How did “Victory Day” become central to Putin’s perception of Russian identity?

Today, Saturday, Moscow held a rehearsal for its annual military parade on May 9 to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, in what became known as “Victory Day”.

This year’s celebration coincides with the continuation of the Russian attack on Ukraine, which began on February 24 under the name “a military operation to uproot Nazism and disarm Ukraine”. It also now has a particular resonance, with some expecting a dramatic announcement from Russian President Vladimir Putin: either declaring victory in Ukraine or intensifying the offensive.

During this year’s celebration, some families across Russia will remember their ancestors who gave their lives in the war against Nazism, or will give a toast to the few surviving warriors, while others will take a bold approach in line with official accounts. , like turning. their children’s seats in a tank, or write “To Berlin” or “We can do it again” on their cars.

According to official reports, this is exactly what Russia is currently doing in Ukraine, after the Kremlin used World War II language and imagery to describe the attack on its neighbor.

‘Obsession with victory’

Although other explanations were offered for the attack on Ukraine, for fear of NATO enlargement, contempt for Ukrainian culture, Putin’s isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the revival of Soviet glory, the distortion of victory rhetoric and the struggle against the Nazis over the past two decades has played an important role in this war.

During Putin’s two-decade rule, “Victory Day” became central to Putin’s concept of Russian identity.

Several years ago, critics referred to “victory mania” with “pobedobesia”, a derogatory plural of Russian words for victory and obscurantism, and a rough English translation of “Victorymania”.

As this “mania for victory” spread year after year, the phenomenon took on stranger forms: schools held performances in which children dressed as Soviet soldiers; The presentation of some people as captive Nazis, followed by the classification of opponents of modern Russia as Nazis, neo-Nazis or Nazi accomplices.

In modern Russian versions of the Soviet war effort, a number of facts such as the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and the subsequent partition of Europe, or the internal deportation of entire ethnic groups by Stalin’s regime during the war. ignored.

Mystery over the “identity of the Nazis”

The image of the “Nazis” has also become increasingly blurred, as Russian history books say little about Hitler’s policies, his rise to power, anti-Semitism or the Holocaust, while taking into account that the main feature of the “Nazis” is that they attacked the Soviet Union. By this logic, anyone threatening modern Russia has become a “Nazi”.

It developed gradually over the long years of Putin’s rule. In 2000, Victory Day began just two days after Putin became president for the first time. On that day, Putin addressed a group of war veterans, emphasizing the importance of historic victory, saying: “Thanks to you, we have won earlier. Victory runs in our veins, something that will help our generation in times of peace and aid. We build a strong and prosperous country. “

And the “Guardian” saw that this legacy of victory, and Putin’s talk about it, was a rare historical bright spot for a population traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic chaos of the 1990s.

Gradually, however, talking about the past became of little importance on D-Day, but rather shifted to highlighting the new power of Russia under Putin.

In 2008, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Victory Day parade was marked by a display of heavy weapons. After three months of celebration, Russia invaded Georgia.

In 2014, the Russian propaganda machine claimed to be fighting real Nazis in Ukraine, focusing on a minority of fighters with far-right views. Russian television portrayed the killing of 48 people, most of them pro-Russians, in a fire in Odessa in May 2014 as a “deliberate fascist massacre”.

Victory “Russia’s new religion”

After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Sergei Aksyonov, the Kremlin-appointed “puppet leader” of Crimea, appeared at a rally on Red Square, wearing the orange and black “St. George ribbon” on the lapel. instead of the Russian tricolor. And he talked about protecting Crimea from the massacres of Ukrainian fascists.

The “St. George’s Ribbon” is an integral part of the “St. George” Order, which the Russian Empress Catherine II awarded to her officers in honor of their victories on the battlefields and for their services to the Russian army; This is the primary symbol used in connection with D-day. Since 2014, the symbol has become more controversial in some post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine and the Baltic states, due to its association with pro-Russian and separatist sentiments.

The Guardian added that in the absence of other firm ideological underpinnings of the Putin regime, victory in 1945 and its twins in 2014 became the regime’s raison d’être. Victory became the new religion of Russia. In an interview in 2015, the then Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, who now heads the Russian delegation to the stalled peace talks with Ukraine, criticized historians for trying to use archival evidence to prove that certain Soviets war myths have been refined or invented. “We must look to victory in the same way as the saints in the Church,” he said.

The concept originated with the dedication of a large cathedral to the armed forces outside Moscow two years ago. The interior of the cathedral simultaneously combines astonishing and sinister military and religious elements in a series of large mosaics. The exterior is made of molten metal for captive Nazi tanks, with guides encouraging visitors to feel like they are trampling on fascists as they enter the building.

In 2020, the altar servant said during a tour of the cathedral: “Only Russians are able to sacrifice themselves to save mankind, just as Jesus did.”

“Ideological heir of the Nazis”

Next to the cathedral is a new World War II museum, where a tour guide spoke of Soviet exploits and sacrifices, while immersive graphic exhibits and loud explosions made it feel more like a computer game than an educational experience.

The guide said: “Hitler wanted to destroy two thirds of the Slavic peoples by using concentration camps, the most famous of these camps was at Auschwitz. And we decided to combine the talk of the Holocaust with the Slavs, because you do not have to victims based on race. “

At this point, the newspaper considered, the concept of “Nazism” in Russian discourse had been stripped of every context except for the 1941 attack on the Soviet Union.

With Russian television publishing endless stories of terrifying stories about Western intentions towards Russia, turning them into today’s events is not a big leap in the imagination for many.

Ivan Fyodorov, the mayor of the Ukrainian city of Melitopol, said when he was abducted by Russian soldiers in March, one of the reasons they gave was that the city’s veterans of World War II were despised and beaten.

The newspaper pointed out that if Russia celebrates “Victory Day” on the ruins of the devastated city of Mariupol, many viewers will already be convinced that Russia has “liberated” the city from the Ukrainian “Nazis” and their American supporters. But few outside the country would agree, even among those who were sympathetic to the Kremlin’s messages before February.

In return, Ukrainians responded to Russia’s accusations. Rather than deny the significance of the Soviet victory, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to take control of Soviet symbols and myths from the Russians, and the Kremlin today. described as the “ideological heir of the Nazis”.

Through his aggression, Putin helped “create a united national pride in Ukraine, which has been divided into national identity and history for three decades; now Ukrainians have rallied right around their flag, and many Soviets have fought to the death for their to defend the country., although a They had previous suspicions about their leaders. “

Now Ukrainians refer to Russian soldiers as “Rashisty” (a combination of “Russians” and “Fascists”). The collaborators who agreed to work for the Russians were called “Gaulites”, the term given to high-ranking Nazi officials in occupied territories during World War II. Kiev was also filled with posters comparing 1941 to 2022, two years in which the city was attacked by a malicious force from outside.

Zelensky gave the title of “Hero City”, a Soviet custom, to places that vigorously resisted the Russian attack. An American aid program was also called “loan rent”, after the Soviet Union’s aid in wartime.

“In short, the Russians became the Nazis in their own narrative,” the newspaper said.

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