When one thinks of the Second World War in the Western world, the common assumption is that it was the United States that single-handedly won the war. This version of history is the stuff of Hollywood cinema, the version enshrined in American popular films like Saving Private Ryan. However, although one could make the case that the U.S. won the war in the Pacific against Imperial Japan, in fact it was the Soviet Union that effectively won the war in Europe.
The magnitude of the Soviet sacrifice and loss in the war is truly staggering and almost beyond comprehension. Approximately 14% of the country’s pre-war population died in the struggle to defeat Nazism and fascism, a struggle known in Armenia and throughout the post-Soviet space as the Great Patriotic War. On the level of everyday life, this meant the disruption of countless families – wives who never again saw their husbands, mothers who never again saw their sons. Entire graduating classes of schools died in the war. The war touched those in even some of the remotest parts of the Soviet Union – including Yezidi villages on the slopes of Mount Aragats, where the memory of local heroes from the war are held in reverence to this day.
The atrocities perpetrated by the invading Nazi German army were also on a scale seemingly beyond comprehension. Truly, for the Soviet people, the war was more than an ideological struggle. It was a war of annihilation. Most of the Holocaust took place on the Eastern Front, and it was ultimately the Soviets, not U.S., that liberated the prisoners in Auschwitz. Hitler’s vision, as outlined in Mein Kampf was for “lebensraum,” a vast “living space” in the East, encompassing entire swathes of present-day Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. In the Nazi imagination, the Slavs were the “slaves,” subhuman untermenschen who, alongside the Jews, were to be eliminated in accordance with the genocidal plans of the National Socialist regime.
In this regard, the Fuehrer took direct inspiration from the playbook of the Young Turks. On the eve of the German invasion of Poland, he is said to have told his commanders “who now remembers the Armenians?” Meanwhile, although Turkey tactfully stayed out of the war directly, its sympathies for the Third Reich were well-known. Ankara even concluded a treaty of friendship with the Nazi regime on June 18, 1941, just four days before the German invasion of the USSR on June 22. Berlin reciprocated the sentiments. As historian Stefan Ihrig noted, Atatürk was strongly admired by Hitler personally in his rise to power.
Every part of the former Soviet Union had a different experience of the war. In St. Petersburg, people still vividly recall the harrowing Siege of Leningrad, when the residents of that valiant city held out for close to 900 days, resisting the hated invader at an incredible sacrifice. In Volgograd, the grueling Battle of Stalingrad looms large and indeed defines the identity of that city. Structures such as the House of Pavlov stand as monuments to the brutal hand-to-hand fighting that ultimately turned the tide of the war in favor of the Soviets. In Moscow and Sevastopol, the heroic sieges are forever remembered, while in Belarus and much of Ukraine, it is the memory of the Soviet partisans that burns most brightly in the minds of the people.
Although Armenia did not see any combat, the war nevertheless made its impact felt on the small republic and on neighboring Artsakh (then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast). In fact, both Armenia and Artsakh sacrificed disproportionately to the rest of the Union. In the war, the Slavic republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia lost approximately 25%, 16%, and 13% of their pre-war populations respectively. Comparatively, Armenia lost approximately 14% of its pre-war population, the highest of all the Caucasus republics (Azerbaijan and Georgia lost 9% and 8% of their pre-war populations respectively).
Among the major Armenian heroes of the war, representatives of historical Artsakh and Gandzak were most prominent. Among them were the towering figures of Lieutenant-Colonel Nelson Stepanyan, Marshal Hamazasp Babajanyan, Admiral Ivan Isakov (Ter-Isahakyan), Marshal Sergei Khudyakov (Khanferyants), and Marshal of the USSR Hovhannes (Ivan) Baghramyan. Not only was Marshal Baghramyan awarded Hero of the Soviet Union twice for his role in the liberation of Eastern Europe, but to Armenians, he is also a hero for his participation at the Battle of Sardarapat, ensuring the physical existence of the Armenian people against Turkey’s genocidal aims. For his part, Aviation Marshal Khudyakov personally took part in the Yalta Conference in the presence of the “Big Three” (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill), only to later become a victim of Stalin’s post-war repressions. Yet another Armenian from Artsakh, Eduard Asadov, a poet with familial origins in Hadrut, lost his vision in the war, but immortalized the sacrifice in his verses.
Meetings with the Marshal (1976), a Soviet documentary film on Marshal Baghramyan, featuring footage of the Marshal’s
emotional visit to the Sardarapat Memorial, near Armavir. Courtesy of the National Archives of Armenia, Yerevan.
Still other Armenians contributed greatly to the Soviet war effort. Pilot Vladimir Mikoyan, the son of Anastas, died in combat over Stalingrad and his name can be found inscribed at the memorial to the Stalingrad Battle at Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd. While Anastas himself worked to supply food and materials to the Red Army, his brother, Artem, was busy working with Mikhail Gurevich to devise the original MiG fighter planes. Meanwhile, Soviet spies Gevork and Gohar Vartanyan prevented a Nazi assassination attempt on the “Big Three” leaders in Tehran in 1943.
The 89th Tamanyan Rifle Division bravely fought in the North Caucasus and the Crimea, participating in the liberation of the Hero City of Sevastopol. The Armenian division also took part in the Battle of Berlin, and its men were eager to join the Soviet assault on the Reich capital, given Germany’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire during the 1915 Genocide. For capturing several city districts, the division received the Order of Kutuzov 2nd Class.
It was 77 years ago today that people across the USSR marked victory over the hated Nazi enemy. The Reich that Hitler envisioned to last a thousand years died after only 12! In Berlin, the Tamanyan Division danced the kochari! The victory was indeed monumental. The towering achievements of Armenia’s larger-than-life heroes are today admirably preserved in the halls of the Armenian Military Museum at Victory Park in Yerevan – one of the “hidden treasures” of the Armenian capital.
The 89th Tamanyan Rifle Division enters Berlin, from the Soviet documentary film Poem Herosakan or Heroic Poem (1968).
The memory of the war continued to linger in Soviet Armenian popular consciousness, especially in film, from Dmitri Kesayants’s Soldier and Elephant (1977) with Frunzik Mkrtchyan, to Frunze Dovlatyan’s award-winning drama Hello, It’s Me! (1965) with Armen Dzhigarkhanyan. The latter film was based on the real-life story of Soviet Armenian physicist Artem Alikhanyan. It also included an interesting gender role reversal. In major Soviet war films, such as Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957), it is the man who is away at the front, while the woman faithfully waits for him at home. However, in Dovlatyan’s film, it is the man, the scientist Manvelyan (Dzhigarkhanyan) who is at home, while the woman, his love Lyusya (Natalya Fateyeva), is the one at the front in the war.
Since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the scope of Victory Day in the Armenian context has expanded to include the memory of the heroes of wars in Artsakh, especially the First Artsakh War and the victory of Armenian forces at Shushi. However, the memory of the Armenian heroes of the Second World War remains at the heart of the Victory Day celebrations. Their monumental contribution in the fight to defeat the Nazi war machine will forever be admired as a sacrifice, not only for the Armenian people, but for all peoples of the former Soviet Union and for humanity generally.