“We can do it again!”
“Grandpa, thanks for the victory!”
These are the most ubiquitous windshield stickers in Russia, where Victory Day, or the May 9 celebration of Nazi Germany’s surrender, has become a near-religious public event.
President Vladimir Putin promotes the celebrations of Russia’s “victory over fascism” as a show of Moscow’s military might and moral superiority.
He also appears to be seeking to monopolise the victory over Nazi Germany by silencing the role other nations played in defeating Adolf Hitler.
Millions celebrate Victory Day by marching with portraits of their forefathers who fought in the war that cost the USSR 27 million lives.
Schoolchildren and toddlers sport WWII uniforms, perform in amateur concerts, lay flowers on the nearest monument to fallen heroes, and eat a “battlefield lunch” of buckwheat and canned meat.
Moscow Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s top Orthodox hierarch, has compared the holiday to Easter as both celebrate “victory over death and destruction”.
Victory Day’s focal point is a nationally televised military parade through Moscow’s Red Square, where jets whizz over synced soldiers, tanks, air defence systems and nuclear missiles.
This year, the Kremlin spent 100 million rubles ($1.36m) on planes that spray the sky with silver iodide to prevent rain.
Putin observes the parade from a podium surrounded by Moscow-friendly leaders and delivers a speech that litmus-tests the Kremlin’s ties with the West, including WWII Allied powers the United States and the United Kingdom.
Together or alone?
During the 2005 parade, Putin stood next to some 50 helmsmen from the US, Germany, France, Italy, China, India and Japan and many other nations.
Among those attending were then-US President George Bush, China’s former President Hu Jintao, France’s Jacques Chirac, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Putin’s speech reflected Moscow’s pro-Western stance at the time.
“We never divide the victory into ours and theirs, and we’ll always remember the help of the Allies – the United States, Great Britain, France, and other countries of the anti-Hitler coalition,” he said.
This year, after a decade of spiralling tensions with the West and international ostracism over Crimea’s annexation, Russia symbolically was on its own.
“Our people were alone, alone on the toilsome, heroic and sacrificial way to the victory,” he said standing against a vermilion Kremlin wall, addressing dozens of frail veterans and the only visiting foreign leader, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.
In recent years, the Kremlin tacitly tabooed public discussions of the Allies’ contribution to the victory along with the “Lend-Lease” programme, Washington’s massive war-time aid to the Soviets.
Another taboo is Moscow’s 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany that helped Hitler start the war while Soviet leader Josef Stalin annexed eastern Poland.
Banning comparisons between Stalin, Hitler
Within days, these taboos will be enshrined in law, and blockbuster films like Saving Private Ryan could be seen as a denial of “the Soviet people’s decisive role in defeating Nazi Germany or the USSR’s humanitarian mission in liberating the nations of Europe”.
That is the wording of the bill the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, adopted in a first reading on May 25.
The bill bans comparisons between Stalin’s and Hitler’s policies, even though generations of historians see both as atrocious tyrants.
They are “the twin demons of the 20th century, responsible for different reasons and in different ways for more violent deaths than any other men in history,” British WWII historian Richard Overy wrote in 2004.
Even though the bill does not lay out criminal punishment, it may result in the banning of countless works of art and volumes on history.
It also speaks volumes about the landscape Putin wants Russians to live in.
The Kremlin depicts modern-day Russia as a besieged bastion of traditional values surrounded by scheming Western foes, critics say.
“This is a perfect image of a fortress under siege – with brilliant ideals that need to be defended, for which one can suffer, and rejecting which will be shameful,” Sergei Biziukin, an opposition activist from the western city of Ryazan, told Al Jazeera.
While 54 percent of Russians think such propaganda “destroys their spiritual beliefs”, 60 percent believe that a “group of people want to rewrite Russian history and diminish Russia’s greatness”, according to a July 2020 poll by the VTsIOM pollster.
Stalin is part of the Victory Day celebrations.
“Ideologically and religiously, it justifies Putin’s dictatorship and all the crimes [he] committed,” said Biziukin, whose great-grandfather Ivan Kharitonov was executed in 1937 for “anti-Soviet propaganda” at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror.
Kharitonov crafted horse harnesses, and five of his sons were killed in the war; Biziukin’s father survived because he was too young to be conscripted.
In 2019, Biziukin fled Russia fearing persecution over his attempt to run for president, a publicity stunt he designed “to show that each citizen has the right to elect and be elected”, he said.
But why did the Kremlin choose Victory Day to unify Russians?
“Had we been ruled by civilians, they would’ve come up with something else. But we are ruled by siloviki (law enforcement officers),” rights advocate and ex-lawmaker Lev Ponomaryov told Al Jazeera.
Putin spent his formative years as a KGB spy in East Germany, and many of his former colleagues became top officials, heads of state-run corporations or powerful oligarchs.
Putin cultivates ties with Berlin, where centrist politicians prioritise ties with Moscow in part because of everything Soviet Russia went through during the war.
This prioritisation means turning a blind eye to Moscow’s rights violations and other transgressions, according to Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Bremen University researcher.
However, Berlin has stood up to Moscow’s support for Europe’s ultra-nationalists, Eurosceptics and separatists – some of whom idolise Hitler.
“While admitting Germany’s responsibility for the Second World War and the crimes committed against the peoples of the USSR, Germany rejects Russia’s attempts to create on this basis a nationalist, anti-European ideology,” Mitrokhin told Al Jazeera.