A stolen celebration

The Russian state’s use of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany as a propaganda tool amounts to outright theft

A stolen celebration

An event commemorating victory in World War II held at Moscow’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War, 3 May 2024. Photo: EPA-EFE / YURI KOCHETKOV

It’s not unusual to hear the view that the regime has ruined Russia’s most important holiday, Victory Day, but it has, in fact, done more than ruined it — it has stolen it.

Leonid Gozman

Russian opposition politician

Victory Day in Russia boasts a surprising history. For 20 years after the end of World War II, 9 May went virtually uncelebrated, and while certain bigwigs would offer up perfunctory words of commemoration each year, the day wasn’t even a public holiday. Veterans marked the occasion, but their gatherings were modest. This may have been due to Stalin’s distrust of veterans, who knew far too much about him and his vile system, or perhaps the Soviet authorities simply baulked at extolling such a costly victory while the nightmares of the war were still fresh in the memories of millions.

It wasn’t until 1965 that Leonid Brezhnev ordered the celebration of Victory Day in the Soviet Union for the first time. The decree resulted in noisy festivities, the construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just outside the Kremlin walls, with Brezhnev himself lighting the Eternal Flame that crowns the monument, and 9 May being declared a public holiday.

In doing so, the Soviet regime unwittingly fulfilled the people’s wishes — a rare occurrence indeed — and as well as giving everyone an extra day off work, government backing ensured the holiday was a nationwide phenomenon. The vets who gathered on 9 May were honoured and lauded as heroes. Even those who didn’t attend would hear their praises being sung over the radio for the entire day. Much as church-goers see others praying around them and enjoy the sense of belonging to a greater community, World War II veterans finally felt they belonged to their country.

A photo montage of WWII veterans, installed in Belgorod for Victory Day, 9 May 2024. Photo: Alexander Karataev for Novaya Europe

A photo montage of WWII veterans, installed in Belgorod for Victory Day, 9 May 2024. Photo: Alexander Karataev for Novaya Europe

Thus, 9 May became not just a day to celebrate victory over an invading enemy, but a symbol of the humanity and justice of the Soviet state. The idea that the Soviet Union defended not only itself, but the greater values of humanity against atrocity and tyranny, was repeated so many times that it became ingrained in the Soviet psyche.

The desire people have to be proud of their country is so strong that despite being fully aware of the negatives, they will jump at any chance to exclaim “but at least we won!”. Indeed, that’s what Victory Day entailed for many years: it was less about remembering the atrocities of war and commemorating the fallen and far more a forum for celebrating national pride.

Deception lies at the heart of the Russian state’s official view of the war, which is still shared by many in Russia. The role that the USSR played in unleashing the war and its erstwhile alliance with Hitler was a taboo topic until the Khrushchev era, and even then one had to tread carefully and not say too much. Listing Stalin’s true goals was even more taboo given they obviously had nothing to do with liberating or saving anybody. Whenever such thorny issues came up, they were downplayed as something insignificant compared to the heroic feat of the Soviet people. And therein lies the greatest deception.

Russian servicemen during the Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square, 9 May 2024. Photo: Yuri Kochetkov / EPA-EFE

Russian servicemen during the Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square, 9 May 2024. Photo: Yuri Kochetkov / EPA-EFE

The Soviet people were not a monolith, of course, and made no collective decision to sacrifice their lives for the Motherland to save humankind from Nazism. The vast majority of Soviet citizens who fought in the war had no choice in the matter — just 100,000 of the 30 million strong Red Army were volunteers. That choice was made for them by Stalin and political events beyond their control.

But when faced with these dire circumstances, many people behaved heroically and selflessly, and that was their personal choice. The victory was therefore the work of many individuals and not of some mythical “people”. It is these individuals who deserve gratitude and admiration on Victory Day.

In this rhetoric, once you’ve swapped out heroic individuals for “the people”, it becomes temptingly easy to replace “the people” with “the nation” and “the state”, amplifying the voices of those who embody the state — from its leaders to regional and local functionaries — and gradually making Victory Day their day.

Initially, people laughed at the stories of Brezhnev personally winning the war, but as time went by, and tales of the leadership grew steadily taller, there was soon no space left in which to commemorate the war’s genuine heroes.

Imperialist jubilation clashed with the feelings of those who had lived through the war, and they started to step away from the official holiday. The state’s penchant for showing off fake war heroes at Victory Day parades and staging tacky re-enactments of wartime hardships were deeply offensive to actual veterans. I personally knew several vets who refused to participate in the state’s celebratory farce and lambasted it with a florid array of swear words.

The day was severed from real people and events, tragic and heroic alike. Much like the Russian state, it lost any connection to reality. High-ranking minions have yet to claim that Putin personally hoisted the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, but Putin has long since grown accustomed to indulging in wartime fantasies that justify his actions in the new one.

Vladimir Putin meets with veterans after the Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square, 9 May 2021. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin / EPA-EFE / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL

Vladimir Putin meets with veterans after the Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square, 9 May 2021. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin / EPA-EFE / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL

Some still celebrate 9 May at home, but it is not the honourable day it once was.

Feeling proud of your country has also become more challenging. What made Soviet people see the Nazis as enemies of the whole human race? It was not so much the Holocaust or the camps or the ridiculous ideology. Nor was it the fact that they were German — the ethnic component to the image of the enemy quickly faded after the war ended and is now practically non-existent. And propaganda has since enlightened us that it’s the “Anglo-Saxons” who have been Russia’s enemies all along anyway.

No, in the Soviet collective consciousness the most glaring manifestation of the Nazis’ diabolical essence was their disregard for civilians.

Almost all Soviet war films feature scenes, often from documentary footage, showing swastika-emblazoned planes bombing cities as unarmed civilians attempt to flee the deadly attacks amid crumbling buildings. 

In 1941, poet Boris Kovynev wrote: ‘Kyiv was bombed, and we were told that war had begun’. The post-Soviet collective mind unfailingly associates the bombing of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities with a fascist enemy. Yet today it isn’t Germans bombing Kyiv, but Russians. Russia is committing the same crimes that, 80 years ago, saw a country rise up in the “noble rage” of self-defence. Does that mean Russians are the fascists now?

The reason so few Russians believe that to be the case can hardly be down to the wealth of strong counterarguments against the claim, but rather to the fact that they’ve never allowed the question to enter their minds. Most people prefer not to think about the war at all in order to keep such perturbing thoughts at bay and the authorities seem scared of provoking unfavourable associations among the populace.

The Third Reich was without question the epitome of evil and many of our forebears contributed to its downfall. Despite all the lies and deceit around World War II promulgated by the Russian state, the fact remains that the allied victory is still cause for celebration. We therefore owe it to our forebears to keep their memory alive and shield their legacy from the regime’s meddling.

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