- “The Differences Were Only in the Details”The Moral Equivalency of Stalinism and Nazism in Anatolii Bakanichev’s Twelve Years behind Barbed Wire
In the spring of 1945, Anatolii Efimovich Bakanichev (1920–2006), having endured almost four years as a German prisoner of war (POW), finally returned to his native USSR. Instead of a warm welcome, he was met with intense suspicion. In his unpublished memoir, Bakanichev vividly described the scene of his repatriation to the Soviet occupation zone: “about 5,000 [repatriating citizens] stood in a field with their things…. NKVD [People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs] troops began to walk through the rows and pick out people. This strongly reminded me of the beginning of my time as a POW, when the Germans did the exact same thing, picking out Jews.”1
Bakanichev’s homecoming was to be short-lived. Although allowed to return home to Moscow, in 1948 he was arrested and dispatched to the Gulag. Here he found no surprises waiting for him: “The Noril´sk camp turned out to be exactly like I imagined. In general, the same thing as in the Hitlerite camp; the differences were only in the details.”2
As the above passage illustrates, Bakanichev perceived a fundamental similarity between his experience as a POW in Germany and his time in the Gulag. This article presents a close analysis of how Bakanichev’s desire to tell the “truth about captivity” led him to question Stalin’s wartime conduct and the simplistic, heroic version of the Great Patriotic War, how he drew on memories of German POW camps and the Gulag to challenge Soviet readers to recognize the equivalency between Stalinism and Nazism, and how this challenge fit into wider debates over the history of Stalinism in the late Soviet Union. By describing how his time in German captivity had opened his eyes [End Page 123] to the criminal nature of Stalin’s rule, Bakanichev subverted the dominant Soviet mythology of the Great Patriotic War, which sought to legitimize the postwar Soviet order by presenting the war as a moral triumph of Soviet socialism over German fascism.3 For Bakanichev, the Great Patriotic War was indeed a moral test, but it was one that Stalin’s Soviet Union had resoundingly failed. Bakanichev was not content, however, to simply chronicle the ways in which Stalin had betrayed his own soldiers, or even to point out the myriad similarities between his camp experiences. Rather, he argued that the two camp systems were indicative of a deeper affinity between Stalinism and Nazism and challenged Soviet readers to recognize the moral implications of this connection.
Convinced that this truth about Stalinism needed to be communicated to others, Bakanichev committed his memories to paper in 1974–75. He did not attempt to publish this work, however, until the height of glasnost´. Bakanichev’s efforts in 1988 to publish his memoir in both Literaturnaia gazeta and Novyi mir were unsuccessful, but excerpts would eventually appear in the Rabochaia tribuna newspaper in 1993.4 Bakanichev also donated typewritten copies of his memoir to Memorial and to Narodnyi arkhiv as another means of preserving his story for others.
Looking back on his own life, Bakanichev saw the story of a young man whose dreams of academic success were suddenly interrupted by war and terror. Bakanichev was able to fulfill his longtime goal of attending Moscow State University (MGU) for only two months before being drafted into the army in 1939. After being surrounded and captured during Operation Barbarossa, he endured almost four years of hunger and forced labor in a series of POW and labor camps, including Steyerberg and Bomlitz. After escaping in the spring of 1945, Bakanichev chose to repatriate to the Soviet Union and attempted to resume his academic studies. Unfortunately, he was now refused entry into MGU, and instead he chose to train at the Gubkin Oil Institute as an engineer.
Even this small consolation was not to last, however, as the Ministry of State Security (MGB) soon summoned Bakanichev several times for interrogation and attempted to persuade him to become a police informant at his institute. After refusing to do so, Bakanichev was...