As you well know:
Every year since the end of the “Great Patriotic War,” veterans and their families remember something different than their counterparts throughout Europe and the United States who celebrate the Nazi’s surrender, the liberation of millions of people. In Russia, Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th. In St. Petersburg in particular, they celebrate survival. For nine hundred days the Nazis bombarded the city in an attempt to “wipe it from the face of the earth.” The Nazis failed; the veterans never forgot.
But apparently, you have, Mr. Putin, haven’t you? Your beloved Leningrad. I was there at the Piskarevskoe Cemetery twenty years ago when you placed the wreath at the foot of the statue of the Motherland and mourned for the seven-hundred-thousand women and children buried in mass graves; your relatives, your family, friends, all starved to death or killed during the Blockade. “One of the most tragic events in human history,” you called it. “This must never happen again,” you said.
In the 1990s, when you were vice mayor of St Petersburg, you stood in front of the Mariinsky Palace—City Hall—and nodded as a guide explained to a Canadian delegation the wonderful story of perseverance. I was a professor traveling alone from America who happened by, lucky to hear the story in English. And after two dozen trips to St. Petersburg, I have become quite aware how this story of pride is ingrained in the hearts of all of the city’s residents, including you, so you said. “Everyone in this city knows this story,” the guide said, and you nodded, smiled.
Your actions in Ukraine suggest you’ve forgotten, so let me jog your memory: Hitler was so convinced he would take Leningrad, he sent out 250 invitations for a celebration party to be held at the Astoria Hotel, just feet from where we stood near the statue of Nicholas I. The guide said that when it became clear to Hitler that he was not going to be able to take the city after all, he ordered Leningrad be “completely destroyed and wiped off the map.” Hence the siege—nine-hundred days of bombing, a million and a half dead, nearly seven-hundred thousand of them women and children. But it didn’t work. Your own relatives insured your birth by holding off the Nazis. And for decades, even as late as the 1990s when I spoke to old women in the city about it—survivors of the siege—they remained proud to say that “Hitler never dined at the Astoria Hotel.” Everyone clapped. You clapped. It’s a great story.
A few days later I watched you lay the wreath on Victory Day and declare such terror should never occur again in the world.
It has come full circle, hasn’t it, Mr. Putin, only now you are the evil aggressor who has abandoned his own people, a population who swore such an event should never be experienced by humanity again, when you imposed a similar fate on the citizens of Mariupol, Ukraine. Now the people of Ukraine are fighting their own Great Patriotic War, and you are their Hitler. It took eighty years for another madman to think he has the right to destroy a population to satisfy his own ego and insecurities. We’ve seen it before; we know how this turns out. No matter what happens geopolitically, you will go down in human history as a tyrant and cold-blooded killer, “Putin” spoken in the same sentence as “Hitler,” Mariupol in the same breath as Leningrad.
What’s tragic personally is I stood there in that cemetery, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, on the speakers, and watched you place that wreath, listened to my translator proudly repeat what you said: “This is one of the most tragic events in human history and we must never allow it to happen again.”
The people of your city—St Petersburg—are ashamed that not only did it happen again, but it was conceived by and carried out by one of their own citizens.
The true Russian heart, the true soul of someone from St Petersburg, is one who celebrates survival and all that Peter the Great’s “Window to the West” has to offer the world. You might be from the Soviet Union, but you are not Russian. There was a time when even St. Petersburg could see the beautiful and celebrated results of your efforts to bring the city and the country back to life after a century of darkness. But once this is over, you will only be mentioned as the tyrant who sacrificed his own people to destroy another culture. And then, like all monstrous dictators, you will simply be forgotten.