Pundits love to complain about the abysmal ignorance of history among the American public. They’re right, of course, but I’m not convinced things are any different outside the United States. Everyone should know more history, especially if it involves buying my books. It’s nice to be able to quantify those questions, if only a little bit. The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) has surveyed Russian opinion and knowledge of World War II, and the results are intriguing (this material has been available for a couple of months, but I only found out about it thanks to a mention in today’s Johnson’s Russia List).
Our GlavKom Scott Palmer will be delighted to know that the Rodina-mat’ monument in Volgograd is an easy winner for the most significant symbol of victory.
VTsIOM also surveyed turning points in the war. Russians were asked what they considered to be a decisive moment in the Great Fatherland War, and the moment in the Great Fatherland War. Stalingrad wins both: 68% of Russians saw it as a decisive moment, and 31% as the turning point of the war. Kursk and Moscow essentially tied for second place in both circumstances, as Kursk scored 49% as a decisive moment and 17% as the turning point; Moscow got 46% and 15%.
That surprises me to some degree. I’m not surprised at all to see Stalingrad winning, though my own inclination would be to see Moscow as the most significant moment, an issue that we can perhaps argue about in the comments. Finding Kursk in 2nd is odd, though I’ve been aware that it looms far larger in the Russian consciousness than in the Western. I’m not sure what to make of that. Back during perestroika, Duma member and former Deputy Minister of Defense Andrei Kokoshin argued for the importance of the battle of Kursk as showing the viability of a fundamentally defensive strategy, though it’s hard to imagine that view affecting the general public. I also note that Operation Bagration–the destruction of Army Group Center in Belorussia in summer 1944–only rates 4% as a significant moment, well below the breaking of the Leningrad blockade (34%), the taking of Berlin (13%), and tied with the Rzhev operation [?!?!?!?].
There’s also a pattern in the data: young people are significantly less likely than older people to see any of the big events of the war as decisive–74% of those over 60 see Stalingrad as a decisive moment; only 58% of those 18-24. The sole exception is Moscow, where there is no drop-off by age. I think can be attributed to ignorance–Moscow is important now, one might think, and so it must have been important then. The youngest cohort is by far the most likely (14%) to fail to name a single decisive moment in the war.
What about the question of ignorance? One of the ways VTsIOM measures this is by asking people to name hero-cities.
This is a task I would fail miserably. I’d have no trouble with the obvious ones–Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad–but then I’d start thinking too much. Kursk? Big battle, but it wasn’t actually fought that close to the city itself . . . . Brest-Litovsk? More a fortress than a city, but I’m pretty sure I remember it from the Aleksandrovskii Garden outside the Kremlin . . . No way I’d get Kerch or Novorossiisk. The oddity here is that despite Stalingrad’s centrality to Russian memories of the war, it’s only mentioned by 45% of the respondents as a hero-city; Moscow (59%) and Leningrad (57%) both beat it.
In terms of more substantive knowledge of the basic facts of the war, I was not able to find detailed breakdowns on VTsIOM’s website, so I’m going by the summaries available here.
First, it’s reassuring to know that Russians are clear (88%) that Germany started the war, and only 1% blame the US.
The good folks at VTsIOM are bothered that only 22% percent of Russians can name the correct start date of World War II (1939), and the bulk of the rest, 58%, name 1941. That one doesn’t bother me so much, and I would imagine you’d get very similar answers from an American audience. For Americans and Soviets, World War II really did start in 1941, though as a good broad-minded historian I certainly know the war begin in 1939. While seeing 1941 as the start of the war betrays a certain Russocentrism or Americacentrism, insisting that the start date is 1939 suggests a similar Eurocentrism. If we look at the Far East, one could make a decent case for 1937, or even 1931.
Similarly, in response to the question of who commanded the Red Army, only 49% say Stalin, with the bulk of the rest (31%) naming Zhukov. As above, that large number of errors is understandable, and the supposed wrong answer isn’t entirely wrong. Stalin certainly wasn’t commanding armies in the field.
What about unambiguous questions? The record on dates isn’t impressive. Only 34% can name 1942 as the start of the battle of Stalingrad, and 35% can name 1944 as the lifting of the siege of Leningrad. Things look somewhat better when we get to who fought on what side. 62% can identify the US as an ally, and 53% Britain. 82% got Germany as an enemy, but only 30% Japan. Since Japan was only at war with the USSR for about two weeks, that’s hardly surprising.
Those figures are not entirely out of line with American ones. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a right-of-center American organization, did a survey in which 69% of Americans could identify Germany and Japan as America’s enemies in a multiple choice test. Of course, it’s appalling that 31% couldn’t manage even that, but I’m not sure it’s any more or less appalling than 18% of Russians not managing to hear that Germany was the enemy in World War II.