Russia’s celebration of victory in World War II is a key pillar of Putin’s rule

Published : 09 May 2024 09:36 PM

Russia is wrapping itself in patriotic pageantry for Victory Day, a celebration of its defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II that President Vladimir Putin has turned into a pillar of his nearly quarter-century in power and a justification of his move into Ukraine.

Even though few veterans of what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War are still alive 79 years after Berlin fell to the Red Army, the victory over Nazi Germany remains the most important and widely revered symbol of the country’s prowess and a key element of national identity.

Thursday's festivities across Russia, led by Putin who this week began his fifth term in office, recall that wartime sacrifice in what has become its most important secular holiday.

The Soviet Union lost about 27 million people in the war, an estimate that many historians consider conservative, scarring virtually every family.

Nazi troops overran much of the western Soviet Union when they invaded in June 1941, before being driven back all the way to Berlin, where the USSR's hammer and sickle flag was raised above the ruined capital. The U.S., U.K, France and other allies mark the end of the war in Europe on May 8.

The immense suffering and sacrifice in cities like Stalingrad, Kursk and Putin's native Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — still serve as a powerful symbol of the country's ability to prevail against seemingly overwhelming challenges.

Since coming to power on the last day of 1999, Putin has made May 9 an important part of his political agenda, featuring displays of military might. Columns of tanks and missiles roll across Red Square and squadrons of fighter jets roar overhead as medal-bedecked veterans join him to review the parade. Many wear the black-and-orange St. George’s ribbon that is traditionally associated with Victory Day. Putin, 71, talks frequently about his family history, sharing memories of his father, who fought on the front during the Nazi siege of the city and was badly wounded.

As Putin tells it, his father, also named Vladimir, came home from a military hospital during the war to see workers trying to take away his wife, Maria, who had been declared dead of starvation. But the elder Putin did not believe she had died — saying she had only lost consciousness, weak with hunger.

 Their first child, Viktor, died during the siege when he was 3, one of more than 1 million Leningrad residents who died in the 872-day blockade, most of them from starvation.

For several years, Putin carried a photo of his father in Victory Day marches — as did others honoring relatives who were war veterans — in what was called the “Immortal Regiment.”

Those demonstrations were suspended during the coronavirus pandemic and then again amid security concerns after the start of the fighting in Ukraine.

As part of his efforts to burnish the Soviet legacy and trample on any attempts to question it, Russia has introduced laws that criminalized the “rehabilitation of Nazism” that include punishing the “desecration” of memorials or challenging Kremlin versions of World War II history.

When he sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Putin evoked World War II in seeking to justify his actions that Kyiv and its Western allies denounced as an unprovoked war of aggression. Putin cited the “denazification” of Ukraine as a main goal of Moscow, falsely describing the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust, as neo-Nazis.

Putin tried to cast Ukraine’s veneration of some of its nationalist leaders who cooperated with the Nazis in World War II as a sign of Kyiv’s purported Nazi sympathies. He regularly made unfounded references to Ukrainian nationalist figures such as Stepan Bandera, who was killed by a Soviet spy in Munich in 1959, as an underlying justification for the Russian military action in Ukraine.

Many observers see Putin’s focus on World War II as part of his efforts to revive the USSR’s clout and prestige and his reliance on Soviet practices.

“It’s the continuous self-identification with the USSR as the victor of Nazism and the lack of any other strong legitimacy that forced the Kremlin to declare ‘denazification’ as the goal of the war,” Nikolay Epplee said in a commentary for Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

The Russian leadership, he said, has “locked itself up in a worldview limited by the Soviet past.”