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The Bitterness of Victory, the Sweetness of Defeat
You gotta lose
Translated by Dan Erdman
In Russia, in the Tver region, theres a city called Rzhev. This is an ancient city, founded at the beginning of the 13th century. An old Russian city that would be very nice if the local and regional authorities cared a little about it. Nearby is the beautiful Volga, still relatively narrow at this point, stormy, but without that breadth and majesty that this famous Russian river boasts in its lower reaches, closer to Saratov. But still, its banks at Rzhev are high, steep, overgrown, and very impressive. Like all old cities, Rzhev is inscribed in the landscape; the city has grown into and merged with nature - with its hills and winding rivers, reluctantly retreating from the city forest. In summer, the city looks charming, despite the broken roads and peeling walls of the houses. Autumn, of course, exposes disorder, throwing it into sharp relief until the snow covers the city with its mystical veil, hiding everything broken and faded.
I refuse to acknowledge that anyone who has not been to Rzhev, or a city like it, can claim an understanding of Russia.
Rzhev is, I am sure, a symbol of one particular national quality, a complex characteristic of the Russian collective subconscious. The thing is, we don’t like to lose. Of course, no one enjoys it, but consider how the British glorify their defeats and exalt their losers; recall how often the English-language cinema depicts the charge of the light brigade, Dunkirk, Gallipoli. But we despise our defeats and are afraid to talk about them. Russian historiography is characterized by a focus on victorious operations and the triumph of Russian weapons in those battles where the outcome was far from certain (for example, the battle of Borodino against Napoleon in 1812, overgrown with legends both in Russian history and public consciousness). Moreover, both historians and the public quite often ignore those battles whose outcomes at least resemble a defeat.
So it was with the Battle of Rzhev, which in fact was a series of fierce battles that lasted almost continuously from the middle of 1942 to March 1943. Most often described as a “meat grinder,” “tragedy,” “failure,” it is still quite often understood as three military operations following almost one after another in the summer and autumn of 1942, and again in March 1943.
In fiction and cinema, the battles of Rzhev, as a rule, are the backdrop for depicting the tragedy of the war. It is probably impossible to find a Russian, at least one over 50 years old, who does not know at least a few lines from that poignant poem of Alexander Tvardovsky, “I Was Killed Near Rzhev.”
Strictly speaking, Rzhev was not such a terrible defeat, although the military operations there did not achieve their goals, and the losses were huge: about 400,000 killed and about 800,000 wounded. The 33rd Army, including Army Commander Efremov, was surrounded and completely defeated. But the German troops did not achieve terribly impressive success either, and in March 1943 they were forced to retreat, though the 9th Army of Walter Model was not defeated and fled without tangible losses.
During the period of Perestroika, when the country (then the USSR) was seized by a fever of revelations, much was written about the losses and tragedies of the Great Patriotic War (in Russia we rarely say - World War II, almost always - Great Patriotic War), with the story of Rzhev finding frequent mention. It even came to be known as the “secret battle.” Of course there was no strict secrecy around the battle, but Rzhev had never received much attention in textbooks, or films, or official events in honor of the victory. On the other hand though, every schoolchild knew the names Stalingrad and Kursk - but then again we won there.
The simple idea that victory was forged by those who fell in lost battles somehow did not take root in the Russian mind. Of course there is a monument to the unknown soldier, and it has been said a thousand times “your name is unknown, your feat is immortal,” but still, it is customary to glorify the heroes and the winners, while it’s enough to merely remember the losers - either with vodka, or in an official speech, in which no one can be forgotten. The fact is that Russians are a little obsessed with national pride, which in our country is somehow mystically intertwined with a passion for self-abasement, prone to an over-the-top boast that “only we could have done such a disgrace.” At the same time, Russians will hardly tolerate foreigners’ criticism of their country, while they themselves incessantly criticize an abstract “them,” and don’t really like to notice and discuss real or past defeats.
Once I told my friend that the Museum of Great Defeats could be opened in Rzhev. The friend objected, insisting that defeats are not great, why even focus on failures? This is a very common opinion in Russia. We were raised to win, that’s the thing. Even in Soviet history textbooks, the victories of the tsarist army were sung, and a variety of justifications were sought for defeats. The only exceptions were the First World War and the Civil War, but then the Bolsheviks eventually won the latter, creating the USSR. Coming to a dead end, and then marking it with a flag so that it may be easier for others to find the right path - this is not for Russians. We have never praised those who found a dead end. Falling in a lost battle, even one that later becomes a springboard for subsequent victories, is not a triumph from our point of view. Give us a victory without a prehistory.
And if defeats are exaggerated in modern films about the Patriotic War, this is an ideological device designed to debunk the Bolsheviks in every possible way, to blame them for all the defeats, and yet to still write their victories into our tradition and historical memory.
Now Russia faces the greatest defeat in its history. The greatest because, no matter how events unfolded after February 24, 2022, Russia had lost the precise moment when the first bomber took off towards Kyiv. Why? Because at that moment Russia had only two options left - to become an invader or to be crushed on the battlefield. The capture of Ukraine would require a Russia bursting with weapons, and feeding on unjust anger for a long time, constantly suppressing resistance in the captured country - a country intimately close to Russia in language, blood, culture, history. This would be the path to the decomposition of the moral core of society, to the death of the soul of the people. This could destroy once and for all those truly great achievements of the USSR and Russia, both of which in reality, and not in the feverish delirium of propagandists, made our world a better place. Such a “victory” would in reality be a complete failure for Russia.
But what will come of Russia’s looming defeat on the battlefield? Will Russian society be able to understand, and, most importantly, to admit that it was simply deceived, that the goals were false? Will Russian citizens be able to understand that, behind the inflated enthusiasm generated by well-paid propagandists, the authorities were merely striving for a very primitive and utilitarian kind of survival? And, having understood, will they be able to perceive the defeat not as the end of Russia, but as its true beginning? “Chaos is a ladder,” says Lord Baelish in the Game of Thrones series. Petyr Baelish is a more than unpleasant hero, but the phrase is good, if one might agree.
Today, I often hear from those who initially did not approve of the special operation in Ukraine that, having fully engaged, Russia cannot possibly retreat now. After all, it would be a defeat, and defeat is unacceptable. Any objections recalling that Russia somehow survived both the Crimean War and the Japanese War, was revived by a revolution after the defeat in the First World War, that the USSR was forced to retreat from Afghanistan, will be met with the same rebuff, which I have heard from several different people. They answer me something like this: “Firstly, the USSR just collapsed almost immediately after Afghanistan, and, secondly, it’s all completely different now.” I also hear very unflattering comments about those who left Russia after the announcement of mobilization. Some young people admit that they will go to the front because one of their friends, relatives, or neighbors has left. “I can’t just sit there while they’re being killed.” It seems that the majority of society is desperately afraid to face defeat, desperately afraid of being cowardly. Although the most difficult and courageous action today would be to lose to others in order to win oneself.
I think the Russians need to grow up. We all need, finally, to stop perceiving the state as a hybrid of Leviathan and Santa Claus, from which one can expect either big trouble or big gifts. My fellow citizens must finally understand that the state is nothing more than an instrument that they direct for the solution of common problems. The instrument cannot control its owner, cannot dictate to him how to live and what to do. But the owner also has a duty - to keep his tool in order, use it correctly, control it, and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
It is a pity that you have to grow up again in the war, like several generations before. Maybe it is possible that the urge for militaristic revenge lurks in society, growing and waiting for its mission. If efforts are not made to debunk the propaganda myth of national humiliation in the event of a lost war, such a danger will become very real.
But perhaps the current generations of Russians will be able to become the generations of the Great Defeat, which will clear the way to real victories. A defeat that will help defeat real, not imagined evil: dictatorship, lawlessness, social oppression and corruption. We must overcome all this in our own country, and this will be the greatest victory that no interpreters of history can belittle.
Maybe then my Museum of Great Defeats will open, and both life and beauty will return to the abandoned Rzhev, and to many other places in Russia.