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An Awkward Celebration in Moscow

Victory Day felt a little stranger than usual this year. That could be a good sign for Russia's ability to confront the ambiguities of its past.

On Victory Day in Moscow, the city government closed off the main thoroughfares of the city and marched tanks and artillery through the streets. Nearly a million Russians packed in to see the old T-34s and the impossibly massive Iskander missiles trundle past. MiGs and helicopter gunships roared overhead. It was sunny, it was hot; people were happy, orderly. They waved Russian flags and cheered and whistled. The soldiers in the tanks waved back and blew kisses. One of them snapped pictures with his phone.

And then came the armored personnel vehicle carrying the red banner of Lenin. It rolled right past a kid in the crowd waving the old Soviet flag, and it made two pensioners very happy. "We want the Soviet Union to come back," one of them growled at me. She said she was a member of the communist party — the old one, not the current not-really-communist one. "The former republics are finally realizing what they’ve gotten themselves into, that they can’t live without Russia."

It’s hard to capture the strangeness, the confusion of this holiday — especially this year, when it seems more confused than ever. This is partly because Russian foreign policy, at least on the surface, has shifted under President Dmitry Medvedev, taking a more conciliatory tone toward the West. Whereas parades during Vladimir Putin’s presidency had more of a menacing we’re-back quality, this parade felt different. For the first time ever, the Kremlin invited British, French, and U.S. troops to march across the Red Square along with soldiers from Russia and the former Soviet Union. (It promptly brought anti-NATO demonstrators into the streets.)

But Medvedev himself was still trying to have it both ways, emphasizing on Sunday morning — correctly but pointedly — that "the Soviet Union took the brunt of the fascist attack." And that points to the real bizarreness at the heart of May 9: Its Putin-era elevation to a founding myth of Russian society is starting to run up against a tentative reassessment of the actual facts behind the legend. Medvedev’s declaration in his speech that "the war made us a strong nation" rubs up against an anxiety, expressed in new films commemorating the day, that the Russian victory was not quite as pure as the last 65 years of celebrations would have you think.  

On May 9, in Moscow, you’d find it easy to assume that Russia defeated Hitler single-handedly in glorious battle. All over the city, posters and billboards declaring victory gave the war’s dates the way Soviet and Russian textbooks always had: 1941-1945. It is not World War II, it is the Great Fatherland War, a defensive liberation struggle against an invader. (Russia and its Soviet predecessor have had a hard time acknowledging that they were Hitler’s allies for the war’s other two years, from 1939 to 1941.) In the Russian mind, the war in Japan had little to do with it; D-Day and the second front, most Russians say (with good reason — the West certainly did not rush to help the Soviets), was too little, too late. Correspondingly, the British and the Americans are not the Allies, as we know them, but members of the "anti-fascist coalition," a sterile title that implies not partnership but a joint-stock company in which the Russians are the majority stakeholder.

Which is fair. Most of World War II was fought on Soviet territory, and Soviet casualties make up nearly half the war’s total. The German invasion ravaged the Soviet Union’s most populous, fertile, and industrialized territory. The country lost 170 towns, 17,000 villages, and nearly 12 percent of its population. Everyone has veterans and war dead in the family — Vladimir Putin lost an older brother he never knew — and it remains a deeply, genuinely personal Russian holiday.

But it hasn’t been one for very long. After the first Victory Day parade rumbled through a rainy Red Square on June 24, 1945, there wasn’t another one for 20 years. Stalin, anxious about the growing political capital of the victorious Marshall Zhukov and his fellow generals, wanted to keep the attention they got to a minimum. He shipped Soviet POWs to Siberian camps as traitors and collaborators. Bars popular with returning soldiers, called the Blue Danubes, were shut down because congregating veterans were a threat. Those who were crippled in combat were moved en masse out of Moscow and St. Petersburg because they were unsightly. May 9, now part of a jubilant three-day holiday weekend, was a regular working day until 1965.

The powerful cult of the war didn’t take root until the wobbly Brezhnev era, but it became a true political load-bearer during the post-Soviet era. "After the collapse, there was a vacuum and the new government didn’t know how to reinvent itself," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a Kremlin-linked think tank. "There was a lack of clarity about the historical basis for this government."

And so the search began. The Yeltsin government considered new anthems, new flags, and other symbols, but they discovered that the old ones were hard to beat. They settled on a modified Soviet anthem, a modified tsarist flag, and the Soviet cult of the Great Fatherland War. During Putin’s tenure, May 9 became one of the primary means of raising Russia’s profile, both at home and abroad. In 2005, for the 60th anniversary of the day Zhukov accepted the German surrender (it was already May 9 in Moscow when the document was signed in Germany), Putin rounded up major heads of state: George W. Bush, Hu Jintao, Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac. In 2008, he reintroduced the old Soviet parades of military hardware on Victory Day. Since then, there has been one every year, whereas in Soviet times, it happened only three times when it fell on major anniversaries, in 1945, 1965, and 1985.

In the last decade, the war has become important as never before: It has become, for lack of a better one, the founding myth of the nation. "It’s become a very important holiday because there’s nothing to lean on, no holiday of statehood, like July 4 or July 14," says Masha Lipman, a political observer at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "1991 is still very controversial. June 12" — which celebrates Russia’s independence, in 1990, from the Soviet Union — "has not really taken root. Everything is very confusing. We don’t have anything that we all celebrate together, that we’re clear about why we’re celebrating, that is pleasant to celebrate together."

Victory Day has become that holiday. And with that popularity comes its complicated and occasionally dissonant nature. Russia has only recently and very, very tentatively started to atone for things like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or the Katyn massacre, which conveniently happened outside the dates of the Great Fatherland War.

And this opens up a mass of other contradictions: The holiday celebrates a victory that was hard-won but was won hard because of the miscalculations of its leadership, and the continuing battle over Stalin’s legacy is just one proof of this cultural ambivalence. (A private citizen bought advertising space on a bus and had it covered with a triumphant image of Stalin; it was promptly paint-bombed.) The day commemorates the fact that 27 million Soviet citizens — about one-eighth of the population — died in the four years of the war. But it commemorates them with a parade of weapons. It’s a holiday celebrating the victory of a country that no longer exists, against an enemy that is now one of its closest allies: Angela Merkel was the only Western leader to attend the parade (Barack Obama had a scheduling conflict and Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi canceled the night before).

A recent batch of films released to coincide with the big 65th anniversary exhibits some clumsy efforts to grapple with the confusions of May 9. "Pop" tracks the life of an Orthodox preacher who grudgingly cooperates with the Nazis to rebuild the Church in occupied lands where the Soviets once worked to uproot it. The other is Nikita Mikhalkov’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning film "Burnt by the Sun," a strange pastiche of richly shot World War II staples: Nazi-occupied villages, fresh-faced cannon fodder, the harried evacuation attempts. "Pop" and "Burnt by the Sun 2" are deeply confused portrayals of the war myth, a confusion that goes beyond Soviet cinema’s traditional lack of Hollywood binarism. The Nazis are bad, but the Soviets are not great either; the Church is good, but it collaborates with the Nazis. Stalin is jovial, but manipulative. The soldiers are valiant, but the command isn’t always. Even the sacred partisans, the guerrilla warriors, are portrayed in "Pop" as ruthless political wheelers and dealers. Soviet portrayals of the war — a major genre — were rarely black and white, but they were never this conflicted and incoherent.

Both the films flopped, but they still suggest a shift in Russia’s concept of its World War II legacy. Reexamining a whitewashed part of a country’s history is not a bad thing, of course, especially given the fact that Russia has yet to have a real public reckoning about its Soviet past, the way Germany did about Nazism. But when the whitewashed period has been elevated to the status of founding myth and wellspring of legitimacy, the task becomes far more difficult.

"Before, films about the war were the cinema of victors," says Roman Volobuev, a film critic at Afisha. Now they are films of victors who want to convince themselves that they’re victors. And they doubt it. They’re not just doubting the sentence — ‘I won the war’ — but they’re doubting the meaning of each word. This has become a major neurosis for the country."

The self-examination that has been picking up speed of late — two days before the parade, Medvedev definitively denounced Stalin’s regime as "authoritarian" — will of course be wobbly and confused, full of Russian flags and Soviet flags and tsarist-era ribbons fluttering on car antennas to commemorate World War II veterans. The gray areas here are wide and deep, and the neurosis comes from a wound that hasn’t fully healed. It may take another 65 years for the parade to become less fraught with competing flags and competing narratives.

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