Victory Day, which is being celebrated today in Russia against the backdrop of the events in Ukraine, is filled with new meaning for Russians. To comprehend why, just imagine that suddenly the 4th of July for Americans ceased to be a cheerful holiday with picnics and fireworks.
Today Victory Day in Russia poses risks of losing the memory of U.S.-Russia collaboration during World War II against a shared common threat. Photo: Reuters
The celebration of Victory Day in Russia has always created a special atmosphere that is hard to comprehend by a person born and raised in another country. Victory Day is not like the traditional “Veterans Day” observed in many other countries, although, of course, veterans and the elderly generally receive special treatment in Russia on May 9.
One could characterize the Russian Victory Day as a holiday that includes honoring veterans – but it does not end there. On this holiday, Russians show a peculiar, extremely deep national-patriotic symbolism combined with genuine popular love that is actually atypical. Generally, Russians are prone to treat official dates, such as Constitution Day or the Day of National Unity, quite ironically.
In a certain sense, Victory Day, over the last few decades since the Soviet era, was and remains Russia’s main national holiday, arousing far more patriotic feelings than the official Russia Day on June 12.
Victory Day has never been a militaristic holiday, despite the solemn parades and scores of men in uniform on the streets and on TV. Ever since Brezhnev's famous “struggle for peace” speech, the victory in World War II was presented as the last and final triumph in any war, be it on a small-scale or on the world stage.
The implementation of this pacifist scenario during the Cold War, according to an editorial in the main Soviet newspaper Pravda, hindered the thinking of “American imperialists.” But later, under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the possibility of Russia’s involvement in any protracted world war began to seem quite absurd. Those tractor units with missiles on Red Square on Victory Day looked like simple scary museum exhibits.
How the meaning of the Victory Day has changed after the Ukrainian crisis
In 2014, for the first time in decades, Russians will look at the columns of marching soldiers on Red Square and not think that the whole spectacle is just for amusement.
The Ukrainian crisis has dealt a severe blow to many sustainable patterns of social consciousness and has caused people to take a fresh approach to familiar things. TV news over the past few months has taught people in Russia the idea that a man in uniform with a gun in the 21st century can decide the fate of nations, including their own.
For Russian-American relations, such a metamorphosis in the minds of the Russian people is rather troubling. The United States once again, as in the Soviet era, appears to be the main violators of peace and tranquility. Probably, it will surprise many Americans, but most Russian media, particularly the television media, place the blame on what is happening in Ukraine primarily on the “Washington provocateurs."
Victory Day is the most important and beloved Russian holiday, but now it has openly become an occasion to demonstrate Russia’s military might in the face of the very same “insidious United States,” just as it was 40 years ago.
However, the need to make key policy decisions on the eve of Victory Day has no doubt had an impact on President Vladimir Putin. As a person brought up in the late Soviet Union, he is very sensitive to the symbolism of the holiday, and he is well aware that people are accustomed to celebrate May 9 not so much as a victory over the enemy but as an advancement of peace.
A veteran during Victory Day in Russia. Photo: Reuters
This day is not a suitable start for military operations. It is much more appropriate at the current moment to continue attempts to negotiate.
In order to try to fathom what the Russian soul feels at this moment, Americans would have to imagine that one of their favorite and popular holidays in the United States, Independence Day, suddenly lost its joy, which typically consists of picnics and fireworks, and suddenly became filled with a long forgotten political subtext that no one cares about anymore. For example, it would be as if the United States used Independence Day to force the people to reflect on the need to counter the threat emanating from, say, neighboring Canada.
That could be considered absurd, right? Well, six months ago, the overwhelming majority of Russians thought the same thing about the possibility of a military confrontation with Ukraine.
What is the difference of the Russian Victory Day and American Independence Day?
To understand the passions and emotional specificity of the Victory Day celebrations amidst the current political situation in Russia, Americans may be hindered by major fundamental differences between the two countries’ national patriotic holidays. In the U.S., Independence Day is associated with events that have long fallen beyond the “historical horizon.”
In today's social and political discussions in the United States, no one uses the term “patriots” or “loyalists.” Nobody is going to solve current problems using Minuteman militias (members of well-prepared militia companies of select men from the American colonial partisan militia during the American Revolutionary War - Editor's note ), nobody likened their opponents of King George. Only some throwbacks - like the “Tea Party” - occasionally recall the glorious days of the struggle with Britain.
In contrast, Victory Day is a celebration of the events and characters of World War II and has remained a vivid memory in Russian political reality. Accusations of fascism thrown back and forth, comparisons to Hitler and Goebbels, and St. George's ribbons being used as a major national-patriotic symbol are not all simply a remnant of history but are also representative of the current Russian reality.
Moreover, Victory Day marks not only a historical date but also the culmination of the triumph of good over evil – the same struggle, which according to many, continues today, mainly throughout Ukraine.
The difference in the perception of the two Russian and American national holidays cannot be explained just by the fact that the War for Independence is a much older historical event than World War II. Why did the United States, which was allied with the Soviet Union, fighting among the anti-Hitler coalition, not make Victory Day over Nazism its “core” public holiday, replacing the “outdated” Independence Day?
The explanation is obvious. World War II was not preserved in the American historical memory as a key event that determined the development of the nation for years to come. In the case of the Soviet Union, the memory of war has survived even the state itself, retaining its importance for national identity in post-Soviet Russia as an acute shortage of new victories and great achievements.
The “New” Victory Day
The perception of the annexation of Crimea as one such long-awaited victory explains the incredibly high level of public support for Victory Day in today’s Russian society. In celebration of Victory Day this year, the theme of continuity is extremely noticeable. The passing generation of veterans likes to see that the “country is in good hands.”
The “old” Victory Day is still important, but more and more, it is being replaced and filled with new content and meaning. Always implicitly present in this festival ever since the Cold War are anti-American sentiments, and they are starting to come again to forefront. Moreover, negative characters of World War II are finding new incarnation in the form of the repulsive American “Russophobes.”
If this process reaches its logical conclusion, Russian-American relations, already balancing on the precipice, risks losing in the eyes of the Russian collective consciousness one of its basic foundations – the memory of collaboration during World War II against a shared common threat.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.