On 24 February 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. From the outset, Putin justified this new phase of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine with a mendacious version of history. Be it spurious claims of the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples or that Ukraine is no more than a mistaken creation of Leninist Bolsheviks, Putin is using alternative history to wage a war of aggression and commit atrocities.
In the process of preparing for and justifying this aggression, Putin twisted the national mythology of the Great Patriotic War, the foundation of political Russia, to serve the same type of aggression by which it was forged more than 75 years ago. This has created a situation in which the framing of the war, for Russia, is of existential importance. Should Russia admit to the atrocities it is committing, this would undermine the foundations of the country’s national identity.
The centrality of the Great Patriotic War to Russian identity
The history of the 1941–1945 Great Patriotic War is the main pillar of collective identity in modern Russia. Polling has shown that Russians view their history as the most important component of the way they think about themselves as a people. Within that history, victory in the war ranks overwhelmingly as the event that is most important, of which Russians are proudest, and about which they know the most. Surveys conducted by this author in 2021 show that the centrality of memories of the war cuts across cleavages in Russian society (figure 1).
Figure 1: The centrality of the Great Patriotic War to Russian history and identity
The centrality of Great Patriotic War history to collective Russian identity is due in no small part to the efforts of historian-in-chief Vladimir Putin. Over the past two decades, he has put the full force of the state into creating a purified cult of victory and re-establishing Victory Day on 9 May as a central political resource. Just two days after his first inauguration as president in 2000, Putin celebrated the 55th anniversary of the victory atop Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. At that time, according to the Levada Center, a polling organisation, only 34 per cent of Russians marked Victory Day as one of the country’s three most important holidays. Now, it is widely regarded as the most important holiday on the Russian calendar, with 69 per cent of respondents polled by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre marking it in their top three holidays in 2021.
As the relative importance of Victory Day has grown in Russia over the past two decades, feelings about the victory and the Red Army’s accomplishments have also changed. After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, there was a dramatic spike in the number of people who associated 9 May with joy for the victory rather than sorrow for the millions of casualties. There was also a brief increase in the number of people who linked the victory to the triumph of the ideas of freedom, democracy, and human rights over fascism – a tragic irony given the use of the Great Patriotic War in support of Russia’s ongoing invasion, occupation, and alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
Surveying Russians before and after Victory Day in a quasi-natural experiment allowed for deeper exploration of these trends and the relationship between current events and attitudes towards historical narratives in Russia. For example, since 2014, there has been an upward trend in the percentage of Russian survey respondents who indicate that mass media covers the history of the Great Patriotic War truthfully. Across all political groups, compared with a control sample collected the week before, simply living through Victory Day appears to make Russians, on average, more likely to trust media coverage of the war (figure 2).
Figure 2: Trust in coverage of the Great Patriotic War
Today, as in 2014, Putin’s popularity is skyrocketing as a result of renewed conflict, and most Russians believe that the country is heading in the right direction. These polls indicate that we are likely in for rabidly patriotic commemorations and renewed enthusiasm for the sanitised war narrative on this Victory Day.
Russia trapped on a path to radicalisation
Collective identity, current events, and political communication shape collective memory, and shared memory shapes group identity – a potentially vicious cycle. As both Russia and Ukraine attempt to frame events on today’s battlefield in terms of the Great Patriotic War, new national mythologies are being forged in real time. Ukraine appears poised to emerge from this conflict with a more consolidated national identity based on historical unity and continuity in the face of yet another war of imperial aggression.
Russia, however, appears trapped on a path towards radicalisation. Unable to compromise on historical interpretations and already distinct in their historical memories from former European allies, Russian political leaders continue to escalate, rather than break, the cycle. This trend appears likely to further fuel the domestic media rage spiral and the Russian leadership’s self-fulfilling prophecy of civilisational conflict.
Travis C. Frederick is a PhD candidate in public and international affairs at Princeton University. Currently, he is a guest academic at ZOiS.