‘We shall fight in the forests’: The Second World War as a point of reference in the war in Ukraine

Miriam Dobson | 16 March 2022

Europe / Holocaust / Russia / Ukraine War / WWII

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, courtesy of Ukrainian President Office/Reuters 

Last Tuesday the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy became the first foreign leader to address the Houses of Parliament via video link. It was a remarkable speech in many ways, clearly tailored to his British audience, with a quotation from Shakespeare and allusions to Churchill. Zelenskiy’s ‘we shall fight them’ moment made the front pages the following morning.

Subtly reworking Churchill’s famous rhetoric, the Ukrainian president said: ‘We shall fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the cities and in the villages, we shall fight in the hills.’ By inserting ‘forests’ where Churchill had beaches, Zelenskiy evoked not only the Ukrainian countryside, but also Ukraine’s history of occupation and resistance in the Second World War, and in particular the role of the partisan groups which took to the woods. It suggests a people’s war in which ordinary women and men took up arms to defend their homes and local communities against the Nazi occupier.

Curiously, Ukrainian colleagues have also quoted Churchill to me over the last two weeks. (In their case, his 1941 ‘Never give in’ speech delivered at Harrow school.) Britain’s success in thwarting a Nazi invasion seems to offer Ukrainians a much-needed message of hope, even if the situation of the UK in 1940 was very different from Ukraine’s in 2022. More broadly, however, the Second World War is being invoked as a point of reference on both sides of the conflict, and by commentators outside the war zone.

Zelenskyi came back to the Second World War at another point in his speech to parliament. In an almost unbearable narrative he chronicled the war day by day, listing the worst of the atrocities committed against Ukraine and the courageous resistance put up. On day six, he told MPs, Russians rockets fell on the site of Babi Yar. It was here that over the course of two September days in 1941, Nazi extermination squads shot 33,771 Jews.

In the Soviet era, the site went unmarked for several decades and when a memorial was eventually erected in 1976 it was done so in ‘memory of Soviet civilians and Red Army soldiers and officers - prisoners of war - who were shot at Babi Yar by the German occupiers’, offering no recognition of the racial ideology which drove the genocide. In 2016, the then president of Ukraine, Petr Poroshenko announced the establishment of a Holocaust Memorial Centre on the site. In drawing attention to the destruction at Babi Yar, Zelenskyi - himself a Jew, with relatives who were killed in the Holocaust - reached out to Jewish audiences worldwide.   

In a very different register, Putin has also turned to history, of course, laying out his own twisted account of Russian-Ukrainian relations. In labelling the Ukrainian government fascist and describing the regime-change he desires as ‘de-Nazification’, Putin wilfully distorts both the history of the Nazi occupation in Ukraine (which, like in other occupied countries included cases of collaboration and participation in acts of genocide, but also resistance in the partisan forces, and the heroic rescue of Jews, Roma and Sinti by locals), and of current-day Ukrainian politics.

This rhetoric of hate is the very dark side of what Nina Tumarkin has called the ‘war myth’ which since the Brezhnev era - and increasingly since 2000 - has served as a ‘source of Russian national pride and patriotism’ meant to breed loyalty to the regime.[1] If a national identity is founded on an elaborate cult of the sacrifices made in fighting the Nazi enemy, the term ‘fascist’ remains a powerful trigger for deeply emotional responses. 

In reality, I would argue, the current invasion has much more to do with contemporary geopolitics, the legacies of the Cold War, and Moscow’s loss of status after the ending of the Soviet Union, than the events of 1939-45. It is certainly true that the war caused an immense death toll in the Soviet Union, including not only service men and women, but also millions of civilians. Moreover, in the war’s aftermath, there was little empathy for the physical and psychological scars of war: under Stalin, the ordinary veteran was overshadowed by the leader cult; under Brezhnev, the new patriotic celebration of wartime sacrifice stifled recognition of individual trauma and loss.

Perhaps these unacknowledged wounds linger on. But it’s also true that in the west, pundits and politicians are equally prone to use the Second World War as a point of comparison, particularly those who caution that we risk repeating the mistakes of 1938’s appeasement. There is perhaps a simple reason for turning to the events of 1939-1945: only the Second World War allows us to convey the scale of what is unfurling. The parallels may not always fit very well, but the sheer magnitude of its horror does.

Miriam Dobson is a Reader in History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the history of the Soviet Union. Her first book, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin was published in 2009 (Russian translation with ROSSPEN, 2014). Her current project examines the history of evangelical Protestant communities in the USSR and she has published articles on this work in Slavic Review, Russian Review, Journal of Contemporary History and (with Nadezhda Beliakova) in Canadian Slavonic Papers.

[1] Nina Tumarkin, ‘The Great Patriotic War as myth and memory’, European Review 10 (2003), p.595-611.