Russia’s Victory Day celebration Great patriotic war, again
Vladimir Putin twists the memory of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazism to justify his struggle against the WestAdd this article to your reading list by clicking this button
ON MAY 9th 150 Russian military aircraft will streak across the Moscow sky, 16,000 troops will march through Red Square and three intercontinental ballistic missiles will be put on display, all in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Vladimir Putin, the national leader with a fast-developing personality cult, will claim Russia’s ownership of the most important Soviet holidays. He will talk about Russia’s continuing struggle against fascism (in Ukraine) and attempts by its sponsor (America) to impose its dominance on the world.
The leaders of America, France, Britain and Germany will not be there. Mr Putin may be flanked by China’s Xi Jinping, but few other notables. As Andrei Zorin, a Russian cultural historian, says, Western leaders’ decision to abstain will be seen by Russians as confirmation of their continued struggle against the West.
The feelings of isolation and aggression stoked by the Kremlin in the build-up to Victory Day could hardly be more different from those that reigned in Moscow in the early hours of May 9th 1945, when thousands of people kissed and danced in the streets in a spontaneous outburst of joy and liberty, mixed with sorrow at the deaths of 27m compatriots. People waved American and British flags. Many went to the American embassy to embrace the allies. “Someone picked up an American sailor or soldier and lifted him in the air,” recalls Inna Solovyova, a Russian scholar who was 17 at the time. “It was a genuinely happy day. It was the victory of the people, of every one of us.” Fighting against fascism was a liberating experience for people who were terrorised by Stalin. The dictator himself, possessed by paranoia, was too scared to come out onto Red Square. In the evening a vast illuminated banner with his face appeared in the sky.
Stalin did not let the Russians enjoy their victory for long. A new wave of repression began a year later. In 1948 Victory Day celebrations were cancelled altogether. The feelings of freedom and compassion inspired by the victory were not to be encouraged. To avoid reminding people of the staggering losses, the limbless veterans who once dotted Moscow’s streets were shipped off to a former monastery on an island. Stalin feared victory celebrations would enhance the popularity of Soviet military commanders such as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who signed Germany’s surrender along with the allies.
Official celebrations resumed only in 1965, a year after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev. By that time, most military commanders were too old to pose a challenge. Zhukov had been sidelined. The Soviet leaders who came to power as a result of the coup against Khrushchev used Victory Day to boost their legitimacy. It was the only unifying Soviet holiday that caused no disagreements between the people and their leaders. While the memory of the war was used by the Kremlin to assert Soviet power, it also served as a common denominator between the Soviet and American leaders who belonged to the war generation.
Mr Putin has appropriated the iconography of Victory Day, along with other Soviet symbols, to assert the dominance of the Russian state and its place in the world. Western leaders used to oblige him, taking part in celebrations meant to mark the country’s resurgence after the Soviet collapse. A decade later, the memory of the second world war was cynically exploited by the Kremlin as a pretext for the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine.
During the second world war, Ukrainians ended up on both sides of the lines. Western Ukrainian nationalists who sought independence allied with Nazi Germany and fought against Ukrainians serving in the Soviet army. For much of Ukraine’s post-Soviet history these divides were dormant. But the failure of the Ukrainian government in the past quarter-century to build a nation-state has allowed the Kremlin to use history as a weapon.
Russian state television described the modern pro-European Ukrainians who ousted their corrupt and authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovych as nationalists and Nazi collaborators, planning to annihilate Russians in Crimea. It planted fake stories about Ukrainians crucifying children, while showing a Russian soldier in Crimea holding a small child in his arms—a reference to the giant statue of the Soviet Liberator Soldier erected in Berlin in 1949.
But after a year-long war against Russian aggression, Ukraine is fighting for its own right to celebrate the Soviet victory over fascism. A recent Ukrainian advert opens with a shot of a model Soviet plane in soft light. A phone rings. A boy at a modern-day military base calls to speak to his grandfather, a Soviet Red Army veteran. “Happy Victory Day, grandpa,” says the boy, who then dons his combat helmet and dashes onto a foggy battlefield. “Glory to Ukraine,” the grandfather replies, referring to Ukraine’s current struggle.
To reconcile Ukraine’s Soviet past with its European future, the president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that this year the country will honour both the Western victory celebration on May 8th and Soviet Victory Day on May 9th. The traditional Russian orange-and-black St George’s ribbon has been swapped for the British crimson poppy. Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, says Mr Putin’s “project” has destroyed any hope of a larger Russian world built on common memories. Even Alexander Lukashenko, the dictatorial president of Belarus, decided to celebrate Victory Day separately.
The display of Russia’s newest weapons is expected to be followed by a procession of 100,000 people holding photographs of those who died in the war. Yet the ideas propagated by the Kremlin seem eerily similar to the ones which Soviet soldiers defeated 70 years ago. Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s minister of culture, recently argued that Russia’s view of its own history does not have to be acceptable to “civilised humanity”. “Let me remind you: this ‘civilised humanity’ is only civilised to the extent that the Soviet people and the Soviet soldier forced it to be in 1945. It is time to formulate our own perception of ourselves as the descendants of a great, unique Russian civilisation.”
For all the uniqueness of Russian culture, the celebration of Victory Day, just like the war in Ukraine, has been packaged into patriotically-themed consumer entertainment. “Celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Victory with Wargaming,” advertises a maker of computer games. “The World of Tanks game allows you to virtually operate armoured vehicles and better remember the heroic deed of our people in the Great Patriotic War.”
Russia’s virtual wargames have real consequences. Alexei Levinson, a sociologist, writes that “under this light moral anaesthetic, the country is getting used to actions which only a short while ago seemed unthinkable and impossible.” Opinion polls show that 90% of Russians are prepared to discuss the possibility of nuclear war. While 57% of older Russians say that such a war cannot have any winners, 40% of younger people are convinced that Russia would defeat America and NATO. As Mr Levinson puts it, “A real war starts to look like a TV show or a computer game in which you have ten lives in reserve.”