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Russia's post-'Victory' era

Man looks into camera wearing a sport coat and button shirt with collar up
Ivan Preobrazhensky
May 8, 2022

The invasion of Ukraine is a blow to the memory of the Soviet Union's victory in World War II. It marks the start of a new era of Russia — and a future that looks very far from rosy, Ivan Preobrazhensky writes.

Women in Ukraine flag take selfies near installation depicting Putin with gun in his mouth
With the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has become the face of post-Soviet aggressionImage: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/picture alliance

Bombs falling on Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa: a duplicitous attack with no declaration of war. In the past, when we heard words like these, we knew they were a reference to Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union — the start of the "Great Patriotic War," as World War II is called in Russia.

The war divided time into "before" and "after." For decades, no further explanation was required. If someone said "after the war," everybody knew that they meant "after 1945."

But, since February, another war has divided the past from the present — a war in which Russia has become the aggressor.

Ivan Preobrazhensky looks into camera wearing a sports coat and white button-up shirt
Ivan Preobrazhensky is a political analyst specializing in Central and Eastern Europe and a columnist for various media outletsImage: Peter Steinmetz/DW

Until February, the memory of the victory in World War II was the bedrock of Russian identity. Every survey and study from the late 1990s onward has demonstrated the importance of this victory in the Russian public consciousness. It was no coincidence that the Putin regime turned the memory of that victory into the most important unifying narrative binding Russian society together. It was made into a kind of secular religion, and embraced by the majority of Russian people.

The sacrifices made in World War II are commemorated by the "Immortal Regiment" initiative. This was initially an idea that came out of Russian society, as an alternative to the state's pathos of victory and slogans such as "we can do it again." However, state propaganda quickly co-opted the civic initiative — just as it did the Ribbon of St. George. Originally a military decoration in the Russian Empire, the ribbon was subsequently reintroduced in the Soviet Union under a different name. In Russia today, it is the most important symbol of remembrance of the victory over Nazi Germany. In this, too, Russian society went along with Kremlin propaganda. But, in February, Putin himself took a wrecking ball to this pillar of identity.

Russian troops in Ukraine are now not only shelling Kharkiv and Odesa — they are storming Mykolaiv and occupying Kherson. They are dropping bombs around the Holocaust memorial site of Babyn Yar in Kyiv, and firing in fear at tanks that still stand on pedestals in Ukrainian cities in memory of World War II. That "Great Victory" is not the only thing that has come into their crosshairs: It is a tank assault, both metaphorically on the memory of the veterans of World War II, as well as literally on actual surviving veterans, the witnesses to the fight against the Nazis who now cannot leave their apartments and houses because they are under Russian bombardment.

Saving Ukraine's cultural heritage from destruction

Putin's 'Imperial Russia'

However Russian President Vladimir Putin's war of aggression ends — if it doesn't end in an nuclear strike — Ukrainians, as well as Russians who oppose the invasion, now have a war of their own: the "Great Ukrainian Patriotic War," as it is already being called. This war will now divide history for generations into "before" and "after."

It, and not some other conflict, such as the war against Georgia in 2008, or the 2014 annexation of Crimea, will mark the end not only of the post-Soviet period of history, but of the "post-Soviet region" itself. Now, there is "Imperial Russia" and the countries that succeeded at breaking free of it. Russia, however, which was able to preserve its image as the "most important democracy" in the post-Soviet region thanks to the defeat of the attempted coup d'etat in Moscow in 1991, has now definitively become a "prison of peoples," as the Soviet Union was once called.

The changes will not immediately be felt by all. A new era began in Ukraine in February, but many Russians are still, like ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand. Yet Russians, too, are on the threshold of a "new era" — one that will inevitably hit them hard: with the Western sanctions and Russia's countersanctions, which also affect its own people; with the inevitable rise in food prices because of the failure to sow crops in southern Russia and Ukraine; with a lack of goods and galloping inflation, the consequences of isolation. And, if the Russian people should be displeased with all this and take to the streets in protest, the police and national guard will be waiting for them.

Putin's new Russia

Russians finally have their "new Russia of the future," but it looks far from rosy. It is now apparent that Putin had a clear vision for the country. He did not, however, divulge it over all these years because most people would definitely not have liked this option — and might have rebelled against it.

Now, the majority find themselves in a country that bears no resemblance to the one they knew: with military censorship and cut off from the rest of the world. The bedrock of Russian national identity, the victory over fascism, has been shot to pieces by the rocket launchers shelling Kharkiv. Russia is heading for societal conflict, and Putin has broken the final dam.

Either there will now be mass purges of dissidents, or the societal conflict will descend into civil war — if, that is, pacifists and opponents of war are able to resist at all. The situation is in Ukraine is very different. It has never been as united as since the start of the Great Ukrainian Patriotic War, no matter how the war eventually ends.

This commentary was originally written in Russian.