Veterans Who Never Smelled the Gunpowder
Victory Day is still quite important to Russians. In fact, recent opinion polls show that it is even more important than Christmas or Easter.
And this is something that Vladimir Putin really likes as to embody his dreams about integration of the Eurasian space: Russia’s new president needs symbols. Not religious symbols, but the symbols that would allow him to integrate the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks or the Ukrainians. And yet, every year sees fewer and fewer veterans of the Great Patriotic War. To compensate for this loss, the authorities have started producing new old-timers. Is this strange?
One of the most popular Russian bloggers, Rustem Adagamov, also known as Drugoi, says that during the May 9th parades (the day on which the Russians celebrate the end of the Second World War – editor’s note), there are more and more faked veterans. The Russian internet-users were particularly shocked with the news about an old woman wearing badges she could never have received.
The myth of the Great Patriotic War (a term which the Russians use when talking about a particular period of the Second World War, precisely from 1941 to 1945) is one of the last symbols unifying the majority of the population of the former Soviet Union. However, what is especially interesting here is that last year some public opinion polls showed that, for the majority of Russians, the greatest symbols of the past was in fact the cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. Other things, like the Second World War, were no longer seen as great successes, because of the fact that sources which had long been hidden in the state archives are now being opened, often revealing the not so pleasant truth. Clearly, Putin needs a cultural code. A code that all people of the former Soviet Union can identify with. According to the polls carried out by Levada Center, 65 per cent of Russians declared that they were going to celebrate Victory Day.
More interesting is the fact that when sociologists asked Russian society which of the year’s events it considered the most important, 81 per cent of respondents pointed to New Year’s Day, 39 per cent their birthdays and 31 per cent their name’s day (a tradition that consists of celebrating the day of the year associated with one’s given name – editor’s note). Victory Day was seen as more important than Christmas or Easter (36, 29 and 19 per cent respectively).
The results also show the declining importance of the Orthodox Church in everyday life. Only around 3 to 5 per cent of Russians regularly attend church. No wonder that many internet users laughed at how the clergy were recently blessing the new presidential plane. Pictures with titles such as: “In Russian planes there are no atheists”, or pictures of priests with Nazis titled: “Any authority comes from God”, were widely published online.
And yet this decreasing attachment to the Eastern Orthodox Church shouldn’t be interpreted incorrectly. The “watch affairs” or the clergy’s involvement in politics is one thing, and the spirituality of the Russian people is another, as anyone who has ever had the chance to travel by train with Russians would undoubtedly realise: it is hard to talk about the secularisation of the Russian culture. Currently, Russians are simply seeking a different way to channel their spirituality. There are now more sects in Russia than anywhere else in the world.
It is also interesting to glance at April’s ranking of the most influential heads of the federal subjects of Russia published by Novaya Gazeta. The ranking takes into account the influence of particular politicians in national affairs. The Mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, starts the winners’ list; and after him are the President of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnihanov, the leader of the Chechens, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Governor of the Moscow region, Sergey Shoygu, and the Governor of St Petersburg, Georgy Poltavchenko.
Clearly, the regions that are of the greatest importance to the Kremlin are ruled by trusted people. The situation is likely to change in June when the new law, which will define a new way of electing the heads of the federal subjects of Russia, is supposed to come into effect. According to the new law, the presidential competence in this context will be reduced and governors, mayors etc. will be chosen directly by the people – not designated as it has been until now.
The Kremlin is doing its best to nominate as many of “its own” politicians as possible, so that they will be able to rule for another five years, and by doing so avoid direct elections.
Let’s take a look at Nikolay Merushkin, who has ruled Mordovia for the last 17 years. In the last presidential elections, Putin got 87 per cent in Mordovia. In exchange for this loyalty, Merushkin has now been nominated the head of the Samara Oblast, one of the most important oblasts for the government as well as one of the most industrialised ones.
Merushkin’s place is now being occupied by his previous deputy. In this way the Kremlin doesn’t have to worry about direct elections in the next five years in two federal subjects of Russia. Until now, approximately a quarter of the heads of the federal subjects have been replaced in such a way. Nice and easy.
In the previously-mentioned rankings, the last place is occupied by Leonid Polezhayev, the governor of Omsk Oblast, who has been ruling there for over 20 years. It is worth mentioning Polezhayev because of a quite interesting piece that was published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The author of the article says that the present-day epoch will be someday named as the “epoch of international organisations”. He writes: “In 1945 the only widely recognised international organisation was the United Nations. Today, there are more than a thousand of them.” St Petersburg is the European capital, while Moscow belongs to Slavophiles.
So, what can the supporters of the idea of creating a great Eurasian empire under the guidance of Russia now do? They may find Omsk as an interesting place. The Omsk Oblast has an over 1000 km-long border with Kazakhstan (the Russian-Kazakh onshore border is the longest in the world). And even Sergey Shoygu has recently been talking about relocating the Russian capital city to Siberia. The question is: which Rome would it become for the Russians? The third? Fourth? History doesn’t remember more Roman states than Russia.
Zbigniew Rokita is the web-editor and assistant editor of Nowa Europa Wschodnia.