Letter From the Editors

This week, Russia marked its most high-profile holiday – the May 9 Victory Day. As usual, a parade rolled down Red Square and President Putin welcomed foreign dignitaries and gave a rousing speech. But despite attempts to create a “business as usual” atmosphere, certain changes were rather glaring. First, most of the foreign dignitaries were from post-Soviet countries (the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and the prime minister of Armenia). Secondly, the diminishing ranks of World War II veterans were swelled by “special military operation” participants. Putin addressed them separately: “You are honorably fulfilling your military duty and fighting for Russia. Your families, children and friends are behind you. They are waiting for you. I am sure that you feel their boundless love,” he said. “Everyone is ready to help, they are praying for you.” Izvestia even highlighted veteran Col. Yury Dvoikin, 98, who back in the day “helped eliminate the nationalist underground in western Ukraine.” In the newspaper’s words, “On this Victory Day, the events of the past and the present were in sync.”

That notion was echoed by Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko (who, incidentally, was born in Ukraine): “The events in Ukraine, where power is in the hands of neo-Nazis, and some other states, speaks eloquently to how costly it is to retreat from the spiritual heritage that helped achieve victory in the battle against Nazism.”

She goes on to state: “We see that the light of the Great Victory has not faded. The more time that separates us from May 9, 1945, the more brightly and fully the feat accomplished by the victorious generation is revealed.”

Meanwhile, sociologist Svetlana Stephenson has a much darker interpretation of the ever-continuing victory. Rather than turning into a celebration of peace, of overcoming, of “never again,” the Russian regime has coopted the Soviet people’s victory and turned it into a tool of never-ending war. “We are witnessing ‘the drama of eternal recurrence,’ to use Nietzsche’s expression. Since the victory over evil cannot be conclusive, the people must always be mobilized, always ready for heroic deeds.” This notion also exculpates Russia from any wrongdoing – heroes don’t commit war crimes. “Thus, the progressive meaning of victory as something that paves the way to a better world has long been forgotten,” she concludes.

There is no better illustration of that than the complicated history of Russia’s Immortal Regiment movement, which was conspicuously scrapped by the authorities this year due to “security concerns.” According to Rimma Polyak, the Immortal Regiment was not born as an official government movement: It was thought up by three journalists from Tomsk, who wanted to make Victory Day more personal. Entirely grassroots, the idea of taking to the streets with portraits of family members who fought in the war went viral in Russia – and eventually in other countries as well. The message of the original Immortal Regiment was entirely pacifist, as symbolized by a crane (no doubt an allusion to “The Cranes Are Flying,” a 1957 Soviet film that explores the cruelty of war). According to historian Ivan Kurilla, the original Immortal Regiment celebrated the individual: “When people carried portraits of Politburo members during Soviet demonstrations, it was a celebration of the anonymous masses,” he says. “But when a person comes out to a march with a portrait of their grandfather bearing his name, this is a declaration of self.”

However, the presidential administration soon hopped on the bandwagon, and formed the “Immortal Regiment of Russia.” The “spinoff” movement took on a militaristic tone, turning the whole concept on its head. And yet even a controlled march was too much for the authorities to handle, which is why they cancelled the marches this year. According to Kurilla, “the Russian authorities are afraid of people on the street.” After all, people may show up with photos of family members killed in Ukraine. And then the crane is out of the bag.