Victory Day: Russia’s most controversial celebration

Each country has to deal with its own past: as a matter of fact, the interpretation of history can be a powerful means through which a state or, more specifically, a government, can affirm its role in the international landscape and bring its very own people to a particular conception their own identity.

Victory Day in Cheboksary

This is a lesson that Russian leaders have far too well understood: this is particularly palpable when the celebration of Den’ Pobedy (Victory Day) approaches. Taking place on the 9th of May, this occasion glorifies the victory of the Red Army over the Nazis during the Second World War (in Russian terms, the Great Patriotic War). A solemn military parade is held in each city in Russia and in many countries that were once members of the Soviet Union. Besides this, the focus is on the Bessmertny Polk (the Immortal Regiment) march, in which the inhabitants take to the streets together, each one holding a photo of a relative that fought during WWII, hence recreating a ghost army.

Bessmertny Polk

Being Russia’s most important holiday, Den’ Pobedy is a very peculiar celebration itself. Firstly, this is a solely ex-soviet celebration and, although the same date has been devoted to Europe’s Day as well, the two occurrences come rather separated and, truth be told, this second one is not as strongly supported and enhanced by EU citizens. Furthermore, Victory Day as we know it is a relatively recent “product”: even though the date started being celebrated in the whole country right after the end of the war, it has not always been considered a national holiday in its off-work sense. Moreover, it did not include the huge military parade that characterises it nowadays. As the Bessmertny Polk march, this element has been introduced, and gradually enhanced, after Putin’s rise to power in the latest part of the 90’s.

Den’ Pobedy is hence a rather controversial holiday: from the outside, it might look purely as a demonstration of Russia’s military power and an unnatural way of spurring Russian citizens towards unity. People in Russia have, nevertheless, become fond of this holiday, as it represents a way of honouring the victims of the War, in which this country has had the most significant lost: about 20 million people died because of it. While undoubtedly representing a feature quintessentially linked to a certain post-cold-war dialectic, it holds a strong meaning relating to the preservation of the memory of this country and an obligation that certain Russians might feel to their ancestors. Such as the Remembrance day of the Holocaust for the Jewish community, the Bessmertny Polk is an important way of being linked to the beloved and lost ones that fought for freedom and, most importantly, to pass on the history of this country. In addition, some Russians might feel as if the western community, mainly in relation to recent rifts, diminished their role in the liberation of Europe. Probably, this is why boasting nationalist pride has such a great effect on the country’s population.

On the other hand, the celebration has undergone an injection of pop culture and populist rhetoric that cannot be denied. Walking through the streets of a Russian city during this remembrance might be quite charming for several reasons, but the fact that the main events of the celebration have been strongly commercialised and, in a way, spoiled and deprived of their original meaning is fairly evident. Certain performances taste like holiday resort entertainment, a feeling that collides with the most solemn moments of the whole event. The way young people perceive it is an indicator of its actual relevance as well: a hymn to war and military rhetoric, inviting people to celebrate the army’s power through a widespread ode to weapons and the myth of the homeland.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to scratch just the surface of the populations of Russia. As a matter of fact, we tend to look at Moscow as our only contact point to such a vast country, although the capital has hardly ever reflected the complex landscape of populations, languages and attitudes living in this country. Surely, is up to the Kremlin to determine the relations with the rest of the world and broadly setting domestic policy. The latter is, however, received and translated in many different ways from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok. This is why the Victory Day cannot be simply reduced to a government’s farce, but holds a deeper meaning to many people.

Now that said, Russia still has a problem of addiction to autocracy and Moscow is not making it any easier for students, and younger people in general, to develop a critical thought. As a recent article published by “The Moscow Times” stated, the kids are taught a filtered version of history and school books themselves are highly biased, enforcing a flawed view of the role of the country in the war.

However, in a world where more and more people travel and data exchange through the web is a daily routine, how long could this policy last? This is another challenge for Putin’s Russia. On the other hand, the role the European community and its reaction to these statements are crucial: truth can hardly be found only on one side and a clear refusal concerning a dialogue between the parts could result in a deeper polarisation of opinions.

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