The Victory Day celebrations on 9 May have been, under Vladimir Putin, through a dramatic mutation. In my childhood, in the late eighties and early nineties, it was, apart from the New Year, by far the best holiday of the year. You normally spent it outside, in excellent May weather with lilac blooming all over and war songs – like ‘Victory Day’ or ‘Katyusha’ – booming out from loudspeakers in the streets. We children presented flowers to the veterans, whose chests were sparkling with medals and decorations.
This day connected three generations: the veterans, their kids (our parents) and the grandkids – us. We regarded our grandparents as the ultimate heroes, demigods even, whose self-sacrifice and courage had laid the groundwork for our very existence. The guiding emotion of the event was ‘No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten,’ and of course ‘Never again.’ No aggressive international agenda was ever promoted: surviving veterans would probably never allow it. A good part of the Soviet government were veterans themselves. They knew what a real war was like from actual experience, not from state-funded movies or propaganda cartoons.
But since Putin’s 2007 speech in Munich when he excoriated the US for its ‘hyper-use of force’ and Nato for expanding into Eastern Europe, everything has changed. The following Victory Day, for the first time since 1990, there was not sober remembrance but pulverising military might. The parade in Red Square was awash with military hardware: tanks, rocket launchers, jet fighters and strategic bombers – the gamut of modern murder machinery. This year, despite the calamitous war in Ukraine, will be no different: 11,000 servicemen and women plus 62 airplanes and 15 helicopters will take part. 9 May has become cult-of-war day, glorifying the nation as Ultimate Victors, while hinting at forthcoming revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as issuing dark threats to unnamed enemies (now, in 2022, they are no longer mere threats, the enemies no longer unnamed).
It’s clear Putin was planning this return to militarism for a long time. High school study of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, just four hours per year under Boris Yeltsin, was amplified under Putin to 8-12 hours. Money was pumped into producing films and television series on WW2, often with a queasily patriotic atmosphere in which Russia again and again is seen as alone and surrounded by enemies. A typical film is White Tiger (2012), in which Adolf Hitler, in the closing scenes, remarks that the collective West had always wanted to rid itself of Russia: he’d merely made their fantasies come true.
In this new quasi-religion – primarily one of ‘us’ against ‘them’, victory at all costs is the central value, war a sacred duty, and the iconography of the Great Patriotic War up for grabs in the present day. Georgian ribbons – associated with victory in the first and second world wars – have now been pinned to Russian expansion in Crimea. Victory Day slogans have become increasingly bellicose – ‘1941-1945: We can do it again!’ or ‘1941-1945: The Russians are Coming!’ The Victors did it once in other words: it is now for their descendants to do the same. Or as a 1941 song much-played on Victory Day, ‘This Sacred War’, puts it:
Arise, vast country,
Arise for a fight to the death
Against the dark fascist force!
…This is the people’s war,
A Sacred War!
We shall drive a bullet
Into the forehead of the rotten fascist filth…
This militarism – a Putinian fetish right from the start – has been intimately tied up with our president’s survival. After the riots that greeted his anti-constitutional third term as president in 2011, things only intensified. It became obvious to the Kremlin that unless society were mobilised, an ignominious loss of power was coming. Putin’s first two terms had been governed by the national idea of ‘competitiveness and economic growth’. Now, he said, there could be no ‘other unifying idea for Russia but patriotism.’
That ‘patriotism’ was Putin’s response to those 2011 protestors, with their middle class ‘Western’ values of individual freedom and enfranchisement. The word ‘Unity’ became, increasingly, suffocatingly ubiquitous: a counterweight to democratic values like freedom of discussion or a democratic (‘chaotic’ in Putin speak) handover of power. Here again the lesson of the Great Patriotic War is hammered home to the government’s benefit. The war showed us, said defence minister Nikolay Patrushev that ‘success at the front was only possible due to the consolidation of society and the unity of army and people…a necessary condition for ensuring national security at all times.’ If you want to be a good citizen, in other words, stick with the Great Leader.
Because what is the alternative? Along with talk of ‘Unity’ goes a siege-mentality approaching paranoia. Russia is surrounded on all sides by its enemies, goes the narrative, be they Nato, the West or Ukraine. Just as with the Great Patriotic War, in this ‘us’ and ‘them’ conflict, the latter are invariably ‘Nazis’ – a term suspiciously undefined by official propaganda, and that can be adjusted to fit to anyone in conflict with Government Policy.
In the case of Ukraine – the ‘Nazis’ of choice right now – the label is bitterly ironic. One of the greatest threats to the Russian regime has been a democratic Ukraine – with protests, civil society and free elections – steadily evolving on Russia’s borders. As Putin lost both hair and sleep over his upstart neighbour, the ‘Nazi’ label has proved instrumental. Like the word ‘liberal’, it can mean anything you want it to, and its reality-clouding effect is intense. Over a decade of solid war propaganda has given the word an almost Pavlovian force for some Russian citizens. Indeed, Putin has spent the last decade training them, like attack dogs, to respond to it.
Just as elastic is the 2014 law Putin introduced against the ‘public distribution of lies about the activities of the Soviet Union in World War II’ – for ‘lies’, like ‘Nazis’, rely on government definitions. One imagines the old war stories of many veterans, now mostly deceased, would fall under this category. In 2016, a blogger from Perm was fined merely for reposting an article which stated that both Stalin and Hitler had invaded Poland in 1939, even though the joint-occupation of Poland is well known and indeed, part of the school curriculum.
Nor is it stressed in Russian myth that the Soviet Union won the war as part of an international coalition. About two-thirds of Russians are convinced the USSR could have won the war on its own, with 95 per cent believing that the contribution of the allies was trivial set beside that of the Soviets. As a pipe-smoking nationalist colleague declared, seeing a tobacco pipe stamped ‘1942, London’, ‘Those bastards were sitting around chiselling pipes when we were out dying for them.’
In such retellings, Russia stands alone in a hostile, uncaring universe – assailed, bruised and bleeding but through sheer will and yes, ‘unity’, seeing off all its attackers. Such misremembrances are a gift to Putin’s propaganda in 2022 as Russia makes its much-opposed war against Ukraine. This is a catastrophe, because now more than ever we need those old slogans back again: ‘Nothing is forgotten, no one is forgotten.’ And, more urgently still, ‘Never again!’
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.