Why does World War II still hold such a grip on Russia?
Why We Wrote This
World War II was a pivotal event for many countries, but in Russia, it still looms large today. Why does the war retain such a grip on Russian hearts and minds?
Russian Victory Day celebrations, held in Moscow’s Red Square on June 24, 2020, are always a big deal. But this year they came amid a surge in Russian memorialization of the war, including consecration of an armed forces cathedral and publication of a major article on the war by Vladimir Putin.
June 25, 2020
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By Fred Weir
Most nations that participated in World War II suffered terrible losses. But Russia seems to be the only country where the war actually grows in the public consciousness with each passing year.
There may be no simple explanations for why Russians cannot seem to ease their memories of the trauma of the war. It’s a basic truth that WWII impacted the former Soviet Union far more than any other participant, leaving 27 million dead. “Almost every family carries the memory of someone they lost,” says Mikhail Chernysh of the Institute of Sociology in Moscow.
Critics argue that the Kremlin leans so heavily on the war because the post-Soviet Russian state needs events that bespeak a time of social unity. A recent poll found that 75% of Russians believe that the Soviet era was “the best time in Russian history.”
“Under Putin, the authorities see Victory Day as a source of legitimacy,” says Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “This is understandable since our population believes that it was the most important event in Russian and, indeed, world history. There is no other proposition that enjoys such complete consensus in Russia.”
The anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany is a hugely important holiday in Russia. So when the coronavirus lockdown prevented it from being celebrated on its appointed day, May 9, a new holiday was created so that it could happen this week.
That is why, on what would otherwise have been an ordinary Wednesday in June, Red Square reverberated under the weight of hundreds of armored vehicles, more than 12,000 marching troops, and a massive flyover by 75 combat aircraft. President Vladimir Putin sat on the Soviet-era tribune beside Lenin’s mausoleum, surrounded by war veterans – who had been quarantined for two weeks in advance – to view the belated, but still impressive, Victory Day military parade.
Most nations that participated in World War II suffered terrible losses and still mark the big anniversaries. But, 75 years after the guns fell silent in Europe, Russia seems to be the only country where the war actually looms larger in public consciousness and political considerations with each passing year.
This year, in addition to ensuring that the annual parade would take place, Mr. Putin consecrated an enormous new armed forces cathedral and war museum near Moscow. He also penned a 9,000-word polemical article about the lessons of the war, which was published in an important U.S. foreign policy journal. The annual march of the Immortal Regiment, a relatively new event in which millions of Russians publicly display photos of ancestors who fought in the war, is taking place on July 26 after being postponed along with the regular parade.
There may be no simple explanations for why Russians cannot seem to ease their memories of that immense trauma inflicted by the war. It’s a basic truth that WWII impacted the former Soviet Union far more than any other participant, leaving 27 million dead and most of the European USSR in ruins. The Red Army also bore the brunt of defeating Nazi Germany, a fact that Mr. Putin’s article chided his Western readers for sometimes forgetting.
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“Victory Day is the only holiday on our calendar that does not attract any controversy,” says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “Almost every family carries the memory of someone they lost, and just about everyone supports the idea of public remembrance.”
Critics argue that the Kremlin leans so heavily on the war because the post-Soviet Russian state lacks great achievements and the democratic legitimacy that would confer unity, and hence stages events that bespeak a time of social consolidation, a great cause, and a stirring victory.
Vladimir Putin (center), shown here attending the Victory Day Parade in Red Square on June 24, 2020, argued in his article in National Interest magazine that the West fails to remember that it was the Red Army that bore the brunt of defeating Nazi Germany.
A poll released last week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that a whopping 75% of Russians believe that the Soviet era was “the best time in Russian history” while only 18% disagreed. Deeper into the weeds of that survey, it becomes clear that the Soviet period is attractive because it is associated with stability, confidence in the future, a “good life,” and nostalgic memories of childhood and youth. Only 28% said they favored a return to the Soviet system, while 58% wanted Russia to follow “its own, special path.”
“Under Putin, the authorities see Victory Day as a source of legitimacy,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “This is understandable since our population believes that it was the most important event in Russian and, indeed, world history. There is no other proposition that enjoys such complete consensus in Russia.”
“Not just about a great victory”
One probable reason that Mr. Putin was moved to write his lengthy missive about the war was that Moscow was miffed by the lack of an invitation to attend last year’s 75th anniversary of D-Day celebrations in Britain and France – though Mr. Putin claimed otherwise, deriding the importance of D-Day in the process. Likely even more irksome to Russia was a resolution adopted by the European Union last September that seemed to declare the Soviet Union equally guilty with Nazi Germany for starting the war, because the two signed a nonaggression pact on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland. The Soviet invasion of Poland followed two weeks thereafter.
Much of Mr. Putin’s piece is a factual, but tortuous and one-sided, account of the events leading up to the war. It’s a familiar narrative to any Russian schoolchild, but not well-known in the West. It’s also noteworthy that, amid the polemics, he does point out that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, renounced the Hitler-Stalin pact and its secret protocols, which divided up Poland and the Baltic states between the USSR and Germany. The subsequent collapse of the USSR’s empire undid the geopolitical remapping that has fueled much of the vitriol between Russia and the West over the start of WWII.
Nikita Petrov, a historian and council member of Russia’s largest human rights organization, Memorial, says it’s understandable that Mr. Putin doesn’t want to address Soviet crimes and mistakes, but does want to stress its participation in the anti-Hitler coalition, which turned the USSR into a great global power.
Mr. Putin’s article concludes with an appeal for Russia and the West to heal their growing rift by holding a summit meeting like the Yalta Conference in early 1945, where Allied leaders hammered out the post-WWII global order. “It’s perfectly natural for Putin to champion the idea of a Yalta 2, because he sees this as a possible way to overcome Russia’s international isolation,” says Mr. Petrov.
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In short, WWII remains a powerful memory and motivational force in Russia because it seamlessly unites popular emotions with the Kremlin’s current goals, says Mr. Chernysh.
“The war has all the traits of a foundational event for Russians,” he says. “It’s not just about a great victory, it’s also about our victimhood, past and present. It displays the resilience of the nation when united against overwhelming odds. It is the glue that promotes current social and political cohesion.”