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Russia’s new “religion”. The cult of the “Great Victory”

The celebrations of Victory Day in Russia each year are increasingly pompous and spectacular. Over the last few years, the cult of the “Great Victory” has become a quasi-religion and the main narrative in uniting Russian society.

May 25, 2016 - Oleksii Polegkyi - Articles and Commentary


The victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War has become a cornerstone of Russia’s national identity formation, especially during Vladimir Putin’s time in office and has been actively exploited to mobilise support for the current political regime in Russia. The heritage of the victory has been used to present Russia as a great power and justify its claims for a special status in Europe. Any objection to the myth of the Second World War victory is seen as a threat to Russia’s domination in the post-Soviet space or a direct challenge to the very existence of the Russian state.

To maintain power and mobilise support of the Russian population, Putin is aiming to rebuild a kind of neo-Soviet empire and in doing so he is trying to promote an alternative to the western model. Putin’s regime has sought to build an ideology around the concept of the “special path”, mixing Stalinism and neo-Eurasianism with conservative Christian Orthodox views and Russian nationalism. History and the past are seen as symbolic resources and have become important instruments in achieving political objectives and preserving power.

The cult of the “Great Victory”

The cult of the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” (Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voinya) emerged in the Brezhnev era. May 9th – known as Victory Day – was not even a public holiday before 1965. At the time, the victory was used to legitimise the communist system in the Soviet Union and the May 9th commemorations necessarily included a reference to the leading role of the Communist Party in the victory over Nazism.

“Today we can say that the Great Patriotic War, and our victory in it, has been the central event of not only Soviet but also Russian history,” said Andrej Fursov. “Between 1941 and 1945 the Russian people, using the Soviet regime and the Stalinist system as a shield and sword, defended its right not only to make history but to show our greatness,” he added.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia began to exploit the concept of the Great Patriotic War to bind together the post-Soviet space. Putin’s regime has been particularly active in promoting the heritage of the common memory of the citizens of the former Soviet Union. On the one hand Russia has shared the ownership of the victory in the war with the neighbouring countries, yet on the other, the status of the main victor over fascism has been reserved for Russia. Recently Russian narratives about the Great Patriotic War have been based on three myths: power, suffering and liberation.

The myth of power

The myth of power seeks to represent Russia and its leaders as powerful actors and evoke a feeling of glory deriving from the “Great Country” (Velikaya Derzhava) narrative. The concept of power is extremely important for the public imagination in Russia and helps the rulers justify and legitimise their actions. The power itself has a sacred meaning in the Russian perception. From the very beginning of his time in office, Putin has tried to forge an image of Russia as a superpower. He began to formulate his own version of Russian history, emphasising the need to modernise the country and reclaim its status as a great power, both of which required a “firm hand”.

Among the Russians feeling nostalgic about the Soviet Union, the main reason why they regretted the collapse of the country was that “people no longer feel they belong to a great power”. In 2012, 51 per cent of respondents chose this answer according to the Levada Center (29 per cent in 1999). This phenomenon has been closely connected with feelings of disorientation and humiliation in the 1990s and a drive to rebuild Russia’s greatness which has been widespread among Russians. That is why one of the main pillars of Putin’s ideology has been the theme of Russia “getting up off its knees” (vstavanie s kolen).

The myth of suffering

Suffering is another dimension in the myth of power and a constitutive element of the myth of the Great Patriotic War. According to this narrative, the Russian society had to pay a big price for the “Great Victory”. The myth of suffering implicitly justified the need for victims. The main arguments in this myth focus on defending Joseph Stalin; who won the war and rebuilt the country (which would have been impossible without victims). Over the last several years the number of people who believe that repressions can be politically necessary and historically justified has increased in Russia, while the number of those who think that Stalinist repressions were unjustified political crimes has declined.

For the majority of Russians the most important issue in evaluating Stalin’s role in Russian history has been the fact that under his leadership Russia was victorious in the Second World War. In 2012 nearly 60 per cent of the population (66 per cent in 2008) agreed with the statement that regardless of any mistakes or flaws attributed to Stalin, he led the Soviet Union to victory. At the same time 66 per cent (68 in 2008) agreed that Stalin was a cruel and ruthless tyrant, guilty of the killing of millions of innocent people. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center in December 2015, 28 per cent of respondents believed that the Stalinist period brought Russia “more good than bad”; 45 per cent thought that the period was both good and bad; while only 16 per cent answered that Stalin’s rule brought “more bad than good”.

The results of the public opinion surveys reflect not only the post-Soviet sentiment characteristic for a large part of the Russian society, but also the sacred place of power and state in the mass consciousness. Stalin has become a symbol of a powerful state and a system in which an individual means nothing and state interests prevail over human life.

The myth of liberation

Since the beginning of the 2000s Russia has sought to play a greater role in international politics. The symbolic capital of the victory over the Nazis in 1945 has thus been actively used by the political elite of the country to strengthen Russia’s position in Europe and to restore its control over the “near abroad”. According to Nikolaj Koposov the rehabilitation of the cult of the authoritarian state needed the myth of a “soldier-liberator” and the reanimation of the narrative of saving the world from fascism.

Over the last few years Russian authorities have also tried to rehabilitate the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. As a result of the secret part of the pact Eastern Europe was divided into spheres of influence between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, however, the Soviet, and later Russian, historiography has tried to dissemble or justify the Soviet-German co-operation.

To the question: “Do you know that in September 1939 the Red Army invaded Poland and soon after the defeat of Poland a joint parade of Soviet and German troops took place in Brest?” few respondents answered “yes”. In 2014 only 19 per cent heard about it (21 per cent in 2010) and 63 per cent did not (as opposed to 56 per cent in 2010). In addition, the Russian population does not generally think of the Soviet Union as an aggressive and expansionist state. To the question: “Can we say that in 1940, before the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States?” only 20 per cent of respondents answered “yes” and 53 per cent answered “no”.

Implications for Russian foreign policy

The memories of the Second World War have been exploited by the Kremlin in order to legitimise the regime and its foreign policy. Russian propaganda has actively used the Soviet mythology and narratives of the Cold War to frame the discussion about the current events in Ukraine. Putin justified the occupation of Crimea with the need to protect Russians from “neo-Nazis” and “anti-Semites”. “What worries us most? We see the rampancy of neo-Nazis, nationalists, antisemites in some parts of Ukraine, including in Kyiv” Putin told journalists on March 4th 2014.

The return of the myths and historical narratives of the Soviet Union has not been accidental. What is happening in Russia is primarily a manifestation of a national identity crisis. During the Soviet times the dominant identity of the majority of Russians was that of the “Soviet people” and the founding myth of the country was the “Great October Revolution”. Similarly, the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” has later become the founding myth of the Russian nation. The search for a glorious past to unify the nation, especially in light of trauma and disappointment associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, is understandable. The idealisation of the Soviet past, identified with such figures as Stalin and Brezhnev, has become the answer to the mass frustration of the 1990s while the victory in the Great Patriotic War is one of the few historical events of which the majority of Russians can be proud. 

Oleksii Polegkyi is a research fellow at the Institute of International Studies at Wrocław University and the Political Communication Research Unit at the University of Antwerp. He received an MA in Philosophy from the National Kyiv Taras Shevchenko University in Ukraine and was a recipient of the L. Kirkland Fellowship Program and an Open Society Foundation Fellowship. Polegkyi published articles concerning the post-communist transformations in Eastern Europe, European integration and identity building in the post-Soviet space.

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