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, in a war of aggression that Russia started. We see that now, a year into that bloody aggression, Russian leaders are trying to put into the nation’s mind the idea that they are continuing the war against the Nazis that was started 80 years ago.”

That is because “in Putin’s mind, and in the minds of the Russian leadership, they already are involved in the Third World War. They announced it. They talk about it freely. They say that they are going to use every possible weapon in their possession to defend their motherland.

“They completely forget that nobody else started this war. That Putin and his leadership completely misled the country, because they started the war. Nobody is attacking them.”

They are twisting the facts and the symbols so that “the Germans are still Nazis, and the tanks are the symbols of those Nazis.”

An outsider might think that it would be hard to pull off the sleight of hand that makes today’s Germans last century’s Nazis — almost everyone in Russia was born after the war, or at most was a small child when it was fought — “but it’s important to understand the Russian psychology and Russian character,” Mr. Smukler said.

The Motherland Calls is a huge, snarling monument to World War II in Volgograd.

When he was growing up, the war was omnipresent, and that continues to be the case for children who go through Russian schools, he explained. “My father did not fight in the war, but both my grandfathers did.” Putin is 70; his father, who was old when his son Vlad was born, fought throughout the entire conflict. “And his baby brother died in the siege of Leningrad,” Mr. Smukler said.

It is because of that childhood, in fact, that Mr. Smukler first called him the “angry dwarf.” His childhood, in a communal apartment in Leningrad, with elderly, embittered parents, in a war-scarred, poor, cold city, made him angry. He grew up on the streets, which was ruled by gangs, and life was violent. His relatively small size then — he’s still short but hardly thin now — meant that he couldn’t get by on brawn, so he had to develop the skills of manipulation and secretiveness that have served him so effectively ever since. But it was not a happy childhood, and it was far from an atypical one.

Mr. Smukler also grew up in a communal apartment in Moscow, and so did his wife, Alla Straks.

Ms. Straks, whose family suffered tremendously during the Holocaust, was born in 1963. She didn’t know anything about being Jewish, but she knew a great deal about the Great Patriotic War. Like everyone else in the huge communal building she lived in, she spent most of her time when she wasn’t in school playing on the streets.

In 1973, when she was 9 years old, and World War II had been over for 28 years, she and her gang played Great Patriotic War games. She was chosen for the Red Army side — she liked that, it was like being a cowboy, not an Indian, and when you were chosen as commissar, that was heaven — but then a friend told her, casually, that she’d be the first on her team to die.

“Why?” Alla asked. “Because you’re Jewish.” “No, I’m not.” “Yes, of course you are.”

So Alla went home, and asked her grandmother. “Are we Jewish?” The question meant that it was time to tell the little girl the family secret.

“It was the strongest psychological trauma,” Mr. Smukler said.

“When you grow up in Russia,” even when you’re a few generations removed, “you learn about the history of the war and the great heroism of the Red Army every day,” Mr. Smukler said. And all Russian kids, no matter how well-adjusted their families, “always felt that it was our history, and so did the next generation. Kids start studying it in fifth grade, and end in 10th grade. When they’re younger, they start learning about the heroes; later, they learn about military strategy and Stalin’s government.”

It was different for Ukrainians. They fully shed the Soviet Union state of mind far earlier and more thoroughly than the neighboring Russians did.

“For 30 years now, the Ukrainians have been independent,” Mr. Smukler said. Their textbooks and their school program is entirely different. These generations did not learn about the Great Patriotic War and the heroes of the Red Army.”

On the other hand, “if I still lived in Russia, my kids would have learned the same thing, and so would their kids. That is why I keep pointing out that for Russians, including Russian children, the Second World War — the Great Patriotic War — is not over.”

There has been one great — and inevitable — change in the Russian understanding of history, and of the present day, since the Soviet Union fell, Mr. Smukler said. “Today, there are two main pillars of Putin’s Russia.

Russian missile fire damaged a 113-year-old synagogue in the city of Huliaipole, Ukraine, last weekend. An unconfirmed photo shows a massive hole in the building’s exterior.

“One is the memory of the great victory of the Second World War, and of the great history of Russia before that. The second pillar is the church.”

That first pillar has been modified but not changed, he explained. “We learned, and our textbooks told us, almost exactly the same things that modern kids learn in school today, except for one thing.

“We were told that the Communists led the way. They led the army — the Communist army. They were Communists, fighting for communism, dying for communism. The Communists were the warriors on the battlefield.

“Now, they’ve taken out the word ‘Communist’ and put in the word ‘Russian.’ It’s about Russian warriors, Russian national character, the Russian nation. But in every other way, it’s exactly the same.”

The second pillar is the church. “The church has entirely replaced the Communist party and its institutions. Putin brought back religion to replace the other ideology. So his power rests on those two pillars — national pride and the history of Russia, which is mostly militaristic. Russia always fights. Every generation in Russia had a war. The church is now one of the most powerful institutions in the Russian state.

“Putin became president unexpectedly,” Mr. Smukler continued. “Yeltsin chose him.” Then the Soviet Union dissolved, also somewhat unexpectedly, or at least with unexpected speed. The death of communism left a void. “Putin was smart enough to understand that the country needed a new ideology. He had no time to design something new, so he took something old — the church — and brought it back, built it up, and that gave it enormous power inside Russia.

“The church’s roots in Russia go back 1,000 years, so the Russians accepted it with pleasure and pride and happiness. Millions of people came back to church, even though for 70 years the Communists had repressed it terribly.”

That brought Mr. Smukler back to Putin’s speech. “Putin told us two important things,” he said. “Once again, he explained to the nation that the war happened because we wanted to denazify Ukraine. Unfortunately, that became a world war. It’s the new Great Patriotic War, Putin said. Don’t you see how right I was?, he asked.

“Now we will see the same tanks on the battlefield that our fathers and grandfathers saw there. But now we have much more sophisticated weaponry, which can destroy any enemy of Russia. And we are not going to have to think again before we use it.

“This speech is the scariest proof of the enormous escalation of the conflict in Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. “This is history repeating itself.”

But as Mark Twain told us, history rarely repeats itself exactly. Instead, it rhymes.

“Now we will have a battle similar to the one for Stalingrad, with the German tanks with the military crosses,” Mr. Smukler said. “It seems to me that in the next two or three weeks we will see the beginning of the enormous Russian offense, which they are planning now. They’re almost ready to attack Ukraine from a different direction.

“The Russians have now accumulated more than 500,000 soldiers who are ready to attack. They are all concentrated on Russian territory right next to Ukraine; they’ve also got enormous amounts of military munitions, artillery, and tanks.

“Already, every military expert, including the military leadership of Ukraine, is warning the world that the war in Ukraine is very close to the enormous battles that we are going to see very soon. And the Ukrainians are not able to concentrate enough power to hold back the Russian offense.”

That’s because the Ukrainians still do not have all the “military support — the tanks and fighter jets and long-range missiles” that they need, Mr. Smukler said. Much of that equipment has been promised to Ukraine, “but they will not be ready to use on the front until later.” It takes time to prepare them, ship them, and train Ukrainians on how to use them. “Some experts say that it will take three to eight months,” he said. “Obviously the Russian goal is to defeat Ukraine before that. That is why Putin is concentrating on attacking Ukraine.”

He thinks that there is a grimly obvious day for this new attack to begin. “I think that it will start on the first anniversary of the invasion,” he said. “I think that it will start on February 24.”

He’s clear on the date of the attack, but not on the direction it will come from. “If we read the different military experts, we see that nobody knows what direction the Russian attack will come from,” he said. “It’s the biggest intrigue today. If the world would know where it’s going to come from, it wouldn’t be an intrigue. It would make everything easier.

“My personal opinion — and I am not a military expert — is that Putin will try once again to move in the same direction as he did at the beginning of the war,” he continued. “I think that he will try to capture Kyiv.

“And I think that the second hit will come from Belarus, to take a number of Ukrainian military personnel away from the main front.” In December, Putin went to Belarus; Mr. Smukler and other analysts assumed that he was trying to pressure the country’s strongman, Aleksandr Lukashenko, into sending his troops to his country’s border with Ukraine. That poorly equipped army won’t pose much of a threat to Ukraine, but it will suck away human resources as it extends the already 1,000-mile front line even further.

Still, Mr. Smukler thinks that Putin’s main goal will be to take Kharkiv, and then Kyiv, which would prove to be a symbolic as well as a physical win.

“That is the only move in the chess game that will allow him, at least in his own mind, to win the war quickly,” Mr. Smukler said. “So we will see.”

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