Russia: What is Victory Day, and why is it important this May 9?

Russia will celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, but as a new war boils in Ukraine, observers are keen to know what Putin might unveil.

Russian service members drive a tank along a street during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade
Russian service members drive a tank along a street during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, May 4, 2022 [Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

On Monday, thousands of soldiers, tanks and military vehicles will march through Moscow’s Red Square, while fighter jets roar overhead as part of the annual Victory Day parade.

This day of pride, 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 is drawing on history for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

And some fear that Putin will use this year’s celebratory occasion to ramp up war efforts.

“Victory in World War II became the defining myth in post-war Soviet life, outstripping even the Revolution in its significance,” explained Stephen Norris, professor of Russian history at the University of Miami.

“Twenty-seven million Soviet citizens died during the war, and victory obviously came at a great cost. It also validated the sacrifices made during the war. Nobel-Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich has captured this well, by stating the history of victory replaced the history of the actual war.”

As Victory Day approaches, some observers believe that the top brass, frustrated at the lack of progress in subduing Ukraine, will call for a push, and Putin will declare total war.

“Putin and his advisers certainly pay attention to historical anniversaries and like to use them to bolster their hold on power,” Norris said. “Given how important Victory Day has been 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, my fear is that Putin will use the holiday to announce a new offensive and new phase of the war.”

Some also worry that Putin may announce a mass mobilisation, calling able-bodied men into service. However, earlier rumours of martial law and conscription in March proved to be wrong.

“It’s hard to do a general conscription: I think that that’s when Russians would come out and protest,” said Elizabeth Wood, professor of history at MIT.

“You can conscript all those people in Buryatia (a mountainous region in Siberia), but if you conscript Muscovites, they’ll protest. I don’t think he can declare victory, either. I think they’re planning a long slogging war.”

People pose as military vehicles drive along a street during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow
People pose as military vehicles drive along a street during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, May 4, 2022 [Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

Victory Day was first celebrated in 1965 under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, a veteran of the war himself.

It is also marked across 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 because of the time difference between Berlin and Moscow, in Russia the occasion is marked on May 9.

Victory Day marks the immense sacrifice the Russian people and other nations of the Soviet Union made in the fight against Nazism.

On June 22, 1941, the German army began its invasion of the USSR, named Operation Barbarossa.

Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin was caught unprepared: having taken part in the 1939 invasion of Poland with the Nazis, he thought his deal with Adolf Hitler would protect him, and did not heed the warnings of foreign diplomats or his own agents.

Hitler, meanwhile, arrogantly believed the war would last no longer 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 the 9/11 of Russian history,” said Wood.

“It’s the moment when Russia felt massively invaded by a country that had declared that all Slavs were less-than-humans. This 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 free 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 Hitler’s genocidal plans 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 1941-44 siege of Leningrad, which Putin’s own family lived through. The Russian president has revealed his older brother died of diphtheria, while his father served in a sabotage squad and was wounded.

But by 1943, the Germans’ rapid advance collapsed under the weight of the fierce Russian winter and partisan guerrillas, losing key battles such as Stalingrad, one of the deadliest clashes in the war where General Paulus’ 6th Army perished in their thousands from hunger, cold, and Russian gunfire.

The Red Army’s counterattack pushed the Germans back through Poland, and by May 1945, Russian soldiers were raising 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 Jewish men, 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 exceptional bravery.

In trying to cast aside Moscow’s influence in recent years, nationalist figures like Bandera have been embraced in Ukraine, despite their questionable past.

It is this which partly lies behind Putin’s claims that Kyiv is overrun by Nazis.

“American triumphalism about World War II is exaggerated. It was Soviet forces that bore the brunt of the long, hard battles day in and day out, fighting hand-to-hand and house-to-house throughout the whole western borderlands region of the USSR,” said Wood.

“But this Ukrainian war has actually nothing to do with that, except the construction of a myth. The way Putin plays it is like a fairy tale: Soviet heroism versus evil Nazis, and then he just changed the terms of who they are.

“He is not fighting against Nazis. There was no Ukrainian aggression. There wasn’t actually even NATO aggression against Russia – NATO encirclement, you can argue about, but there was no aggression.”

In the past, delegations from NATO members such as Poland, the UK, France and the United States have taken part in the Victory Day parade.

“Then came the rigged elections of December 2011, widespread protests, the return of Putin to the presidency, and increasing authoritarianism,” said Norris. “Victory Day has also become more about ‘us versus them’ and therefore a powerful illustration of Russia’s increasing isolation in the world.”

This year no foreign leaders are even invited, not even Putin’s close ally, the 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 overlook the high level of poverty in Russia and the absence of dignity among the Russian people in the face of authorities,” he told Al Jazeera.

The thinking goes, he said: “Yes, we’re poor, we don’t have good economic prospects, we don’t have prosperity and our political elite humiliates us on a daily basis; but at least we are the winners of WWII, at least we saved the world from Hitler.”

He added: “Post-Soviet Russian authorities have relied more and more on the WWII myth since 1995. In Putin’s time, the myth became a kind of religion, not one not driven by society itself, but by the bureaucracy. If there were some popular bottom-level civil initiatives – like the St George’s Ribbon or Immortal Regiment – the Russian authorities didn’t allow them to exist without control, and soon these initiatives became part of the bureaucratic victory cult.

“In this way, this bureaucratic ‘religion’ is de-facto dead. People may be proud of the victory in WWII and they may even participate in the official events, but for them it is just another dose of opium that allows them not to think about the future and about their regular political humiliations.”

The black-and-orange St George’s Ribbon was used to commemorate veterans of World War II, but is now arguably more a symbol of patriotism than remembering the fallen. It became a ubiquitous sight after the takeover of Crimea in 2014.

The Immortal Regiment march was started in 2012 by three local journalists in the Siberian city of Tomsk to honour their ancestors who fought in the war.

By 2015, it had grown nationwide and Putin was leading the procession, holding up a portrait of his father. The original organisers have bemoaned how their movement has been co-opted by the Kremlin.

Orange ribbon of St. George, a symbol widely associated with pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine is placed on a poster depicting Russia's President Vladimir Putin
Orange ribbon of St. George, a symbol widely associated with pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine is placed on a poster depicting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin inside a newly-opened ‘Putin bar’ in Novi Sad, October 10, 2014 [Marko Djurica/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera