On Monday, thousands of soldiers, tanks and military vehicles will march through Moscow’s Red Square as warplanes roar overhead in the annual Victory Day parade.
The Pride Day, which will mark the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, is seen by some observers as a propaganda tool for President Vladimir Putin’s government, which inspires history for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. .
And some fear that Putin is using this year’s celebratory occasion to step up war efforts.
“Victory in World War II has become the defining myth of post-war Soviet life, surpassing even the Revolution in its significance,” said Stephen Norris, professor of Russian history at the University of Miami.
“Twenty-seven million Soviet citizens died in the war, and victory obviously cost a lot of money. It also validated the sacrifices made during the war. Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich captured this well, saying that the story of victory has replaced the story of actual war.
As VE Day approaches, some observers believe senior brass, frustrated by the lack of progress in reining in Ukraine, will call for a boost, and Putin will declare all-out war.
“Putin and his advisers certainly pay attention to historic anniversaries and like to use them to strengthen their grip on power,” Norris said. “Given how important VE Day is to Putin and Putinism, it’s hard to imagine that his government won’t try to use it for some purpose. It’s hard to see any sort of victory being declared. Instead, I fear Putin will use the holidays to announce a new offensive and a new phase of the war.
Some also fear that Putin may announce a mass mobilization, calling for the service of able-bodied men. However, earlier rumors of martial law and conscription in March turned out to be false.
“It’s hard to do a general conscription: I think that’s when the Russians would come out and protest,” said Elizabeth Wood, a professor of history at MIT.
“You can recruit all these people in Buryatia (a mountainous region of Siberia), but if you recruit Muscovites, they will protest. I don’t think he can declare victory either. I think they are planning a brutal long war.
Victory Day was first celebrated in 1965 under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, himself a war veteran.
It is also marked throughout the Russian diaspora and in other former Soviet countries, including Ukraine, which in 2015 symbolically moved the date to May 8, when Europe remembers the day.
On May 8, 1945, the commander of the remaining German forces surrendered to the Red Army, but due to the time difference between Berlin and Moscow, Russia, the occasion was marked on May 9.
Victory Day marks the immense sacrifice made by the Russian people and the other nations of the Soviet Union in the fight against Nazism.
On June 22, 1941, the German army began its invasion of the USSR, named Operation Barbarossa.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was caught off guard: After participating in the 1939 invasion of Poland with the Nazis, he thought his deal with Adolf Hitler would protect him and ignored warnings from foreign diplomats or of its own agents.
Hitler, on the other hand, arrogantly believed that the war would not last more than three months; his soldiers did not bother to bring winter clothes. Although there were early German successes, the Red Army would not give up.
“June 22, 1941 is 9/11 in Russian history,” Wood said.
“It was the moment when Russia felt massively invaded by a country that had declared all Slavs to be less than human. It was an existential war for Russia.
Russian land was to be used as Lebensraum, or “living space”, for German settlers.
Wehrmacht troops were given a pass to carry out mass executions of prisoners of war, while the Schutzstaffel (SS) committed atrocities against Soviet civilians, especially those of Jewish origin, for genocidal plans of Hitler for a “final solution”.
During the invasion of Kharkiv in Ukraine, the SS massacred 15,000 Ukrainian Jews.
Meanwhile, more than a million civilians died in the siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944, which Putin’s own family lived through. The Russian president revealed that his older brother died of diphtheria, while his father served in a sabotage team and was injured.
But in 1943 the rapid German advance crumbled under the weight of the fierce Russian winter and partisan guerrillas, losing key battles such as Stalingrad, one of the deadliest clashes of the war where General Paulus perishes by the thousands from starvation, cold and Russian gunfire.
The Red Army’s counterattack drove the Germans back through Poland, and in May 1945 Russian soldiers raised the red flag over the Reichstag.
Ukraine and Stepan Bandera
Some Ukrainians, having survived a horrific famine under the Soviets, initially welcomed the Germans as liberators.
The Ukrainian insurgent army led by Stepan Bandera collaborated with the Nazis, while other locals joined German auxiliary forces and took part in atrocities like the Babi Yar massacre, in which nearly 34,000 men, Jewish women and children were murdered near Kyiv.
But millions more Ukrainians fought and died against the Nazis, and Kyiv, along with Moscow and Leningrad, holds the title of Hero City for outstanding bravery.
Trying to cast aside Moscow’s influence in recent years, nationalist figures like Bandera have been embraced in Ukraine, despite their dodgy pasts.
This is what partly underlies Putin’s claims that Kyiv is overrun by the Nazis.
“American triumphalism over World War II is exaggerated. It was the Soviet forces that bore the brunt of the long, hard battles day after day, fighting hand-to-hand and house-to-house throughout the western border region of the USSR,” Wood said.
“But this Ukrainian war actually has nothing to do with it, except the construction of a myth. The way Putin plays it sounds like a fairy tale: Soviet heroism versus Nazi villains, then he just changed the terms of who they are.
“He’s not fighting the Nazis. There was no Ukrainian aggression. There was not even NATO aggression against Russia – NATO encirclement, you can argue, but there was no aggression.
In the past, delegations from NATO members such as Poland, the United Kingdom, France and the United States have participated in the Victory Day parade.
“Then came the rigged December 2011 election, widespread protests, Putin’s return to the presidency and growing authoritarianism,” Norris said. “VE Day has also become more about ‘us versus them’ and therefore a powerful illustration of Russia’s growing isolation from the world.”
This year, no foreign leader is even invited, not even Putin’s close ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
According to Russian military specialist Pavel Luzin, the heroic sacrifice of World War II is now very convenient for the Kremlin.
“It allows them to ignore the high level of poverty in Russia and the lack of dignity of the Russian people in the face of the authorities,” he told Al Jazeera.
The thought goes, he says: “Yes, we are poor, we don’t have good economic prospects, we don’t have prosperity and our political elite humiliates us daily; but at least we are the victors of World War II, at least we saved the world from Hitler.
He added: “The post-Soviet Russian authorities have relied more and more on the myth of the Second World War since 1995. During Putin’s time, the myth became a kind of religion, not directed by the society itself, but by the bureaucracy. If there were low-level popular civil initiatives – like the Ribbon of St George or the Immortal Regiment – the Russian authorities did not allow them to exist unchecked, and soon these initiatives became part of the bureaucratic cult of victory.
“In this way, this bureaucratic ‘religion’ is de facto dead. People can be proud of victory in World War II and they can even take part in official events, but for them it’s just another dose of opium that keeps them from thinking about the future and their regular political humiliations.
The black and orange St. George’s Ribbon was used to commemorate World War II veterans, but is now arguably more of a symbol of patriotism than a remembrance of the dead. It became a ubiquitous sight after Crimea was taken over in 2014.
The Immortal Regiment March was launched in 2012 by three local journalists in the Siberian city of Tomsk to honor their ancestors who fought in the war.
By 2015, it had gone nationwide and Putin led the procession, holding up a portrait of his father. The original organizers lamented the way their movement was co-opted by the Kremlin.