Victory Day cult in Russia
May 9th has long been something beyond a simple victory day in Russia. It is a national cult. The more years pass and this date becomes a more entrenched part of history, the louder and more grandiosely it is celebrated. However, in contemporary history this important date is gradually becoming more and more irritating and is even posing a threat to other nations, due to several factors.
Responsibility for the outbreak of World War
Russia has not yet accepted its responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War. The secret protocol attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact implied dividing Eastern Europe into two spheres of influence. By launching an attack on Poland, which in September of 1939 was desperately resisting the marching German troops, Stalin, allied with Hitler, contributed to the quick occupation and division of Poland and to starting a global war. Official Soviet and Russian historiography either skips or tries to justify this action. Moreover, the Soviet export of vital goods, including crude oil and wheat to Nazi Germany before and during the early days of the Second World War, contributed to German blitzkriegs on both fronts and lasted until June 22nd 1941, the day when Germany launched an offensive against the Soviet Union.
Stalin himself was allegedly surprised after the war at how the Russian people kept tolerating his chairmanship despite knowing about his involvement in the war’s outbreak.
Russification of the victory in Europe
While diminishing the role of other members of the anti-Nazi coalition, including the United States, United Kingdom, France and resistance movements across German-occupied territories, Russian propaganda also ignored the contribution of other ethnic groups within the Soviet Union. It should be noted that half of all Soviet casualties, 13 million of 26 million people, were non-Russian.
The greatest contribution attributed to the Soviet Union has usually been perceived to be its having had the largest number of victims among the war’s belligerent parties. However, this fact should be a cause for deep sorrow and reflection regarding the Soviet military leadership’s ineffective management.
According to different estimates, the number of people killed during Stalin’s regime ranged anywhere from 3 to 60 million people (the Great Purge executions, gulags, deportations, the Great Famine or Holodomor, POWs, German civilians, etc.). Despite well-known and proven facts regarding his involvement in millions of these deaths, Stalin, a non-Russian leader of the Soviet Union, still enjoys a strong personality cult in today’s Russia, while some European nations long disowned their dictators, whose reigns resulted in millions of deaths.
For many Russians, Stalin symbolises the revival of mighty Russia, who defeated Hitler and did not fear confronting the United States during the Cold War. Today, Vladimir Putin and his team have also done their best in promoting the cult of Stalin, referring to the bloody tyrant as “an effective manager”. As a result, Stalin’s purges, which were condemned back in the 1960s, are now justified by 21st century generations as inevitable in the process of strengthening the country.
In Russia, the ribbon of Saint George is currently used as a patriotic symbol and tribute to the Great Patriotic War, due to its similarity to the colour scheme in the victory medal awarded to all civilian or military personnel who aided the war effort. The symbol, which was revived in 2005 as a response to the pro-democratic Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine, would be perceived in both Ukraine and the Baltic states as a threat to independence and territorial integrity. Therefore, in several countries, the governments either banned the use of St George’s ribbons or called upon citizens to refrain from using them.
Outdated Victory Day parades as demonstration of might
Feeling nostalgia for the “glorious” past, Russians still organise impressive, sometimes luxurious, parades of their weaponry. However they still do not realise that the age of tanks and artillery (just like the age of oil) is over. Today, the major demonstration of a country’s might should be economic indicators, human development indices and so on.
The Victory Day commemorations held in recent years were not attended by leaders of developed nations though they partook in earlier commemorations in the 1990s. This is not necessarily due to a decrease in respect towards the Soviet Union’s historical contribution in defeating Nazism. It is more likely due to the fact that Russia’s current foreign and domestic politics are beginning to resemble the German regime which the Soviets helped destroy in 1945.
Unlike other warring nations, both victorious and defeated, the Russians could not leave their past in the past. Today, all nations which fought in the Second World War are building their present and looking to the future. However, Russians have created a cult dedicated to the world war and Victory Day. Instead of securing universal values such as democracy, human rights and basic economic needs for their own country, Russia will manipulate anything related to their contribution to the victory (while protesting the dismantling of Soviet monuments in Eastern Europe, organising moto-raids to Poland and Germany, etc.).
For Putin and the majority of Russians, the war is no longer a tragedy but a cause for glory and parade. Russia has become captive of a strong military mythology of the Second World War and Victory Day that causes an inevitable confrontation with the outside world. Any attempt to study and evaluate the Great Patriotic War from an unbiased point of view is accepted negatively by official propaganda and ordinary citizens who insist on mythological perceptions of the war and victory.
Analysing the post-war world, what did the aftermath of May 9th give the Soviet Union and Germany? Germany achieved what is known as Wirtschaftswunder and possesses the largest economy in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. The defeated has superseded the victor in all spheres. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, collapsed infamously, and its successor, Russia, has struggled in building a strong country. Rich in natural resources, Russia’s economy was devastated by the world market’s fall of oil prices.
Therefore, Russian orange-black ribbons and victory slogans on German-made vehicles look like nothing except the obvious current contrast between the victor and defeated. By organising Red Square parades and raids upon European cities, Russian authorities, pro-government groups and the majority of Russians additionally continue to ignore the uncared lives of real veterans and elderly people who have miserable pensions.
While necessary changes and reforms in Russia are ignored, May 9th serves as its official ideology. Many Russians believe May 9th secures their country as the status of a superpower which they already lost and are unlikely regain.
Rusif Huseynov is a Baku-based independent researcher. He holds a bachelor degree of international relations at Baku State University and was recently admitted to SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.
Dedi voevali (Rus. Деды воевали) – Grandfathers fought. A slogan, which was recently popularised as a tribute to veterans of the Second World War.