The tanks rumbled into Moscow’s Red Square as they do every year. The goose-stepping soldiers marched past. Vladimir Putin strode out to the rostrum with as much swagger as he could muster to deliver his address. Technically, the Victory Day holiday on 9 May commemorates the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, or as it is better known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War. But the Russian president has turned this event into an annual celebration of his own leadership and a bombastic display of his country’s military strength. This year, however, there was little to cheer.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has stalled, and his troops are taking heavy losses. By some estimates, more of his soldiers have already died in this war, still in its early months, than during the Soviet Union’s decade-long campaign in Afghanistan. While they have gained some ground in the south-east, Russian forces have been pushed back from Ukraine’s two biggest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv. So there was speculation that Putin would use this day to announce a major escalation, such as formally declaring war on Ukraine (he calls the invasion a “special military operation”), or a mass mobilisation of Russian citizens. Instead, he set the stage for a long and grinding war to come, invoking the memory of the Soviet struggle against Hitler to insist that, once again, they are fighting to defend themselves.
“You are fighting for the motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of the Second World War,” Putin told the assembled troops on Red Square. He repeated his familiar, though utterly false, claims that Russia is fighting against “Nazis” who have taken control of Ukraine, where they are plotting to acquire nuclear weapons, aided, of course, by their Western backers such as the United States and Nato. Given these grave threats, Putin explained, Russia had been left with no choice but to carry out a “pre-emptive strike”. In case anyone had any doubts, he reminded his audience that they were the successors of “those who defeated Nazism and entrusted us with being vigilant and doing everything to thwart the horror of another global war”.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of Victory Day in Russia, which has become one of the country’s most important annual holidays since Putin came to power. It is celebrated on 9 May, unlike in many of the Allied nations, which celebrate Victory in Europe Day – VE Day – on 8 May, because the difference in time zones meant it was already the next day in Moscow when the German surrender was signed.
The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin presided over the first Victory Parade in Red Square six weeks later, on 24 June 1945, with front-line troops returning directly from the major European battlefields to march triumphantly through the capital. But the national celebrations were soon scaled down, and then cancelled altogether as the ageing dictator urged his citizens to focus their efforts on rebuilding the Soviet economy instead.
The profile of the war rose and fell over the subsequent decades, but when Putin came to power at the turn of the millennium, nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he began to restore some of the old symbols, such as the national anthem (although with new lyrics). He also seized upon the memory of the Soviet victory in 1945 to rally popular support. Putin has framed his invasion of Ukraine in the language and the symbolism of that war, attempting to justify his unprovoked attack by insisting that now, as then, Russia is fighting a “righteous battle” against Nazism.
But Putin was not the only leader who delivered a Victory Day speech this year. Despite the danger of Russian missile strikes Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, gave his own defiant address from the streets of central Kyiv, reclaiming his country’s role in the Soviet victory. He also pushed back against Putin’s smears, reiterating how many Ukrainians had also given their lives to defeat Hitler. “We will never forget what our ancestors did in the Second World War,” said Zelensky. “Where more than eight million Ukrainians died. And every fifth Ukrainian didn’t return home.” He too compared the current war to that previous conflict, but he drew a very different lesson.
By invading Ukraine, he explained, Russia was “treading on the same rake” that had defeated Nazi Germany. “Every occupier who comes to our land treads on it,” Zelensky said. “We have been through different wars. But they all had the same final [outcome].” Sooner or later, Ukrainians would win, he promised, “because this is our land”. In the future, he vowed, “there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine. And someone will not have even one left. We won then. We will win now, too.”
Both Putin and Zelensky used this anniversary to gird their respective nations for the months, perhaps years, of conflict still to come. They both summoned the memory of the Second World War to insist their cause is just and valiant. But increasingly, this is all Putin has to offer Russians – the endless appeals to history, the ever-darker warnings of the enemies he claims they face, and the prospect of a never-ending fight. By contrast, Zelensky confronts a real, deadly threat to his own and his country’s survival, but he is also able to give his citizens the one thing Putin now cannot: hope of a brighter future.
This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer