May 9, 2023
The Jamestown Foundation
By Vadim Shtepa
In early April 2023, the authorities in a few Russian regions bordering Ukraine—Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk—decided to refuse to hold the regular military parade in honor of Victory Day on May 9 (Svoboda, April 10). Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov stated that he did not want to “provoke the enemy with a large number of equipment and military personnel in the city center.” Thus, the situation in Russia is beginning to look typical for that of a losing army, as the concentration of Russian troops in any region no longer means that the locals are secure. On the contrary, this presence is causing the regions to fear that they will become an easy target for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
Today, the Kremlin’s “special military operation,” during which it planned to take Kyiv in less than two weeks, looks completely different after over a year of fierce fighting. Now, the Russian regions themselves have been forced to increase their defensive posturing. Moreover, other May 9 parades have been canceled not only in those regions neighboring Ukraine but also in cities quite far from the frontlines, including in Pskov (Pskov.kp.ru, April 29) and even Tyumen in Western Siberia (Ng72.ru, April 22). Unlike last year, when Ukrainian forces did not have many unmanned aerial vehicles, these regions now fear the specter of a Ukrainian drone attack.
The main military parade, on Moscow’s Red Square, will still take place; however, the authorities are forming groups of “people’s combatants” who are supposed to be on duty at night and track “unidentified flying objects” (Pravda.ru, April 27).
This year, the annual “Immortal Regiment” civil procession, during which participants carry portraits of their relatives who died during World War II, was canceled in all cities. This procession, which started during the Vladimir Putin era, is an important tool in the Kremlin’s array of militaristic propaganda. Its sudden cancellation is also related to security considerations but of a different kind. The Russian authorities fear that the people will carry portraits of their relatives who have already died in the war against Ukraine—and it is likely that these portraits will be more numerous when compared to the figures published by the Ministry of Defense (Sibreal.org, April 18).
However, with the forced mass cancellation of some Victory Day events, the Putin regime is seemingly shooting itself in the foot, as nearly all Russian neo-imperial propaganda is largely based on this historical date. Putin considers May 9 “the main Russian holiday” (Kp.ru, July 2, 2020), though it truly belongs to Soviet history. With this, the Russian president demonstrates that the Soviet era may be more crucial in his mind than the post-Soviet period.
In the postwar period, Victory Day was considered one of the main holidays in the Soviet Union; however, its significance changed under various Kremlin leaders. When the official ideology was oriented toward the future, as was the case under Nikita Khrushchev, this holiday somewhat
faded into the shadows. But then, in 1965, Leonid Brezhnev gave it a new scale: 20 years after the war, giant monuments to the Motherland began to be built throughout the country, “eternal lights” were lit and more. This change in the ideological vector from the future to the past was caused by the realization that Khrushchev’s promise to build a “communist welfare society” in the Soviet Union was unrealistic and, therefore, made the cult of the “Great Victory” its main historical pillar (Icds.ee, May 11, 2018).
Then, during the era of perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev, this cult of past victory gave way once again to the social desire for a new, free future. However, the first president of “free” Russia, Boris Yeltsin, made military parades on May 9 an annual event in 1995, which had not been the case even during Soviet times. With the coming to power of Putin, the militaristic “Great Victory” rhetoric has been growing every year, and today, in Russia, every schoolchild, including kindergarteners, is forced to march in World War II military uniforms (Echofm.online, April 29). Moscow justifies the “Great Victory” narrative both for the ideological unity of all Russian regions and for the imperial ambitions of the Kremlin, which seeks to restore its Soviet-era global influence.
The current Kremlin ideology is based on an absolute cult of the past, as the current “empire” sees no future for itself (see EDM, April 17). It is significant that the main attribute of Victory Day, the ribbon of Saint George, appeared and began to be widely distributed in Russia only in 2005, as a counterbalance to the orange ribbon, which symbolized the Ukrainian Orange Revolution a year earlier. But if the orange ribbon symbolized the hope for a free future, then Saint George’s ribbon, on the contrary, denoted the desire to retain Russia’s imperial past and the fight against “color revolutions.” As a result, in 2014, the ribbon of Saint George became the de facto official emblem of pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine and, later, as a terrorist symbol, was banned in a number of post-Soviet countries (Bbc.com/russian, April 21, 2022).
The current Russian narrative basically boils down to the obsession that, today, the war against Ukraine is a continuation of World War II, with the mythical “Ukrainian fascists” playing the role of enemies. Yet, the real history is completely being ignored here. For example, Putin claims that Russia would have won World War II without Ukraine, though, at that time, such a picture was impossible to imagine (Rosbalt, December 16, 2010). And the role of the Western allies has been minimized or distorted as much as possible—to the extent that they themselves are likened to “fascists” (Rg.ru, March 26). In today’s Russia, it is forbidden to study, in an unbiased manner, the early period of World War II (1939–1941), when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force, according to which the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, the Baltic countries and invaded Finland. Those who “identify” the similarities in the policies of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during that period face the possibility of a large fine or arrest (Gazeta.ru, April 16, 2022).
The full historical truth about World War II is dangerous for the Kremlin. Starting with its very name, which back in Soviet times was supplanted and replaced by the “Great Patriotic War,” which began only in 1941, many military archives from that period are still kept highly classified (Novayagazeta.ru, March 26, 2021). However, the impending counteroffensive of the Ukrainian
army may finally destroy this inverted propaganda myth about the “Great Victory,” after which the Kremlin empire itself will once again crumble with the loss of its ideological foundation.
Vadim Shtepa is the editor-in-chief of Region.Expert (www.region.expert), the only independent media outlet on Russian regionalism and federalism. He graduated from the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University (1992) and Moscow School of Political Studies (2012). He is also an alumnus of the Research Course on American Federalism (University of Missouri, St. Louis, USA, 2013). Mr. Shtepa is the author of three books on the history and philosophy of Russian regionalism, as well as a regular columnist for regional projects of the Russian service of Radio Liberty (Sever.Realii and Sibir.Realii). Since 2015, he has been living in Estonia due to persecution in Russia for his political views.