The 1943 battle to free the Soviet Black Sea port of Novorossiisk from German occupation was fought from the beach head of Malaia zemlia, where the young Colonel Leonid Brezhnev saw action. Despite widespread scepticism of the state’s appropriation and inflation of this historical event, the heroes of the campaign are still commemorated in Novorossiisk today by an amalgam of memoir, monuments and ritual. Through the prism of this provincial Russian town, Vicky Davis sheds light on the character of Brezhnev as perceived by his people, and on the process of memory for the ordinary Russian citizen.
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In the wintry early hours of 4 February 1943 a modest fleet of small craft escorted by two motor torpedo boats approached the shore of Tsemes Bay under cover of darkness and a thick smoke-screen. Before daybreak 630 Red Army marine infantry troops led by Major Tsezar’ Kunikov had landed on the beach at Stanichka just outside the occupied Soviet Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.
The Soviet Union had officially entered World War II, which it called the Great Patriotic War, in June 1941, suffering a series of humiliating losses for much of the first year as German forces pushed eastwards into the country. The strategic port of Novorossiisk, with a prewar population of 109,000, was occupied by German and Romanian troops striking towards the oil-fields of the northern Caucasus in September 1942. However, it was not until the invaders had been defeated at Stalingrad early in 1943 that a turning point was reached and the battle to re-take Novorossiisk could begin in earnest. The main Soviet attack was directed at a spot further west along the coast, at Iuzhnaia Ozereika. However, this operation failed under heavy enemy fire and, ironically, it was the minor, diversionary landings at Stanichka which were successful. For seven months a defensive Soviet campaign by the North Caucasian 18th Army was fought against superior enemy forces from the small beach-head in the area behind Stanichka and the village of Myskhako that became known as Malaia zemlia (the ‘Small Land’). Novorossiisk was finally liberated on 16 September 1943 following a brief concerted attack by Soviet land, sea and air forces.
The heroes of this localised campaign are still remembered today through an amalgam of memoirs, monuments and ritual. This commemoration is rendered particularly paradoxical by the discrepancy between the relative insignificance of the campaign at the time and the importance attributed to it retrospectively, largely because a certain Colonel Leonid Il’ich Brezhnev visited Malaia zemlia occasionally as leader of the 18th Army’s political section. In 1964, 21 years after the Malaia zemlia campaign, Brezhnev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the de facto leader of the country. Once Brezhnev was in power, Novorossiisk became increasingly prominent on the political map of the country. It appears to have been honoured as a Hero City of the Soviet Union in 1973 largely due to Brezhnev’s political influence and the town found further dubious fame in 1978 after the publication of his slim volume of war memoirs, Malaia zemlia. The longstanding and complex cultural heritage of remembrance which has been constructed around the war myth that eventually built up is the subject of this book.
The relevance of the war myth in Novorossiisk is not only confined to one provincial town in southern Russia, however. This book has far wider political and social connotations, linking individual citizens with evolving state policy in the Soviet Union and modern Russia since the war. Through the prism of this minor hero city I reveal the complexity of myth and memory, bringing new evidence to bear on a myth that most Russians consider dead, along with Brezhnev and the Soviet Union.
Vicky Davis received her PhD from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London (UCL), and currently works as a freelance educational consultant and researcher. Davis has worked with a number of leading academics in her role as a researcher, including Roger Moorhouse on The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin (2014) and for Polly Jones (Associate Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford) on several Soviet history projects. She has also published and presented in peer-reviewed journals, edited collections and at international conferences, and there is a section dedicated to her research on myth and war memory at the State Historical Museum in Novorossiisk, Russia.
Myth Making in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia: Remembering World War II in Brezhnev’s Hero City is available now and can be ordered here.