Morality and Law
75th Anniversary of the End of WWII and the Politics of Historical Memory

The September end of World War II in Russia was always left in the shadow of the main Victory Day, May 9. The reasons are clear. The tragedy and heroism of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis naturally, emotionally, surpassed everything else in memory. In modern Russia, traditionally, almost all memorial events – including the Victory Parade, the Immortal Regiment marches, and much more – have been held on May 9.

The September memorial events related to the end of the war in the Far Eastern and Pacific theatres of military operations were perceived by Russian public opinion with less emotional intensity. It was more a date for historians than for the general public. If we talk about the media reflection on these memorial events, then they were partly perceived in the public opinion of Russians primarily as the day of the Chinese Victory Parade, where Russia was an honorary guest and participant, but everyone understood that this date was primarily of key importance for the Chinese themselves, and thus paid tribute to the memory of their contribution and their sacrifices for the common victory.

This year, the situation has changed, and public attention to the date of the end of the Second World War has generally increased. This was partly due to the coronavirus epidemic, when the cancellation of the main Russian Victory Parade on May 9 for sanitary reasons led to a public discussion on what date it would be best to postpone it to. One of the options was the anniversary of the end of World War II as a whole. Another aspect is associated with the official postponement of the memorial date for the end of the war in Russia from September 2 to 3, which also attracted widespread public attention.

At the same time, the anniversary of the end of World War II retains its paramount historical and partly political significance, not only as a memorial date, but also in the context of the modern development of bilateral relations between Russia and Japan. And here the specificity of historical memory on both sides and its influence on politics in a certain way differs from the situation between Russia and Germany. The result of a systematic dialogue between Russian and German societies, experts and politicians was the achievement of historical reconciliation between Russia and Germany in relation to the events of World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin and German politicians have repeatedly said this. This historic reconciliation is the most important related social and political achievement of the two countries. It is also manifested in the fact that, despite the complexity of the modern political situation, the notorious "wars of memory" in relation to the European theatre of that war, are being waged mainly in the countries of Eastern Europe (for understandable historical reasons), but they affect the politics of memory to a much lesser extent in bilateral Russian-German relations.

Regarding relations between Russia and Japan in the sphere of historical memory, the situation is different. With a certain degree of exaggeration, we can say that the outbreak of the Cold War here did not allow the Second World War to end. The 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference was already taking place at the height of the Cold War, which could not but influence the positions of many countries on this issue. As a result, a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan was never signed.

This aspect of historical memory retains its significance today. In Japanese public opinion and the political class, the topic of unresolved territorial issues is postulated. The position of Russia is that the basis for a peace treaty is the recognition by Japan of the results of the Second World War. Numerous negotiations on this topic have not yet led to any final result. However, their important consequence was to ensure the openness of the South Kuril Islands for the descendants of Japanese citizens living there: for visa-free memorial trips to cemeteries to commemorate the memory of ancestors, for economic activities, for cultural initiatives, in particular the construction by the Japanese side of the House of Friendship between the Russian and Japanese peoples on Kunashir ... However, at a certain point, these projects became hostage to an internal political financial scandal in Japan, associated, in particular, with their supporter Muneo Suzuki. However, their development continues.

Several years ago, despite the firm position of the Russian leadership, a rather noisy public campaign was launched in Russia under the slogan “We will not give up the Kuriles”. However, its reasons were, I believe, primarily of an internal political nature and were associated with the promotion of the right- and left-populist discourse of a number of opposition figures. Nevertheless, this topic has received additional acuteness in Russian public opinion.

As a result, we cannot deny that the end of World War II retains its pitfalls in the Russian-Japanese bilateral context. This is a day when it is perhaps particularly difficult to distance a firm but solution-oriented line from hard-core populism on both sides. All this leaves a touch of understatement. Perhaps this is also why the September memorial day is emotionally less significant for Russian citizens than Victory Day on May 9.

At the same time, not a single responsible politician or expert will oppose the need to continue the Russian-Japanese dialogue on historical memory. For the above reasons of mutual sensitivity for public opinion, this dialogue should be especially delicate on both sides. This dialogue can have different aspects: political, economic, and social. A dialogue of historians is also necessary (and the popularisation of this dialogue in public opinion) on the entire range of Soviet-Japanese relations in 1938-1945. These include military conflicts on Lake Khasan in 1938, on the Khalkhin Gol River in 1939, the conclusion of a neutrality pact between the USSR and Japan on April 13, 1941, Japan's commitment to this treaty during the period of Hitler's aggression against the USSR and the Great Patriotic War, the obligations of the USSR to the allies in the anti-Hitler coalition and the entry of the USSR into the war against Japan in August 1945, and finally the post-war events. It is necessary to understand that without this kind of dialogue, historical reconciliation between Russia and Japan cannot be achieved.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.