Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Why Victory Day Matters So Fatefully in Putin’s Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 9 – Victory Day, which marks the Russian anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, is not just the only holiday all Russians acknowledge as their common property: it is an event whose positive and negative consequences are now greater in Putin’s Russia than perhaps any other celebration in any other country.
The positive consequences, as virtually every commentary Russian and Western on this day this year has noted, are obvious: Victory Day is an occasion for Russians to express their legitimate national pride about their role and that of their country in defeating Hitlerite fascism sixty years ago.
In addition, the event allows a people who have been traumatized and divided by the events of the last 20 years to stand together not only with each other but also with their leaders, to recall something in which they were overwhelmingly united at the time and for whose contribution the international community has regularly acknowledged.
And finally, Victory Day represents an occasion to reaffirm not only Russia’s role in the world as one of the five great powers that won World War II but also its links to and expectations of the four other permanent members of the United Nations – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and China.
But if these positive consequences are almost universally noted, a few Moscow analysts have explored what they see as some dangerously negative ones at least as this holiday is evolving and expanding in important under the current Russian Federation president, Vladimir Putin.
First, as Sergei Markedonov argues in an essay posted online this week, the way in which this holiday is currently celebrated both blocks both a more honest discussion of what in fact occurred in the USSR during World War II and prevents Russia from breaking with the Soviet past (
In support of his argument, the Moscow specialist on ethnic affairs observes that Victory Day now serves to obscure the fact that the Kremlin and the country has failed to deal honestly with the past and to come up with a new national idea that will guide it into the future.
The Soviet-era themes that dominate Victory Day under Putin, Markedonov continues, make it difficult for Russians to reinterpret the past in terms of their own national interests. Other former communist countries have made that break, he suggests, but Russia has not, and the way Victory Day is now celebrated delays that development.
Perhaps most serious of all, the Moscow commentator says, is that the Soviet centricity of the celebration means that Russians are not yet focusing on the fact that the experiences their ancestors gained in the war and especially the contacts they made with the West set the stage for the emergence of Russia four decades later.
“Passing through the people’s war with the occupiers and having become acquainted with European values,” Markedonov notes, “Soviet citizens began the process of freeing themselves internally. [Indeed,] the liberation of one sixth of the earth from communism began in May 1945.”
Second, Victory Day celebrations as currently conducted, largely out of inertia several analysts have said, has provides both Russian leaders and ordinary Russians a kind of moral solvent that eliminates their responsibility for what happened and justifies whatever either of these groups may do in the future.
Markedonov makes this point, but so do a number of others. One, St Petersburg’s Vadim Shtepa argues the Putin regime is now using Victory Day “as its own justification for all times” ( (See also Sergei Kornev’s criticism of this trend at
And third, Victory Day, as Russians have come to mark under Putin, has led many in both the government and the population to an “hysterical” reaction to anything they believe casts doubt on the Soviet triumph in 1945, a response that fails to promote Russia’s national interests and in fact has the effect of undermining them.
Any number of such articles from the Russian media could be cited on this point, but perhaps two of the most typical are the following: On the one hand, Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin’s essay arguing that the celebration of Victory day by itself gives Russia back its “meaning” (, May 8).
On the other, Dmitriy Nersesov’s argument that moves against Soviet war memorials not only represent an immoral historical revisionism but also are an existential threat to Russia’s future existence as a great power in the world that he says the Soviet victory in World War II created (
Such attitudes help to explain both why Russians have reacted as they have to the demontage of the Soviet memorial in Tallinn and why that reaction however emotionally satisfying it may be, works against Russian interests, Aleksandr Tsipko suggests in an interview with this week (
According to Tsipko, who has become increasingly nationalistic over the last 15 years, the Western powers were behind the Estonian action that they calculated would provoke the kind of reaction that would allow the West to “discredit” Russia in the eyes of the world.
These powers, he continues, counted on “the inadequacy” of our response, “our aggressiveness and our hysteria” because they could see that “there is no order in our state” and that primitive emotion guides responses. They could be confident that they could contrast their reasonableness to Moscow’s unreasoning and unreasonable position.
And then Tsipko concludes with what is certainly his most intriguing comment. “Unlike us [Russians],” he comments, “the Estonians have never forgiven the horrors of Stalinism. They are making a mistake when they blame all the horrors of Stalinism on the Russian people. That is amoral, but they cannot forget.”
As a result, he says, “we must painstakingly explain to them that we lived together and that we suffered as they did. But instead of this, we become hysterical. Our tone [in talking to the Estonians and about ourselves] ought to be completely different “ if the interests of the Russian people are to triumph.

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