We have another case of history repeating itself in Russia today. Genocidal Russian leader Josef Stalin at first used the May 9th Victory Day celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany to create solidarity and patriotism, but after two years he decided the celebrations had served their purpose so he cancelled them. Current Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to be taking a page from his historical mentor Stalin as he is using Victory Day to whip up nationalist fervor as he attempts to rewrite history and paint a false picture that Russia is still fighting fascism, but this time it’s Europe and the U.S. who are out to subjugate Mother Russia.
Western leaders not attending Russia’s 70th anniversary Victory Day celebrations
Of note, most Western leaders will not be attending Putin’s big Victory Day party this year. Putin will likely be standing next to China’s President Xi Jinping, but not many other leaders from major nations. However, that won’t discourage Putin. According to Andrei Zorin, a Russian cultural historian, Western leaders’ decision to not attend the parade will be seen by most Russians as confirming their ongoing struggle against the West.
By the same token, it is certain that Putin will spin a politically expedient tale about Russia’s continuing struggle against fascism in Ukraine and across the globe, and attempts by the U.S. and Western Europeans to subjugate the homeland and dominate the world.
Stalin’s repression of Victory Day
Historians point out Stalin did not let the Russians enjoy their victory in World War II for very long. The dictator began his next steps toward repression just a couple of years later when he cancelled the 1948 Victory Day celebrations. The freedoms potentially inspired by the victory were not to be encouraged. So the public would not focus on the huge loss of life, maimed veterans who were seen throughout Moscow were sent out of sight to a converted monastery on an island. Stalin was worried that victory celebrations could lead Soviet military commanders, such as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, becoming to popular and possibly challenging him.
Of note, official celebrations did not come back again until 1965, a year after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev.
Using Victory Day as a pretext to attack Ukraine and annex Crimea
A number of commentators have pointed out how Putin has worked to appropriate the iconography of Victory Day and other Soviet symbols to reassert the dominance of the Russia and its position among global nations. Until this year, Western leaders have obliged him, showing up for celebrations that highlighted modern Russia’s resurgence after the Soviet collapse. Now the memory of the second world war is being cynically exploited by the Kremlin as a pretext for the annex Crimea and try to destabilize Ukraine.
Spectators will see a display of Russia’s newest weapons carried out my more than 16,000 members of the military. The military parade will be be followed by a procession of 100,000 people holding pictures of family and friends that died in the Second World War.
It should be pointed out that the Russian celebration of Victory Day, much like the “not-so-secret war” in Ukraine, has been slickly packaged by Russian propagandists and businesses as patriotically-themed consumer entertainment. For example, a game-making firm markets is marketing its products with a campaign saying: “Celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Victory with Wargaming. The World of Tanks game allows you to virtually operate armored vehicles and better remember the heroic deed of our people in the Great Patriotic War.”
Ukraine trying to reconcile past with present
Ukraine finds itself in a difficult position due to both history and geography. To try and reconcile Ukraine’s Soviet past with its European future, the country announced that this year the nation will celebrate both the Western victory celebration on May 8th and Soviet Victory Day on May 9th. Of symbolic importance, the traditional Russian orange-and-black St George’s ribbon has been replaced by the British crimson poppy.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny claims that Putin’s “project” has killed off any real hope of a Russian-influenced world built on common memories. Of note, Alexander Lukashenko, the president/permanent leader of Belarus is not celebrating Victory Day in Moscow with Putin.