How Victory Day became central to Putin’s idea of Russian identity

In cities across Russia on Monday morning, tanks and missile trucks will growl their way along the main streets. Soldiers will march across central squares. Fighter jets will roar overhead.

Victory Day, when Russians celebrate the 1945 endpoint of what they still call the “great patriotic war”, has gradually become the centrepiece of Vladimir Putin’s concept of Russian identity over his two decades in charge.

This year, as the Russian army’s gruesome assault on Ukraine grinds on, the day has particular resonance, with some expecting a dramatic announcement from Putin, either declaring victory in Ukraine or raising the stakes further.

Across Russia, some families will quietly remember the ancestors who gave their lives in the fight against Nazism, or toast the few veterans still alive. Others will take a more bombastic approach in line with the official messaging, perhaps adding a papier maché turret to their child’s pushchair to make it look like a tank, or daubing “To Berlin” on their cars.

Facebook Twitter People take pictures of tanks driving along a road past a Z sign on a building during Victory Day parade preparations in Moscow. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

A more sinister slogan that has gained popularity on Victory Day in recent years is “We can do it again”.

According to Russian state messaging, this is exactly what Russia has been doing in Ukraine since the full-scale invasion on 24 February. Since the start, the Kremlin has used the language and imagery of the second world war to describe the attack on its neighbour.

Facebook Twitter A Kremlin press office picture of flags waving as Putin speaks at a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on 18 March 2022. Photograph: Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Putin, when launching the invasion, described one of its main goals as the “denazification” of the country. In mid-March, when he addressed a flag-waving crowd at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, banners promised a “world without fascism”. His soldiers often wear the orange-black St George’s ribbon, which has become the symbol both of the second world war victory and of the war in Ukraine.

Many see this talk of “denazification” as pure propaganda. For sure, there have been other convincing explanations offered for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: a fear of Nato expansion, a post-imperial disdain for Ukrainian language and culture, and an isolated leader who spent the Covid pandemic in a bunker pondering his legacy.

But the rhetoric of victory and of fighting Nazis, which has become gradually more twisted over the past two decades, also plays a role.

Of course, it takes a particular mindset to look at Russia’s expansionist war, with the executions, targeting of civilians, filtration camps and harassment of dissidents at home, and come to the conclusion that it is the Ukrainians who are the Nazis.

But already for some years, the victory cult has been referred to by critics as pobedobesie, a derogatory play on the Russian words for victory and obscurantism – “victorymania” is an approximate English translation.

As this pobedobesie metastasised year on year, the phenomenon took on forms that were ever more grotesque: schools put on performances in which the children dressed up as Soviet soldiers; people posing as captured Nazis were paraded through the streets. Ever more opponents of modern Russia were branded as Nazis, neo-Nazis or Nazi accomplices.

Facebook Twitter Red army soldiers raising the soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, on 30 April 1945. Photograph: SVF2/UIG/Getty

Facebook Twitter Red Army soldiers who stormed the Reichstag pose for a group photo in front of the building. Photograph: Alexander Kapustyansky/AP

These days, almost any interview with a Russian official about current events will contain references to the second world war. The foreign ministry tweets about the conflict almost daily. Putin’s influential, hawkish confidant Nikolai Patrushev recently blamed the west for the rise of Hitler, and suggested today’s western world (and their Ukrainian “puppets”) are the true heirs to the Nazis.

“You should not be fooled by Anglo-Saxon respectability. Even a sharply tailored suit cannot hide hatred, anger and inhumanity,” he raged.

Facebook Twitter A Russian national guard soldier with an attached letter Z, which has become a symbol of the Russian military, stands guard during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade. Photograph: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

In modern Russian accounts of the Soviet war effort, inconvenient elements, such as the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 and subsequent carving-up of Europe, or the internal deportation of whole ethnic groups by Stalin’s regime during the war, are quietly ignored.

The image of “Nazis” has also become increasingly blurred. Russian history textbooks talk little about Hitler’s politics, his rise to power, his antisemitism or the Holocaust. Instead, the main characteristic of “Nazis” is that they attacked the Soviet Union.

By this logic, all those who threaten modern Russia are also Nazis.

Facebook Twitter Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin on the 55th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in 2000. Photograph: Antoine Gyori/Corbis/Sygma/Getty

This process has evolved gradually during Putin’s long years in charge. In 2000, Victory Day came just two days after Putin’s inauguration as president for the first time. Addressing a group of veterans, Russia’s new leader explained the importance of the historical victory: “Through you, we got used to being winners. This entered our blood. It was not just responsible for military victories, but will also help our generation in peaceful times, help us to build a strong and flourishing country.”

Facebook Twitter Precision marching by soldiers in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade on 9 May 2000. Photograph: Sergey Chirikov/EPA

There was barely a family in Russia that did not have relatives who fought in the war, and the tremendous losses the Soviet Union suffered in the victory over Germany dwarf the losses of the other allies combined. But the legacy of the war victory and Putin’s talk of being “winners” was also a rare historical bright spot for a population that was traumatised by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic chaos of the 1990s.

Of course, Russia is not the only country trapped in its narratives about the second world war. Britain has a prime minister currently making a transparent and largely unsuccessful effort to channel the spirit of Winston Churchill; the Polish government is working furiously to minimise instances of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

German reluctance to provide Ukraine with weapons has been widely credited to a sense of historical guilt over the country’s Nazi past, and in parts of Ukraine, many people have indeed been unwilling to examine the complicity of Ukrainian nationalists in crimes during the war years.

But both the level of distortion and the pervasiveness of the discourse in Russia are unmatched anywhere else in modern Europe. Gradually, Victory Day has become less about remembering the past and more about projecting the might of Putin’s new Russia. In 2008, the Victory Day parade featured heavy weaponry for the first time since the Soviet collapse. Three months later, Russia invaded Georgia.

Facebook Twitter A resplendently uniformed honour guard stands to attention as a Topol-M ICBM missile passes through Red Square during the parade in May 2008. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

The process was turbo-charged in 2014 when the Russia propaganda machine began to claim it was fighting actual Nazis in Ukraine, focusing on a minority of fighters who did have far-right views.

The tragic deaths of 48 people, mainly pro-Russians, in a fire in Odesa in May 2014 was elevated by Russian television from a crime into a premeditated fascist massacre.

When Sergei Aksyonov, the Kremlin-appointed puppet leader of Crimea, appeared on stage at a rally in Red Square just after the annexation of the peninsula, he wore the orange-black St George’s ribbon on his lapel, rather than the Russian tricolour. He spoke of saving the peninsula from massacres by hypothetical hordes of Ukrainian fascists.

Facebook Twitter Vladimir Putin and Sergei Aksyonov at a rally in Red Square on 18 March 2014, after Putin signed a treaty to officially include Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. Photograph: Sasha Mordovets/Getty

In the absence of other firm ideological underpinnings to the Putin regime, the victory in 1945 and its twin in 2014 became the regime’s raison d’être, with both events marked by the orange-black ribbons.

Victory became Russia’s new religion. In a 2015 interview, the then culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, who is now head of the Russian delegation to the stalled peace negotiations with Ukraine, blasted historians who tried to use archival evidence to prove that certain Soviet war myths were embellished or invented. “We should view them in the same way as saints in the church,” he said.

This concept came to life with the consecration of a vast Cathedral of the Armed Forces outside Moscow two years ago. The cathedral’s interior, at once stunning and sinister, combines military and religious motifs in a series of grand mosaics. Part of the exterior is made from the melted-down metal of captured Nazi tanks. Guides encourage visitors to feel they are trampling fascists underfoot when they enter the building.

Facebook Twitter Fireworks explode over the Cathedral of Russian Armed Forces. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP

Facebook Twitter An interior view of the Cathedral of the Armed Forces before construction was completed. Photograph: Russian Defence Ministry/AFP/Getty

Facebook Twitter The Orthodox cathedral dedicated to the Russian armed forces during its construction. Photograph: Moscow News Agency/Reuters

“Only Russians are capable of sacrificing themselves to save humanity, just like Jesus did,” said an altar server during a tour of the cathedral in 2020.

Next to the cathedral is a brand new second world war museum. A guide named Viktoria moved swiftly through the rooms, talking about Soviet feats and sacrifices. Immersive graphic displays and loud booms created an impressive effect, but the feeling was more akin to being inside a computer game than to an educational experience.

There was an almost total lack of context about both the unsavoury elements of the Stalinist political system, and about the Nazis. The Holocaust was barely mentioned, and when it was, it was lumped in with the general Soviet war effort.

“Hitler wanted to destroy two-thirds of all the Slavs using concentration camps, and the most famous of these was at Auschwitz,” said Viktoria. Asked why there was no specific mention of the Holocaust, she said: “We decided to put it all together, because you shouldn’t separate victims by ethnicity.”

Facebook Twitter A child looking at a second world war tableau in the Victory Museum. Photograph: VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

By this point, the concept of “Nazis” in the Russian discourse had been stripped of all context except for the 1941 attack on the Soviet Union. And with Russian television peddling an endless diet of scare stories about western designs on Russia, it is not a huge leap of the imagination for many to transpose the same narrative on to today’s events.

Ivan Fyodorov, the mayor of the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, said when Russian soldiers kidnapped him in March, some weeks after occupying the city, one of the reasons they gave was that second world war veterans in the city were disrespected and beaten up.

Facebook Twitter Tank-borne infantry taking part in an attack north-west of Stalingrad in December 1942. Photograph: Planet News/Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty

Fyorodov said he tried to explain to his captors that there were currently 34 living veterans in Melitopol, that he knew them all personally, and gathered with them to commemorate both victory and the liberation of Melitopol on 23 October.

“I couldn’t get through to them. They just kept repeating their mantras, they were like zombies,” he said.

If Russia holds a victory parade in the charred ruins of Mariupol on Monday, many watching at home on television may indeed buy into the idea that the city has been “liberated” by Russia from Ukrainian “Nazis” and their American backers. But few outside the country will agree, even among those who were sympathetic to Kremlin messaging before February.

For their part, the Ukrainians have responded to Russia’s cries of “Nazis” by holding up a mirror. Zelenskiy, rather than denying the significance or importance of the Soviet victory, has sought to wrest control of its symbols and legends from the Russians, calling today’s Kremlin “the ideological heirs of the Nazis”.

Through his aggression, Putin has helped create a unified national pride in Ukraine, a country that for three decades had many competing ideas of national identity and history. Now, Ukrainians have rallied around their flag just as many Soviet citizens fought to the death to defend their country even if they had previously had their doubts about their leaders.

Russian soldiers are now widely referred to in Ukraine as Rashisty (a mix of “Russians” and “fascists”). Collaborators who agree to work for the Russians are termed “Gauleiters”, the term for top Nazi officials in occupied areas during the second world war. And Kyiv is filled with posters comparing 1941 and 2022, two years in which the city was attacked by a malevolent external force.

Facebook Twitter People pass an anti-war poster on Khreshatyk Street in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photograph: Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA

Zelenskiy has bestowed the title of “hero city”, a Soviet custom, on places that have offered the most stirring resistance to the Russian assault. A US aid programme has been named “lend-lease”, after the wartime assistance programme to the Soviet Union.

In short, the Russians have become the Nazis in their own narrative.

The claims Russia makes about how it is fighting Nazis in Ukraine become more illogical by the week, as evidenced by this week’s claim by the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that Adolf Hitler had Jewish roots, when asked how Ukraine could be a Nazi state when its president is Jewish.

The foreign ministry then doubled down by releasing a statement detailing “tragic examples of cooperation between Jews and Nazis”, in the process infuriating Israel, which up to this point has been largely neutral in the conflict. Several days later Putin apologised to the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett.

“I have no words … The Russian leadership has forgotten all the lessons of the second world war,” said Zelenskiy, commenting on Lavrov’s words in his nightly video message. “Or perhaps they never learned them.”