Relic or Russia: Who’s Rewriting History in Company of Heroes 2?
Not only does it do violence to the historical record, it side-steps important context. As TheBadComedian admits, the Soviet Union did a number of cruel things during the battle for the Eastern Front, on a both a national and individual level. But many were done out of desperation — it was a war of annihilation, one that the Soviets came very close to losing. And others were done out of a simple desire for revenge — there are numerous examples of German brutalities during the invasion of Russia, which merit not a single mention in Company of Heroes 2. These circumstances may not necessarily excuse Soviet conduct, but they certainly help explain it.
Though Relic has much to apologize for, the Russian critics of the game must share some of the blame for the current crisis. As mentioned before, TheBadComedian’s tasteless jokes about Relic being an organ of Neo-Nazi propaganda must be dismissed out of hand. But the comedian-critic and many of his countrymen are also guilty of being extremely selective on forums and in comment threads — when it comes to Company of Heroes 2, but also when it comes to history.
One section of the video seizes upon a throw-away line in a cutscene to suggest that Relic thinks Soviet soldiers are cowards, unwilling to fight for their country. While its true that the game’s story sections focus more on the aforementioned Soviet brutalities, and not the game’s titular heroism, this argument is made in bad faith. There’s plenty of inspiring Russian courage on display — it just happens while you are actually playing the game. That’s when soldiers are charging through smoke to flank a machine gun, seizing a mortar dropped by dead comrades and resuming the bombardment, or ramming German tanks with their out-gunned T-34′s.
The unit barks — short bits of voice acting that are heard when selecting units and issuing orders — also demonstrate a sympathetic, humanistic respect for the Soviet soldiers, from the dark humor of the conscript infantry to the steely confidence of the female snipers and pilots. Also, while there are certainly missions that center around Soviet atrocities, there are also others that exemplify the pluck and ingenuity of the troops — nearly every review I read of the game mentioned one in which a handful of lightly armed soldiers stalk, disable, and then capture a hulking German tank. Reading complaints from Russian gamers, including TheBadComedian, it seems that Relic gets all of the blame and none of the credit.
There’s also the issue of nationalist propaganda. Russian achievements in World War II — generally referred to in the CIS as The Great Patriotic War — are an immense source of national pride, and justifiably so. The Soviet Union resorted to extremes of ingenuity, courage, and sacrifice that in some ways dwarf the contribution of the United States to the war effort. For example, even using conservative estimates, the USSR suffered 50 times the number of citizens killed between 1939-1945.
That said, the Soviet Army and Stalin’s dictatorship did do terrible things. Some are depicted in Company of Heroes 2. Others, like the mass slaughter of 20,000 Poles in the forest of Katyn, or the epidemic of rape that accompanied the Soviet Army as it approached Berlin, are not.
When the war ended, the Soviet government was understandably anxious to use its hard-bought victory to shore up commitment to the Communist cause. This meant editing out inconvenient truths: both politically damaging details (blocking detachments, penal battalions, poorly trained troops being thrown into battle en masse, executing escaped POW’s as spies) and also heinous crimes like the Katyn Massacre. Generations of Russian students were taught an idealized version of history.
Regrettably, the overthrow of Soviet Communism did not bring an end to this process. Instead, the end of the Cold War brought uncertainty, political chaos, and ineffective government, and many Russians looked to an earlier time, when the Russian people and their local allies banded together to defeat evil. Even as more information came to light about the extent of the horror on the Eastern Front, the myth-making about the Great Patriotic War continued.