On 9 May 2015, Russia celebrated its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with a colossal victory parade. While this was an important milestone for Russia and indeed the rest of the world, the victory celebration passed over some highly uncomfortable truths.
The parade was, on one hand, an unabashed celebration of militarism, designed to make Russians feel that their country is strong again and a match for any adversary. As under the communists, the defeat of Hitler remains for Putin’s Russia a defining achievement in the country’s contemporary history. At the same time, the parade saw an outpouring of heartfelt solidarity and sympathy with those who suffered and gave their lives in this war – military and civilians alike.
The parade was a colossal affair. The march was led by 16,000 representatives of Russia’s security sector – regular armed forces sporting Russia’s latest tank, the T-14 Armata, as well as the newly developed RS-24 Yars nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile launcher, soldiers of the Ministry of Interior, border guards, civil defence units, special forces subordinated to Russia’s military intelligence, and Cossack paramilitary forces. Almost anybody who is anybody in Russia’s mammoth security sector was on display, the only significant exception being the FSB, the KGB successor organisation where President Putin won his spurs. But this is line with their traditional reluctance to assume an overtly public role, not withstanding their traditional capacity to shape decisions on what to do next, when, to whom and just how…until perhaps recently that is, as the Nemtsov assassination has raised all sorts of issues about the relations between Russia’s security sector and those of Chechnya, and how they relate to the Russian President – but this is the subject of another blog perhaps…
Beyond the military dimension
The victory parade was far from being solely a military affair. In Moscow, three hundred thousand civilians marched as well, many of them holding photos and other memorabilia of family members who perished in the war. Twelve million people all over Russia joined in this activity. In the coverage I saw on Russian TV, countless young people were saluting the sacrifice of grandparents and great-grandparents that they had never known.
The Great Patriotic War, as World War II is called in Russia, was undoubtedly a resounding victory for Moscow. But this was also a war that the then Soviet Union could not have won without its Western allies nor the latter without the Soviet Union, certainly not by 1945 and without many more casualties than the horrendous tally of the estimated sixty million military and civilian deaths that this global conflict took in its wake.
There are many interconnected stories in this narrative. Here’s just one. I married into a Russian family. My son is the first in his line of four generations not to have served in the Russian military. His mother, my wife, wore both the Soviet and the Russian military uniforms, for the most part proudly. My son’s grandfather spent most of the war as a prisoner of war in Austria. My son’s great-grandfather dedicated his career to managing the finances of the Red Army. In 1941, as Hitler’s army advanced, my son’s grandmother and great-grandmother, both with Jewish roots – which they had to take pains to conceal in the then USSR, took the last train out of Odessa heading for Russia. Several other family members perished in Odessa under the boots of the Wehrmacht. Millions of Russian families have been through something similar.
So, I would be the last person to call into question the legitimacy of Russia’s continuing to honour those that served and the huge sacrifices that the Soviet population paid in the process.
Uncomfortable truths and Russia’s use and its misuse of the WWII Victory
That said, the victory has been misused by successive Soviet and Russian governments to conceal a series of uncomfortable truths. For Russia, World War II began in September 1941 when Hitler’s armies invaded Soviet-held Poland and the three Baltic states, territories the USSR had occupied two years before when it concluded with Hitler Germany a non-aggression pact that would set the stage for the two powers attempting to divide and spoil Europe. This Hitler – Stalin Non-Aggression Pact had several repercussions.
First, it facilitated the march to global conflict. It gave both the Soviet Union and Germany time to prepare for the war that was sure to come. As early as 1929, Stalin had gone on record as saying that the Soviet Union faced an existential threat from the West. At the same time, it gave Hitler time to get ready for the conflict that he would unleash, first to Germany’s west in 1939, and then to its east as of 1941.
Second, Ukraine and Belarus suffered as much if not more in this war than Russia. Research into the Soviet archives that became accessible in the 1990s confirms that then Soviet-controlled Ukraine and Belarus bore the lion’s share of the fighting and the resulting casualties. The two countries are estimated to have lost over twenty percent of their populations in the war.
The last point is that the Hitler-Stalin Pact paved the way for the imposition of communist regimes throughout Central, Eastern and Southern Europe – in defiance of any kind of sense of popular sovereignty. These regimes prevailed for over two generations. Public opinion was silenced, dissidents came to know the terror of camps, travel outside the bloc was restricted – all this under a communist party rule that was brutally absolute even as other variables conspired to dig its grave.
These are all issues that have been passed over in Putin’s glorification of the Great Patriotic War and his effort to monopolise it as a mainly Russian experience. For NATO Allies, this should be heard as the fading chirp of the canary in the mine. As long as Putin’s or any succeeding Russian elite fails to address its history openly and honestly, there will be an ever present threat that Moscow will misuse the strategic accomplishments of World War II in an effort to avenge reputed past wrongs and to embark on new ones.