WEBCAST: Victory Day and Russia’s Politics of History
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Seventy five years after the end of World War II, Victory Day has become Russia’s most prominent national holiday and a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s politics of memory. Built around the glorification of Russia’s military successes and the Russian people’s heroism and victimhood, the official May 9 commemorations are meant to symbolize a resurgent Russia. But Victory Day is also a point of confluence for unofficial and deeply held personal and family memories as well as the memory of Stalin’s terror. Professors Larisa Deriglazova, Nina Tumarkin, and Nikolay Koposov discussed the upcoming commemorations - this year significantly tamped down because of the coronavirus pandemic - and the politics of memory associated with the day.
In a panel chaired by Kennan Institute Senior Program Associate Izabella Tabarovsky, speakers Larisa Deriglazova (Head, Master Degree Program on EU Studies, Tomsk State University, Russia), Nina Tumarkin (Director of the Russian Area Studies Program, Wellesley College), and Nikolay Koposov (Visiting Scholar, Emory University) discussed the historical and modern significance of Russia’s Victory Day Celebration.
Larisa Deriglazova introduced the topic by discussing the duality of Victory Day for Russians, which combines high-profile official celebrations of military glory with the personal trauma of the conflict. She began by highlighting the popularity and unifying power of Victory Day, which marks not only a jubilant military victory but also a time of remembrance of familial history and individual trauma. Deriglazova recalled controversial points often left out of the Kremlin’s narrative, including the persecution of returning prisoners of war by the Stalinist regime. The holiday now holds a dual-purpose for the Russian state as celebration of the glorious victory and remembrance of the traumatic cost of human lives.
Nina Tumarkin continued the conversation by discussing the development of Russian war memory and the cult of the Great Patriotic War. She noted that celebrations of the war during the Brezhnev era were both “genuinely popular” but also orchestrated by the authorities as a source of legitimacy as the enthusiasm for the cult of Lenin and the revolution waned. She traced the ebbs and flows of popularity that the event enjoyed over the course of different regimes, from denial by Stalin, exultation under Brezhnev, rejection under Yeltsin, and Putin’s revival. Tumarkin posited that the idealization of history allowed the Kremlin to claim a moral superiority that legitimized its military activity in its successor states. Tumarkin concluded by discussing this year’s Victory Day under quarantine, in which attempts to generate virtual patriotism and remembrances of the war dead are contrasted with the toll of the pandemic.
Nikolay Koposov concluded the discussion by recounting a story about his own family’s fictionalized experience of the war, which he believed demonstrates the fallacy of Soviet heroism on which Victory Day and, by extension, the Russian state’s legitimacy, is predicated. He discussed the celebration’s development into what he now considers to be a cult and the widespread acceptance and internalization of the official narrative. Koposov notes that many aspects of the official narrative are unclear, difficult to substantiate, or willfully ignorant. Koposov also pointed out that many who fought for the Soviets were former peasants alienated by collectivization and were only willing to take up arms for the Soviets after experiencing German occupation. He finished his remarks by explaining that the Russian state’s legitimacy is based on the interpretation of the war and thus preservation of narrative is considered vital to the continuation of the regime.
“The celebration for the state has two meanings: the glorious part of the victory and the memory of lost lives. The two sides of the day are like the two sides of the same victory medal: one side is shiny and glorious to show to the public and be celebrated with military parades and joy and the other side is privately kept, about drama, about trauma, about the loss of relatives, and about those lives that never returned back to their families.”
“There are some questions to be answered and they probably raise controversy in Russian society still: Why was the human cost of this war so high? What was not done to prevent the occupation of so many territories and the loss of so many civilians in the war zones and outside of the war zones?”
“Taking shape in the mid-1960s when Victory Day was made a non-working day and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier made its solemn appearance in Moscow’s Alexander Garden, the cult of the great patriotic war… exalted really the Soviet’s great legitimizing myth with a salvational grand narrative of the red army’s liberation of a world enslaved by Nazism.”
“Idealized history took the place of a missing ideology. Tied to the USSR’s unique and salvational role in defeating fascism was an assertion that the victory had also been a moral victory which gave and continued to give Russia the right to dictate policy to others.”
“The cult of the war was and still is a means of imposing the cult of the state [to be] viewed as something benevolent, while in reality the state was against the people and the state terrorized the people.”
“The Stalin regime was almost as criminal as the Hitler regime… and most Russians do not realize that the war was not for their freedoms but was largely a battle between the two dictators.”
Professor, Department of World Politics; Head, Centre for European Studies; and Head, Master Degree Program on EU Studies, Tomsk State University, Russia
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