For most Americans, December 7, 1941 possesses a gravity and symbolism like few other dates in our nation’s history. It was the moment when America ceased to be free of the Second World War and became one of its most consequential combatants. It ended an era of isolation and catapulted us into a global superpower. And it was marked, of course, by a devastating suprise attack by the Japanese on our naval base at Pear Harbor.
But many Americans do not realize that Pearl Harbor Day has an equivalent in Russia, where entry into the war also occured involuntarily after a suprise attack by the enemy. In fact, the event marking the beginning of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War dwarfed America’s tragic losses, as did the body count when the war finally ended.
Half a year before our “day of infamy” (to quote President Roosevelt), the Soviet Union was forced into World War II by a suprise attack by Germany. On June 22, 1941, the entire weight of the Nazi war machine came crashing down on her western borders. Operation Barbarossa was the largest invasion in world history and was an even greater example of diplomatic infamy than Pearl Harbor. Without warning, the Germans smashed Soviet defenses to pieces along a border stretching two thousand miles from the Baltic Coast to the Black Sea. Within hours there was nothing left of the border. Within days, the Germans had destroyed or surrounded its reeling defenders. Within a month they had conquered a territory greater than Germany itself. And by December, they could see Moscow–six hundred miles from the border–in their field glasses. No suprise attack has ever been so overwhelmingly successful.
And yet it would ultimately collapse and lead to the ruin of Nazi Germany. The Red Army sustained unimaginably high losses but kept fighting. By the time Germany’s ally Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, in fact, the Russians had launched a counterattack that saved Moscow from capture. The road to Soviet victory was a long one, and would pass through even greater catastrophes like the heartbreaking siege of Leningrad (in which the Germans starved a million unarmed civilians to death) and the epic Battle of Stalingrad. After the two titans all but exhausted themselves in the tank battle of Kursk, the Red Army rose again to continue the struggle. There was simply no stopping it. By the summer of 1944 it had recovered nearly all of the territories lost to the Germans since Barbarossa. During the year that followed, it advanced inexorably to Berlin, where Hitler committed suicide. Soon after Germany finally surrendered.
Russia’s war against Nazi Germany has never been ignored in the West, but it has been neglected. Americans are far more familiar with D-Day than Stalingrad, with the Battle of the Bulge than the Battle of Kursk, and with Pearl Harbor than Operation Barbarossa. This is a natural expression of patriotism. However, it can sometimes have troubling consequences.
Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin published an article in a Western journal criticizing the West’s sometimes myopic narrative about the Second World War. There was much that was inevitably political about the piece. But it did raise an important point: No long-term harmony between the United States and Russia is possible as long as the latter’s role in destroying twentieth-century fascism is ignored. Indeed, Putin’s article was provoked by a White House communique stating that in the fall of Berlin “America and Britain had victory over the Nazis.” In point of fact it was the Red Army that captured the German capital, but nowhere was this acknowledged in the brief Twitter statement. The suggestion was that it was a Western achievment.
This helps explain why in Russia today so much attention has been given to patriotism and the importance of national unity. At a time when America is experiencing divisions comprable the 1960s and national monuments are being thrown to the ground for their association with historical evils, Russia recently raised a monument in Moscow to her victory over Nazi Germany. It is not a statue, but a church.
In fact, it is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. The Temple of the Resurrection of Christ was only completed within the past month and consecrated a week ago by Patriarch Kirill. And it was opened for public use today, June 22, the anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
It is an example of a very different vision of modern culture than that which currently prevails in the secularistic European Union or America. Whether Russia will succeed in rebuilding her nation on a foundation that includes Christianity–as Ukraine likewise sought to do with the commemoration of Saint Volodymyr in Kiev last year–remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, having lost twenty-seven million lives along with other Soviet states during the Second World War (compared to America’s 420,000–an unquestionably heroic but far smaller number), she deserves the West’s respect.
5 thoughts on “Russia’s Pearl Harbor Day”
Wow. Amazing. I knew about Barbarrosa but i didnt know about the new church commemorating that or the loss of life was that high. And the conclusions you make are eye opening.
On Mon, Jun 22, 2020 at 5:46 PM PARADISE AND UTOPIA wrote:
> John Strickland posted: “For most Americans, December 7, 1941 possesses a > gravity and symbolism like few others in our nation’s history. That date > was the moment when America ceased to be free of the Second World War and > became one of its most consequential combatants. It ended a” >
Thank you, Father John, for another post. I always enjoy your writing and podcasts.
Susan E Hansen-Engelhard MA Licensed Mental Health Counselor **Using Gottman Method Couples Therapy** Perspectives Counseling and Consulting 7345 W Sand Lake Rd, Suite 304 Orlando, Florida 32819 407-625-3549
I am glad this was of interest, Susan.
Most Americans are ignorant of our own country’s history, so not surprising they are unfamiliar with the incredible carnage and loss of life suffered by the Russian people in WWII. What complicates the perception of Soviet participation in WWII is the fact that when the war began in September 1939, the Soviet Union (Stalin) partnered with Germany and joined in the invasion and occupation of Poland. So, war for the Soviets didn’t begin with the German attack in the summer of ’41, but almost 2 years earlier when the Russians joined with Germany and invaded Poland. That was followed up In April and May of 1940 with the Katyn massacre, the execution of about 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia by the Soviet secret police. Stalin is also guilty of contributing to the suffering of his own people during the war by eviscerating his military’s leadership in the 1930s with a series of purges and executions. Those who remained were by and large either inexperienced or political lackeys and hacks and their need to “learn on the job” meant untold numbers of Russian civilians and soldiers became cannon fodder. June 22nd 1941 is certainly a day that will go down in infamy for the Russian people, and we shouldn’t the integral role played by the Soviet military and the Russian people in the defeat of Germany in WWII, but Stalin was by all accounts more of a monster than Hitler not just in his treatment of the Russian people, and anyone, any people, or any country he perceived as a threat to his power and rule.
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Fr. John, thank you for this reminder. I learned this profound lesson on my first visit to Russia as a college student. It was a multiple-decade anniversary year of 1945, and the celebration by the Moscow Corcus made it seem as if 1945 had been yesterday.