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Putin using Victory Day cult as Brezhnev did – to distract attention from failures and the future

Putin speaking in occupied Sevastopol on the anniversary of the WW2 Victory Day to celebrate Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine conducted by his military and special forces two months earlier. May 9, 2014 (Image: kremlin.ru)
Putin speaking in occupied Sevastopol on the anniversary of the WW2 Victory Day to celebrate Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine conducted by his military and special forces two months earlier. May 9, 2014 (Image: kremlin.ru)
Putin using Victory Day cult as Brezhnev did – to distract attention from failures and the future
Edited by: A. N.

’The Great Victory’ is in essence the last emblem of the empire.
Vladimir Putin is using Victory Day for the same reasons Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who made it a public holiday in the first place in 1965 did, to distract the attention of the population from the current failures of the regime as well as from plans and discussions about the future, according to Vadim Shtepa.

Nikita S. Khrushchev in East Berlin, 1963 (Photo: Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-B0628-0015-035)
Nikita S. Khrushchev in East Berlin, 1963 (Photo: Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-B0628-0015-035)

For the first 20 years after the end of World War II, Victory Day was not a public holiday or a major focus of the regime’s attention. That only happened in 1965 when Brezhnev decided that something was necessary to distract the attention of the Soviet people from the fact that his predecessor Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to build communism by 1980 wasn’t going to happen.

As Shtepa puts it, Brezhnev’s message was simple: “There is no need to dream about some future victory of communism” because “we have ALREADY won” as the victors of World War II.

 Leonid Brezhnev in East Berlin, 1967 (Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-F0417-0001-011)
Leonid Brezhnev in East Berlin, 1967 (Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-F0417-0001-011)

What Brezhnev did with the May 9 holiday was to redirect the thinking of the Soviet population: “If in the 1950s and 1960s, [they] were inspired by projects of the future (space, technical achievements, the flourishing of science fiction and the like), now they were redirected to the past and began to measure all current reality in terms of the results of World War II.”

To that end, the Soviet leader made the day itself more important and its celebration more pompous with each passing year, Shtepa says, adding that “it is indicative that during ‘stagnation’ (1965-1985), there were immeasurably more monuments erected, more books written, more films recorded, more songs sung about the war than in all preceding decades.”

With the end of stagnation and the beginning of perestroika, Russians and other Soviet citizens began to focus on the future, and not surprisingly “the cult of ‘the Great Victory’ somewhat weakened.” But with the rise of Putin and the various shortcomings of his rule, “it became pleasant to recall that we all the same were a victor nation and not something else.”

And today, Shtepa continues, “when anything about any reforms or modernization has been forgotten again, ‘the Great Victory’ in general has become the source of meaning for the Russian state.” The return of this cult indeed carries with it several critically important consequences.

  1. Now, “no one even recalls that Russia is one of the post-Soviet countries. It is now acceptable to consider it a direct extension of the USSR which as a result of some historical confusion was reduced in size.” According to the Russian regionalist, ”’The Great Victory’ is in essence the last emblem of the empire.”
  2. There are differences between the way Brezhnev defined Victory Day and the way Putin does: In Brezhnev’s time, the regime talked about „’the struggle for peace’” rather than as now talking about war, a difference that explains why many of the world’s leaders who came in the past will not be there this year.
  3. And in addition, Shtepa points out, in Brezhnev’s times, the Soviet leaders talked about triumphs rather than about losses. Putin in contrast has made it almost a point of pride that the USSR suffered more killed and wounded than any other participant, a very different thing altogether.
  4. Moreover and even more than Brezhnev, Putin insists on a mythologized version of the war that justifies „the neo-imperial line of the Kremlin” and on using it as the occasion for a crackdown on society rather than as an occasion for remembering the sacrifice of those who fought in it.

But this comparison of Brezhnev’s and Putin’s use of Victory Day contains a basis for optimism: „the conservative stage by the logic of history is inevitably replaced by the reformist.” That is something no Victory Day slogans, however much they prompt Russians to forget the present and future by focusing on the past, can succeed in doing forever.

Edited by: A. N.
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