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Russia's Day of Remembrance

Ingo Mannteufel (ncy)May 9, 2005

Russians' suffering during WWII was immeasurable. Little wonder then that even today the "Day of Victory" over Nazi-Germany is celebrated lavishly. But the showy symbolism leaves no room for critical assessment.

Russian WWII veterans on the eve of Moscow's pomp-filled celebrationImage: AP

It's become a tradition for Russia to have a huge celebration to commemorate the German army's surrender in 1945 -- on May 9.

Since Stalin's days, the ritual has always been the same: On the "Day of Victory," army units and war veterans parade through Red Square in Moscow. At Lenin's mausoleum, the country's power elite make speeches. But elsewhere in Russia, too, throughout the country the people's grave suffering is commemorated in innumerable memorial ceremonies.

Russia's favorite holiday

During Soviet times, the bombastic May 9 parade wasn't merely an expression of communist propaganda meant to document the superiority of the Soviet system.

60 Jahrestag Kriegsende Moskau
Russian borderguards march during a dress rehearsal of the Victory parade on the outskirts of Moscow.Image: AP

The festivities also met a need the people felt, as war veterans or eyewitnesses who endured the hardships on the home front belonged to nearly every family. Thus, even for postwar generations, there was a private aspect to the anniversary.

Today too, Russians value celebrating the "Day of Victory" extraordinarily highly. After New Year's Day, May 9 is the holiday they most appreciate, polls have shown.

In 2004, around 60 percent of Russians said they actually celebrate the "Day of Victory." More than 70 percent saw it as the most important day of commemoration and wanted it to remain a holiday. In contrast, President Putin was able to abolish the holiday commemorating the Bolshevik takeover on Nov. 17, 1917 in the face of little protest.

Limited historical perspective

But, the enormous symbolic power of the "Day of Victory" and its steadfast rituals keep Russian society from critically analyzing the past.

On the 50th anniversary of the war's end, in 1995, the Poklonnaya Gora memorial was unveiled in Moscow not in commemoration of World War II but, in Soviet tradition, in honor of the "Great Patriotic War 1941-1945." As a result, ignorance and the stereotypical Soviet interpretation of history dominate among a large part of Russian society.

That's the case when it comes to Stalin's support for the German invasion of Poland (the Hitler-Stalin Pact); the brutal occupation of the Baltic countries, Poland and Bessarabia from 1939-1941; the Soviet leadership's gross misjudgment of the German attack on the USSR that led to high losses and thousands of prisoners of war; as well as the horrible suffering that German, Polish, Ukrainian and other civilians experienced during the Red Army's advance towards Berlin.

And it certainly applies to the fact that Soviet soldiers did indeed liberate the Central European countries from the German occupiers, but at the same time, they occupied them and installed Stalinist regimes there.

Soviet victory as a post-Soviet tool

The policies and culture of Russian presidents Yeltsin and Putin also explain the distortion of memory. They rule out any critical analysis in their speeches. On the contrary, they use many Russians' patriotic sensitivities on the "Day of Victory" to appeal for unity among the population. Russian society's social and ethnic strife, the pain of losing the Soviet Empire and threats of terrorism make the victory during World War II into a sustainable political tool.

Thus, since last year, World War II veterans no longer take part in the parade. Instead, army associations, veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya and Emergency Ministry troops parade across Red Square.

60 Jahre Danach - Bildgalerie - Wolgograd 01/20
Highly-decorated Russian war veteransImage: dpa