ZOiS Spotlight 18/2019

The present and future of post-Soviet war commemoration

by Mischa Gabowitsch 08/05/2019
Commemorative march of the "Immortal Regiment" in Tambov, Russia ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Foto

In 2019, as in previous years, millions of people will celebrate 9 May as Victory Day to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. This year’s festivities will be a rehearsal for the 75th anniversary next year, likely to be the biggest in the day’s history. However, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Victory Day is already the most widely observed military commemoration in the world today.

In the run-up to 9 May, the remembrance of Soviet victory is dominating public life in Russia, following a well-established pattern. News coverage of the anniversary is no less predictable. In the West, there will be ample reporting on central events such as the military parade on Red Square on 9 May. There will be reminders of pivotal episodes of the Nazi-Soviet war, such as the siege of Leningrad and the battles of Stalingrad and Berlin, and accounts of how they are being commemorated today. Inevitably, there will be observations on the crucial role of war memory for Russian national identity, and discussions of how that memory is being manipulated by the current political regime. In Russian online media, liberal authors will focus on some of the bizarre excesses of the festivities: fake war veterans, children made to wear Red Army uniforms, commemorative symbols used to advertise strip clubs or vodka brands. There will be much talk about how Russians have been brainwashed (and might now be coerced by punitive measures) into accepting a triumphalist narrative of the war, resulting in an inability to mourn the victims or face up to the crimes of the Soviet regime, and in continuing displays of aggression towards neighbouring countries. Conservative commentators, reaching a much wider audience, will angrily reject these allegations, branding the liberals as traitors bent on desecrating and falsifying the memory of the most monumental event in human history.

Victory Day in Russia and beyond

As in previous years, many important dimensions of war commemoration will get lost in these debates on manipulation and Russian national pride. For one thing, Victory Day is much more than a parade. Virtually every town and village in Russia is organising celebrations, often around the ubiquitous war memorials. While many of these are planned by state institutions or carry an official stamp of approval, local organisers are typically active in organisations such as volunteer search units looking for unburied war dead, re-enactment clubs, local history associations or other commemorative groups. Often dismissed by critics as foot soldiers of the regime or co-opted by the administration into a narrative of patriotism, these groups are in fact highly diverse in character. They range from organisations that are fully integrated into the state apparatus to grassroots initiatives that see themselves as patriotic but may well clash with the state on issues ranging from the upkeep of military cemeteries to the freedom of assembly.

The very omnipresence of war commemoration in Russia means that many present-day conflicts—from Russia’s interventions in international politics to social hierarchies in remote villages—are articulated in the form of references to the war. In addition, the Russian state itself is far from monolithic, and state-sponsored initiatives cover a range from generic patriotism via an emphasis on military traditions all the way to Holocaust commemoration.

Moreover, few outside observers appreciate the extent to which the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany is now being celebrated by communities outside Russia, both in some former Soviet republics and as far afield as Berlin, Tel Aviv and Seattle. These celebrations are often written off by critics as stage-managed displays of a pro-Russian political attitude, or welcomed by Russian officials as healthy expressions of genuine gratitude. Both reactions gloss over the diverse motivations of local participants—mostly but by no means exclusively Russian speakers turned into expatriates by emigration or the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Victory Day remains a public holiday in all post-Soviet republics except the Baltic states, although its precise status varies: with the restoration of religious feasts and the introduction of new commemorative dates relating to each state’s national history, 9 May has in many cases slipped from its position at the pinnacle of the annual holiday cycle. Still, it remains important across the former Soviet Union. Even in Ukraine, where attempts have been made to establish 8 May as a more Europeanised date of remembrance, a 2017 poll found 82% still seeing Victory Day as a “highly symbolic” date. Its name has changed in some countries, and almost everywhere the celebrations are nationalised, featuring new commemorative symbols, sometimes deliberately introduced to counter the black-and-orange St George’s Ribbon, introduced in 2005 and perceived as a token of Russian influence. The joint Soviet war effort is always mentioned but each nation’s own heroes take pride of place. Once again, this is much more than just state policy. Thus in 2012 the Kazakh political scientist Kazbek Beysebaev created a Facebook group where users from Kazakhstan could post photos and stories about their grandparents’ involvement in the war, resulting in a book published three years later.

Stories about grandparents

In general, interest in family history is the defining feature of much recent commemorative activity around Victory Day. Most local organisers belong to the grandchildren’s generation, and like their peers from other world regions, they often take much more of an interest in their (often deceased) grandparents’ stories than their parents did. Beyond the public celebrations, Victory Day has long been an occasion for intergenerational family gatherings in private settings. In recent years these have been supplemented by public activities. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the freedom of movement has allowed family members to visit places where their loved ones fought and died. The Internet has made it possible to share stories, and a huge database sponsored by the Ministry of Defence made previously classified archival material about soldiers who died or went missing available on a massive scale. As a result, post-Soviet war commemoration has experienced a shift familiar from other countries—from individualisation in the form of long lists of names to personalisation in the form of sharing stories about particular people.

The most striking expression of this tendency is the Immortal Regiment. Launched in 2012 by a group of liberal Tomsk TV journalists critical of what they saw as overly state-centred commemoration, this is a decentralised initiative to organise commemorative marches with portraits of relatives who fought in the war, supplemented with a website that allows people to tell the stories of those relatives. With hundreds of thousands of participants each year and offshoots from Oslo to Sydney, the Immortal Regiment is possibly the largest social movement in the post-Soviet world today. Despite attempts by the Russian state to hijack the Immortal Regiment by supporting an alternative movement with a similar name and more centralised organisation, it remains a grassroots initiative in most places, and the two movements have recently made an attempt to reconcile.

The Future of Victory Day

What will happen to Victory Day after the inevitable crescendo of 2020?

Given the significant symbolic resources the Russian state has been investing in war commemoration, many assume that the day will retain its current significance indefinitely, at least in Russia. However, Victory Day has never been a purely top-down event. It only works as a source of legitimacy and display of patriotism as long as enough people are willing to participate in the celebrations and associate pride in the USSR’s victory with supporting the Russian state—something that many both inside and outside Russia have already stopped doing.

Mischa Gabowitsch, historian and sociologist, is a researcher at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. He has co-directed two major international research projects on the ethnography of Victory Day celebrations, and is currently writing a book on Victory Day and a history of Soviet war memorials.