Sunday, June 8, 2014

Representing the War: Controversial Photos on the RuNet

This is the first post in a while and possibly the last post for a while. I have some other long-term digital projects in the works and probably more important, a book manuscript. In the meantime will use this space for smaller pieces as they come up. Case in point, a look at the site WarAlbum, a great resource for photographs of World War II but also an interesting case for analysis of contemporary memory. The site allows users to upload and comment on photos related to the war. Additionally, users can vote up or down comments. I scraped the site in Python (on June 4, 2014) and created a database with the cumulative totals for the negative and positive votes on comments. What we can do with this source is get a rough picture of what photos are more or less popular and controversial based on the number of comments they get and the cumulative positive or negative vote.

(I should add that some of these photos are quite graphic.)

Here are top five photos by the highest cumulative positive and negative vote counts in the comments.

While the first comment--which received a net negative rating--commented on Stalin's buttons, the most rancorous comments deal with the place of Stalin in Soviet history. One user calls Stalin "the greatest enemy of the Russian people," receiving a high negative vote count, while another responds that Stalin is "the greatest enemy of enemies of the Russian people" receiving a positive vote count. Stalin is a polarizing figure. While those who see Stalin as a positive figure seem to outweigh those who see Stalin as a negative figure on this site, both types of comments received large numbers of positive and negative votes.

This photo is less contentious than it is sensational for its depiction of German soldiers smiling with hanged bodies in the background. Comments that received high numbers of positive votes expressed outrage at the soldiers' seeming happiness over the hanging. Comments with high negative vote counts suggested that the hanging could be justified by wartime conditions. 

This photo is controversial because it represents the material losses that were part of broader Red Army atrocities in Germany. The user who posted this photo apparently did so to undermine the notion that the Red Army committed atrocities - and atrocities is hinting at mass rape - in Germany. I'll translate the poster's description:

"The favorite photograph of Western authors about 'atrocities," that the Red Army supposed committed in Berlin...

What appears in the photograph raises suspicions [about the atrocity interpretation]. For example, the soldier is holding the bicycle by the wheel - to pull a bicycle that way is very uncomfortable. Therefore, it is clear that the soldier isn't pulling it but is simply holding it: he is only leaning back a bit. And the woman, who is holding the bicycle, is pulling it with all her strength.

At the same time, the looks on the face of the woman and the surrounding people clearly do not show any horror at 'arbitrariness': on the contrary, they are rather calm...

Even if we agree that here we are seeing the theft of the bicycle, the stories of Western historians about the 'atrocities' of Soviet soldiers here do not find confirmation. The soldier is not threatening the woman with a weapon, no one is running away from the beastly occupying soldiers. If a Soviet citizen had tried to defend their property that way under German occupation... his fate would have been very sad."

The comments section on this photo is also interesting. In the long (but not especially controversial) comment discussion, users try to establish not only if the soldier is trying to steal the bike but whether he is even Soviet!

This is a weird photo to generate a lot of comments with up and down votes. One user suggested that Giza was a "slob" because he had dirty gloves while others defended. Even though this "controversy" may seem a little trivial, it does fit into a broad fastidiousness with clothing in the former Soviet Union.

This photo sparked uncomfortable discussions in the comments. The photo necessarily evokes the Nazi regime's targeting of Jews as its primary enemy - an aspect of the history of World War II that Soviet official memory neglected in favor of a view of the Soviet people as the primary victims of German aggression. Thus, the photo makes viewers engage with the Holocaust as part of the war's history. However, it also allows some users to suggest that Jews were also traitors to their people, in implicit contrast to Soviet civilians under occupation.

In addition to the individual photos, I compiled a list of the hundred tags whose comments were most voted upon. Each photo is tagged with a half-dozen or so keywords - by year, subject, place, etc. Of these, the top ten are unsurprising and seem to represent the most common tags. However, what is revealing is that tags with German subjects (e.g., "Life of German soldiers") had more negatively rated comments than photos with Soviet subjects (e.g., "Civilians"), suggesting that photos of the enemy are drawing more acrimonious comments overall.

I'll make a final comment before linking the spreadsheets of the photos with the most ranked comments and tags. The circle of people commenting on these photos may seem small - a group of 20-50 year hold Russian men who tend to hold nationalist views. Many of the same users appear multiple times in the comments. In spite of this limitation, I would argue that these comments and the controversy over them represent the broader contours of mainstream contemporary war memory. It seeks to defend the Soviet role in the war from supposed Western denigration at the same time that it has to engage with uncomfortable evidence that the internet allows unfettered access to.


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