How Putin fashioned Victory Day to serve his own ends

By Shaun Walker





In cities across Russia on Monday, tanks and missile trucks growled their way along the main streets. Soldiers marched across central squares. Fighter jets roared overhead. Victory Day, when Russians celebrate the 1945 endpoint of what they still call the “great patriotic war”, has become the centrepiece of Vladimir Putin’s concept of Russian identity over his two decades in charge. This year, as the Russian army’s gruesome assault on Ukraine grinds on, the day held particular resonance. Across Russia, some families quietly remembered the ancestors who gave their lives in the fight against Nazism, or toasted the few veterans still alive. Others took a more bombastic approach in line with the official messaging, perhaps adding a papier mache turret to their child’s pushchair to make it look like a tank, or daubing “To Berlin” on their cars. A more sinister slogan that has gained popularity on Victory Day in recent years is “We can do it again”. According to Russian state messaging, this is exactly what Russia has been doing in Ukraine since the full-scale invasion on 24 February. The Kremlin has used the language and imagery of the second world war to describe the attack on its neighbour. But already for some years, the victory cult has been referred to by critics as pobedobesie, a derogatory play on the Russian words for victory and obscurantism – “victorymania” is an approximate English translation. As this pobedobesie metastasised year on year, the phenomenon took on forms that were ever more grotesque: schools put on performances in which the children dressed up as Soviet soldiers; people posing as captured Nazis were paraded through the streets. Ever more opponents of modern Russia were branded as Nazis, neo-Nazis or Nazi accomplices. These days, almost any interview with a Russian official about current events will contain references to the second world war. The foreign ministry tweets about the conflict almost daily. Putin’s influential, hawkish confidant Nikolai Patrushev recently blamed the west for the rise of Hitler, and suggested today’s western world (and their Ukrainian “puppets”) are the true heirs to the Nazis. “You should not be fooled by Anglo-Saxon respectability. Even a sharply tailored suit cannot hide hatred, anger and inhumanity,” he said. In modern Russian accounts of the Soviet war effort, inconvenient elements, such as the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 and subsequent carving-up of Europe, or the internal deportation of whole ethnic groups by Stalin’s regime during the war, are quietly ignored. The image of “Nazis” has become blurred. Russian history textbooks talk little about Hitler’s politics, his antisemitism or the Holocaust. Instead, the main characteristic of “Nazis” is that they attacked the Soviet Union. By this logic, all those who threaten modern Russia are also Nazis. This process has evolved during Putin’s long years in charge. In 2000, Victory Day came two days after Putin’s inauguration as president for the first time. Addressing a group of veterans, Russia’s new leader explained the importance of the historical victory: “Through you, we got used to being winners. This entered our blood. It was not just responsible for military victories, but will also help our generation in peaceful times, help us to build a strong and flourishing country.” There was barely a family in Russia that did not have relatives who fought in the war, and the tremendous losses the Soviet Union suffered dwarfed the losses of the other allies combined. But the legacy of the war victory and Putin’s talk of being “winners” was also a rare historical bright spot for a population that was traumatised by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic chaos of the 1990s. Russia is not the only country trapped in its narratives about the second world war. Britain has a prime minister currently making a transparent and largely unsuccessful effort to channel the spirit of Winston Churchill; the Polish government is working furiously to minimise instances of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. German reluctance to provide Ukraine with weapons has been widely credited to a sense of historical guilt over the country’s Nazi past, and in parts of Ukraine, many people have indeed been unwilling to examine the complicity of Ukrainian nationalists in crimes during the war years. But both the level of distortion and the pervasiveness of the discourse in Russia are unmatched anywhere else in modern Europe. Gradually, Victory Day has become less about remembering the past and more about projecting the might of Putin’s new Russia. In 2008, the Victory Day parade featured heavy weaponry for the first time since the Soviet collapse. Three months later, Russia invaded Georgia. The process was turbo-charged in 2014 when the Russian propaganda machine began to claim it was fighting actual Nazis in Ukraine, focusing on a minority of fighters who did have far-right views. Victory became Russia’s new religion. In a 2015 interview, the then culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, now head of the Russian delegation to the stalled peace negotiations, blasted historians who tried to use archival evidence to prove that certain Soviet war myths were embellished. “We should view them in the same way as saints in the church,” he said. This concept came to life with the consecration of a vast Cathedral of the Armed Forces outside Moscow two years ago. The cathedral’s interior combines military and religious motifs in a series of grand mosaics. Part of the exterior is made from the melted-down metal of captured Nazi tanks. Guides encourage visitors to feel they are trampling fascists underfoot when they enter the building. Next to the cathedral is a brand new second world war museum. There was an almost total lack of context about both the unsavoury elements of the Stalinist political system, and the Nazis. By this point, the concept of “Nazis” in the Russian discourse had been stripped of all context except for the 1941 attack on the Soviet Union. And with Russian television peddling an endless diet of scare stories about western designs on Russia, it is not a huge leap of the imagination for many to transpose the same narrative on to today’s events. Ivan Fyodorov, the mayor of the Ukrainian city of Melitopol, said when Russian soldiers kidnapped him in March, one reason they gave was that second world war veterans in the city were disrespected and beaten up. Fyorodov said he tried to explain to his captors that there were currently 34 living veterans in Melitopol, that he knew them all personally, and gathered with them to commemorate both victory and the liberation of Melitopol on 23 October. “I couldn’t get through to them. They just kept repeating their mantras, they were like zombies,” he said. For their part, the Ukrainians have responded to Russia’s cries of “Nazis” by holding up a mirror. Zelenskiy, rather than denying the significance or importance of the Soviet victory, has sought to wrest control of its symbols and legends from the Russians, calling today’s Kremlin “the ideological heirs of the Nazis”. Through his aggression, Putin has helped create a unified national pride in Ukraine, a country that for three decades had many competing ideas of national identity and history. Now, Ukrainians have rallied around their flag just as many Soviet citizens fought to the death to defend their country even if they had previously had their doubts about their leaders. Russian soldiers are now widely referred to in Ukraine as Rashisty (a mix of “Russians” and “fascists”). Collaborators who agree to work for the Russians are termed “Gauleiters”, the term for top Nazi officials in occupied areas during the second world war. And Kyiv is filled with posters comparing 1941 and 2022, two years in which the city was attacked by a malevolent external force.