Even in the darkest days of the pandemic in 2020 Russia didn’t cancel Victory Day, its anniversary of the end of the second world war – it was just postponed. This year, the Kremlin promises a parade on May 9 with 11,000 servicemen and women plus 62 airplanes and 15 helicopters. Eight MiG-29s will form the letter Z, the symbol adopted by supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For the 2022 ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square the Kremlin is desperate to have a victory from the Ukraine war to announce. Commentators suggest that the recent military reorientation towards Ukraine’s Donbas region was driven by a May 9 deadline. More worrying, some fear that if that victory proves elusive, the day might instead be used as a “fulcrum” for a wider mobilisation of forces.
But why is this anniversary such a powerful force in Russian politics? During the worst days of the second world war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was conspicuously absent from his country’s media. The cult that had been constructed around him in the 1930s seemed to have been abandoned. But then came victory in Europe, celebrated on May 9, a day after VE Day (fighting stopped a day later in Russia). On a radio broadcast on May 9 1945 Stalin announced:
Glory to our heroic Red Army, which upheld the independence of our Motherland and won victory over the enemy! Glory to our great people, the people victorious! Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in the struggle against the enemy and gave their lives for the freedom and happiness of our people!
In the weeks that followed, the first demobilised soldiers returned home. In cities across the Soviet Union, activists organised receptions: banners, flowers, portraits of Stalin, throngs of happy citizens celebrating the end of war, and paying tribute to the soldiers.
The story of how those war veterans were treated – and their war commemorated – has been rather complex. In 1945, with the economy in ruins, and the Soviet people injured, grieving and traumatised, remembering the war was painful and potentially divisive. It took at least two decades for war remembrance to emerge as a core component of Soviet – and later Russian – patriotism.
After the happy homecomings, life was often hard for veterans in the late 1940s. Promises were made to them – a free ticket home, a job waiting, a new suit of clothing and footwear, monetary recompense for their service, financial help building or repairing homes – but the reality fell drastically short. Many veterans, especially those who had been injured in the war, found themselves homeless and jobless. Veterans became buskers, fortune tellers and beggars.
One group of workers wrote directly to Stalin to complain about the state’s failure to provide for the veterans. They told him: “We don’t want to see our heroes – our victorious warriors – standing in queues, trading at the market, living from hand to mouth, but instead fully provided for materially, well-dressed (preferably in a special uniform), living in light apartments and with the highest weekly allowances and privileges that our possibly [sic] in our great Soviet country.” In December 1947, only two years after it was launched, May 9 was downgraded: no longer a state holiday, it became a regular working day again.
Under Stalin, victory in the war was celebrated primarily in terms of his own genius as leader. The 1949 film Fall of Berlin conceived as a gift to Stalin for his 70th birthday was the climax of this post-war leader cult. In a tremendous finale Stalin, clad all in white arrives in Berlin to oversee the soldiers’ joyous celebrations; the hero-soldier and his love interest are reunited, but almost immediately she turns to Stalin and asks him for a kiss, gushing gratitude for all he had done for the people.
After Stalin died in 1953, his successor Nikita Khrushchev began to dismantle many aspects of the Stalin cult, including his reputation as a great military leader. In his famous “secret speech” of 1956, Khrushchev ridiculed Stalin and his leadership. Films made in this period of political and cultural thaw turned the spotlight away from Stalin and began to probe the experiences of a generation that suffered so much. Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 Ivan’s Childhood is perhaps the most powerful of these.
It was not until the mid-1960s that the Soviet Union began to actively celebrate the second world war once more. In 1965, May 9 became a national holiday again. Two years later a new tomb of the unknown soldier was unveiled by the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The desperate poverty people had experienced in the immediate aftermath of war had eased, and the veterans – now moving into middle and old age – were made into heroes. Each May 9, veterans would visit local schools, recount their experiences, and be presented with bouquets of flowers. Historian Nina Tumarkin writes:
“From 1965 on, the Great Patriotic War continued its transformation from a national trauma of monumental proportions into a sacrosanct cluster of heroic exploits that had once and for all prevent the priority of communism over capitalism.”
What would happen to this patriotic celebration of the war once communism fell was not at all clear. In the 1990s, it seemed as if Russia’s memory politics might go in a number of different directions. What kind of national identity would post-Soviet Russia embrace, and how would history be used in its construction? Since 2000, Putin has developed a clear direction: his brand of Russian nationalism is primarily an imperial one and he has called the disintegration of the Soviet Union a “major humanitarian tragedy”.
For Putin, not all of Soviet history is attractive, however. The violent regime change of 1917 was not a centenary he was inclined to celebrate, for example. In contrast, the end of the second world war continues to serve him well. The year 1945 can be commemorated as the moment when Moscow’s global reach was at its greatest, while the veterans – few of whom are still alive – can be celebrated for their patriotic self-sacrifice and discipline. Another young generation are now being asked to do the same.