Victory Day and Russia’s war cult

Why is the Kremlin so obsessed with World War II?

Russia V Day
Combat aircraft fly in formation during an air parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II in Moscow, Russia on May 9, 2020 [Reuters/Tatyana Makeyeva]

During his annual New Year’s address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin touted the 75th anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany as the country’s main event in 2020. The celebrations were supposed to culminate in a pompous military parade in the Red Square and the opening of a new Christian Orthodox cathedral dedicated to the Russian army on May 9.

But this year is turning out not nearly as victorious for Putin as he had hoped. Having to postpone the parade and the grand opening of the church due to a major outbreak of the novel coronavirus is a major blow. Both were a precious opportunity for the Kremlin to rekindle nationalist sentiment among Russians and try to regain some public support, as the president’s approval rating continues to slump. It is currently at 59 percent – a historical low.

The construction of the armed forces’ cathedral took 17 months and cost around 6bn rubles ($82m). It was funded by the defence ministry as well as donations from citizens and large corporations.

Anniversary-related numerology was built into its architecture – the bell tower is 75 metres tall (to mark the anniversary), the main dome is 19.45 metres wide (as a reference to 1945) and a smaller one is 14.18 metres high, with 1418 being the number of days the USSR was at war with Nazi Germany.

The complex around the cathedral boasts a “1418-step path” made of plexiglass with Nazi insignia exhibited underneath so that visitors could tramp on them the way Soviet soldiers did during the historical victory parade in 1945.

Paradoxically, it also contains war-themed mosaics of Stalin and various communist symbols despite the fact that he, like all other communist leaders, opposed religion and the Orthodox Church was severely persecuted under his rule, with thousands of priests killed.

The complex was also supposed to feature a mosaic of Putin and Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu at a rally celebrating the annexation of Crimea but it was removed after public outcry.

These designs of the cathedral and its adjoining complex may sound bizarre, but it is part of the Kremlin’s decades-long ideological project to rally political support for its rule by shoring up various nationalistic albeit disparate symbols to build a war cult that almost amounts to a state religion.

Indeed, it may sound strange to position the image of Stalin in a church complex, but the Kremlin’s spin doctors know exactly what they are doing when they marry the veneration of World War II victory, which started in earnest under communist leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s, with Christian orthodoxy and vicious nationalism. 

This ideology portrays the current Kremlin leadership as facilitators of symbolic reconciliation between Russia’s imperial monarchical past and the communist era.

Some communist symbols are already being trampled upon, like the Nazi insignia at the new cathedral. Putin has long held Lenin and the Bolsheviks responsible for destroying the Russian empire, deceiving people with anti-war rhetoric and turning Russia into a losing side in World War I.

The regime’s attitude to Stalin is more nuanced. Although Putin and his supporters publicly condemn Stalin’s terror and, to a limited extent, encourage its memorisation in monuments and films on state-run TV, they give credit to the Soviet dictator for rapid industrialisation and especially for winning World War II.

Portraying himself as a reconciler who is healing historical wounds allows Putin to frame all those who want him to go, namely the liberal pro-democracy opposition, as extremists sowing civil discord and preparing revolutionary bloodshed. Speaking to his young supporters in 2014, for example, Putin compared what he calls “non-systemic opposition”, that is liberal politicians like Alexei Navalny whom he bars from getting elected into parliament, with the Bolsheviks who openly advocated Russia’s defeat in World War I, thus precipitating the 1917 revolution.

At the same time, the original Brezhnev-era World War II cult, permeated as it was with the spirit of communist internationalism and anti-fascism, is being gradually transformed into a modern far-right product, bringing Russia in line with a major trend in Eastern and Central Europe. It is increasingly embellished with nationalistic symbolism which focuses on the ethnic Russian majority.

Of course it is difficult for Putin and his entourage to reconcile their natural far-right leanings with their own personal histories as junior Soviet bureaucrats or KGB agents and to circumvent the fact that Russia is after all a multi-ethnic federation, but the far-right political product is in high demand.

Unsurprisingly, the war cult, with all its contradictions, played a key role in selling the annexation of Crimea to the Russians as an act of protecting its Russian-speaking population from fascist-leaning Ukrainian nationalists and defending the legacy of 1945 victory.

As the Kremlin unrolled its nationalist ideology over the past two decades, it also started embedding it in Russian law, beginning with a 2013 law which criminalises “insulting” believers. More recently, Putin put forward constitutional amendments, which would allow him to stay in power beyond 2024, when his current term expires. They also contain a reference to the ethnic Russians as the nation’s founding people, affirm the duty of the state to “honour the memory of defenders of the Motherland and the defence of historical truth” and mention “our faith in God” in the preamble, despite the country being officially secular.

The amendments were supposed to be voted on in a plebiscite strategically scheduled two weeks ahead of the Victory Day parade – April 22. But the COVID-19 pandemic ruined this plan as well.

These amendments, assuming they get passed at the referendum, are bringing Russia more in line with other East European neighbours who have sought to build their own ethnic nation states after the fall of the USSR.

Russia might often be politically at odds with its East European neighbours, but the convergence of their political cultures is in full swing. As countries like Hungary and Poland embrace elements of Putin’s authoritarianism, Russia is slowly reformatting itself as an ethnocentric nation state.

The existing mishmash of lingering communist-era iconography and modern far-rights trends have created a messy ideological landscape in Russia, but the general direction is evident from the work of state propagandists whose job is to probe and steer public opinion.

In recent years, ideological operatives have started airing even more radical far-right views that may seem to contradict the official narrative of Russia as an anti-fascist hero nation. One of the loudest Kremlin TV propagandists, Dmitriy Kiselev, has recently proposed erecting a monument to Russian imperial general Pyotr Krasnov who served under the Nazis and hailed Hitler’s onslaught on the USSR as a liberation war against the communists and the Jews.

Another notorious TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyev made a film that feels like an apology of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

In 2016, the now-retired culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, prompted an outcry in St Petersburg when he unveiled a memorial plaque to Finnish war-time leader Carl Gustaf Mannerheim whose troops helped maintain the Nazi blockade on Leningrad, which cost at least 600,000 lives and immense suffering for survivors.

The Kremlin’s complacency with regards to such escapades by its own ideological workers contrasts sharply with its aggressive reaction to East European countries challenging its view on World War II history. But this is part of another game, in which regular spats over history nurture a fruitful symbiosis between Russian leadership and its ideological relatives in neighbouring countries – both sides benefit from such public clashes because they feed nationalist fervour at home.

As in the rest of the region, there is no left-wing force in Russia to balance out this sharp turn to the right. Russia’s Communist Party pays only lip service to its origins by sporting red banners at public gatherings and bringing flowers to Lenin’s mausoleum in the Red Square.

In reality, it was an ultra-nationalist and imperialist organisation from the moment of its conception after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Its leadership is on friendly terms with the Russian Orthodox Church, while its presidential candidate in the last election was a rich businessman.

The liberal opposition used to be disturbingly elitist, prone to extreme forms of libertarian social Darwinism and sympathetic to nationalist populism. It is only in the last few years that its leader, Navalny, has started systematically addressing the issues of social justice and workers’ rights and supporting independent trade unions. 

It is high time because only a highly modernised left-wing force that campaigns on pressing issues of social inequality can turn back authoritarian trends facilitated by the nationalist heirs of East European communist regimes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.