ZOiS Spotlight 17/2020

9 May: Contested remembrance of the war’s end

by Sandra Dahlke 29/04/2020
„Victory Day“ 2019 on Russian-annexed Crimea. © Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Foto

On 16 April, President Vladimir Putin announced on TV that this year’s parade to mark the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, along with regional commemorative events and the Immortal Regiment march, would have to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In his televised address, Putin called 9 May a “sacred date” for Russia and described remembrance of the Soviet victory as a unifying element for the whole of society. Given that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and with an increasing emphasis on patriotism as a central element of the government’s remembrance policy, the decision to postpone was not taken lightly.

The significance of 9 May in the post-Soviet space

In most post-Soviet states, but also in Israel and other countries with a substantial Russian population, Victory Day is replete with significance. With 26-27 million war dead, millions of citizens deported as forced labourers or held as prisoners of war and the country devastated by German occupation, there was barely a family in Russia that did not lose loved ones in the Nazi war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. Alongside New Year, 9 May is Russia’s most important national holiday. It is an official day of remembrance, intended to bolster citizens’ patriotism while also serving to contextualise Russian foreign policy, and it is also an opportunity for family and public celebrations. Although commemorative practices have become increasingly diversified and individualised since the demise of the Soviet Union, governmental, civil society, family and individual commemorations are interwoven and mutually reinforcing. A good example is the Immortal Regiment; launched as an independent initiative by liberal journalists in the city of Tomsk in 2012, it rapidly spread across Russia and other countries with large Russian populations before being appropriated, to a large extent, by the state. Every year, thousands of people, carrying portraits of family members who fought in the war, march through town centres and memorial sites. In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, President Putin attended the Moscow march, holding a photo of his father.

Soviet and Russian commemoration of the end of the war

Official state-sponsored commemorative practices always have an eye to the present. In the Soviet era, the commemorations marking the end of the war therefore served contemporary political exigencies. After Germany formally surrendered shortly before midnight on 8 May 1945, people gathered on the streets of Moscow and other cities in spontaneous celebrations. Leonid Brezhnev made 9 May a national holiday and, in 1965, introduced the military parades and wreath-laying at the grave of the unknown soldier – integral elements of the repertoire of remembrance, by and large, to this day. These events, which foreign guests were invited to attend, were an opportunity for the USSR to show itself off to the world. But they served another purpose as well: by elevating the significance of remembrance and referencing the shared experience of war, Brezhnev’s aim was to integrate all Soviet citizens, including the victims of Stalinist repression, into a common polity. Nevertheless, during the Soviet era, Victory Day parades were held in just three anniversary years: in 1965, 1985 and finally in 1990. It was only from 1995 – the 50th anniversary – onwards, when Boris Yeltsin came to recognise the potential of war remembrance for official government-led policy on historical memory, that they began to be held annually. Against the backdrop of the simmering conflict with Georgia, with its bid for NATO membership, and growing tensions with the US, Russia made a show of its military hardware again in 2008 for the first time since the end of the Soviet era.

Contested narratives

In the international arena, the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine have directly impacted on the response to Russia’s commemorations of the war’s end: almost all the Western heads of state and government made a point of staying away from the 2015 Victory Parade. But commemorative practices in the post-Soviet states also show how, in politically divided societies, historical events are appropriated to serve the interests of contested modern identity politics. For example, since 2015, Ukrainians have celebrated either 8 May as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, or 9 May as Victory Day, according to personal preference. The local differences in commemorating the war’s end starkly reveal the lines of conflict. Some view the Second World War as a struggle for Ukrainian state sovereignty, while others, notably the representatives of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, cast themselves as a bulwark against “fascist occupation”. In Crimea, the official commemorations on 9 May 2015 served as a platform for attempts to legitimise the annexation in historical terms.

The European dimension

The military parade in Red Square on 9 May 2010 featured armed forces from former ally Poland and the post-Soviet republics, including Ukraine, for the first time. This would be unthinkable today. In his article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 21 February this year, historian Alexey Miller criticised the tendency to put all the blame on Russia in what he described as the “sovietisation of crimes”; he also railed against other countries’ shift away from critical appraisal of their own crimes and the increasing nationalisation of remembrance. Miller’s criticism came in response to a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 19 September 2019 on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe. This resolution does indeed seem to focus largely on the historical experiences of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, especially Poland and the Baltic states, which view themselves as victims of German and Soviet warmongering, occupation and Communist dictatorship and now identify a threat to themselves from aggressive Russian foreign policy. At the same time, there is a widespread fear in Russia that the tremendous sacrifice, the loss of life and the defining contribution made by the Soviet Union to the war effort are not properly recognised, and it is this fear that is exploited intensively for the political and military mobilisation of citizens. By contrast, in Western Europe, including West Germany, the circumstances that prevailed during the Cold War and the integration with the West mean that we have grown accustomed to viewing the Normandy landings as the key moment in the Allies’ victory in World War II. On this year’s 75th anniversary, we are witnessing a struggle to control the narrative about how the war was won, with all sides locked in confrontation. Honouring the victims, naming the crimes and recognising the plurality of historical experience and remembrance are much-needed starting points for re-engagement with each another in critical dialogue.

Dr Sandra Dahlke is the Director of the German Historical Institute in Moscow.