History of the “Immortal regiment”
In 2012, Sergei Kolotovkin, Sergei Lapenkov, and Igor Dmitriev, Russian journalists from the TV-2 channel in Tomsk, gave birth to the initiative. The idea was to have regular Russian citizens march with portraits of their relatives who fought in World War II. to honor the memory of relatives who took part in World War II. Proclaimed from the outset to be a non-commercial, non-governmental, non-political initiative, it was a truly grassroots movement in which the Russian society attempted to create an alternative to the Kremlin Victory parades which turned into theatrical performances featuring “veterans” who were much younger than true veterans could physically be.
But starting from 2015, when Russian President Vladimir Putin joined the procession, the initiative went from grassroots to being part of the Russian state historical policy. From that time on, there exist two “Immortal regiments.” One was created by Tomsk journalists as a historical and patriotic movement, the second is the official all-Russian social movement “Immortal regiment of Russia” which was registered on 5 October 2015. It is headed by Russian Duma MP Nikolai Zemtsov. Today, these structures have tense relations, as the state-sponsored movement takes over the grassroots offices and gets rid of inconvenient coordinators. As the journalist-founder Sergei Lapenkov told Dozhd, the movement has become bureaucratized and ritualized: students and employees are forced to attend the processions, and some are handed out portraits to carry, which the participants dispose of after the procession ends.
This year, OVD-info reported that education institutions in Belgorod were given quotas of 150 students to participate in the procession on 9 May, and Ekho Moskvy reported that attendance of the march was made compulsory and students were threatened to have grades lowered if they did not come. Meanwhile, RFE/RL reported that students in Kazan were handed out portraits to carry, and the students didn’t know who the people pictured on them were.
Manipulations of historical memory as an instrument of war
The desire of state officials to appropriate a grassroots historical movement might seem strange to those unfamiliar with the power of the Great Patriotic War myth in Russia’s contemporary imperial policy. In 2015, a conference titled “Usage of the topic of WWII in the Russian political discourse” was held in Paris, in which participants argued that the Soviet “Great Victory” once the cornerstone of the identity of the “Soviet nation,” is being reanimated to not only instill a sense of pride and cohesion around a military leader inside Russia but to justify and power Russia’s war against Ukraine. For this, the perpetuation of historical myths and inaccuracies about World War II are crucial for the Kremlin today – such as tossing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact out of the window, claiming that the USSR was only a victim of aggression, and diminishing the role of the Allied forces in the victory over the Axis powers.
Today, the Great Patriotic War myth in Russia is a major driver of Russian imperialism and the war against Ukraine. Viewers of Russian media are plunged into a black-and-white world where the forces of good – Russian-led and supported militant forces in Donbas – fight against mythical “Ukrainian fascists” in Donbas. Many, like the Kyrgyz mercenary Manas, are persuaded to take up arms and kill Ukrainians defending their country’s territorial integrity in Donbas.
These historical falsifications lead to real death and real suffering. In March 2017, estimates showed that almost 10,000 people were killed in the conflict and over 1.6 people have been forced to leave their homes.
After the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine embarked on a decommunization course which included the introduction of a Day of Reconciliation and Commemoration on 8 May, in line with the European tradition, and a movement away from the Soviet “Great Patriotic War” myth with its “one invincible Soviet People” who can “do it again” to “never again.”
“It’s Kremlin propaganda which is called to instill the thought that we [the Russians and Ukrainians- Ed.] are “one people.” Which is strange after Russia’s occupation of Crimea and bloody events in the Donbas,” wrote Ukrainian journalist Oleksandr Bielokobylskyi.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that the “Great Patriotic War” and its symbols such as the orange-and-black St.George’s ribbon are overwhelmingly recognized as an instrument of Russian aggression in Ukraine, offensive to a nation being attacked by Russia and harboring a myriad of veterans of the ongoing war in Donbas. The portraits of war criminals killing Ukrainians in Donbas which were glorified at processions in Russia only served as proof of Russia’s imperial ideology at play in the marches.
Ukrainian “Immortal Regiments” organized from Russia
On this backdrop, media reports that the “Immortal Regiment” marches are being organized from Russia led to troubling forecasts of clashes and violence, all of which unfortunately came true.
The Russian organization of the processions in Ukraine was obvious from the beginning. VK groups were set up in 13 cities of south-eastern Ukraine and the capital Kyiv, which harbor Russian-speaking populations who are most susceptible to nostalgia for the Soviet Union and its concept of the “invincible Soviet people” and are dismissive of Ukraine’s ongoing struggle for territorial integrity. The standard announcement texts shared in the VK groups were written Russian-style, with the phrase “the procession is approved [by the authorities – Ed].” In Ukraine, the authorities are merely informed of such a procession, no approval is needed. The administrators of the groups are either Russians or Ukrainian figures involved in Russian-backed separatism in Ukraine. One of the sites dedicated to the Immortal regiment in Ukraine was registered in Russia.
All this leads Oleksandr Bielokobylskyi to conclude that the “Immortal regiment” marches in Ukraine are the Trojan regiment of FSB Russia and that their goal is to create propaganda opportunities for Russian media to decry the oppression of “Ukrainian fascists” against the keepers of the “true memory of their ancestors” and generate more enmity inside Ukraine.
Clashes on 9 May. Ukrainian police protect “Immortal regiment”
Victory day in Ukraine was marked with clashes and unrest in many cities with “Immortal regiment” processions. According to the police, 89 people were arrested.
In Kyiv, where the police rated the number of participants of the “Immortal regiment” at 3,000, 20 people were detained in result of clashes. A “Mortal regiment” reminded of communist repressions under Stalin. Participants holding a Ukrainian flag (!) were denied access to the monument together with the “Immortal regiment,” to the point of police arresting participants holding the Ukrainian flag (!!) while protecting the participants of the “Immortal regiment,” some of which were holding portraits of Stalin Pro-Ukrainian activists threw a few smoke grenades into the crowd.
In Odesa, a few clashes took place between pro-Ukrainian activists and participants of the “march.” In Kharkiv, a fight took place during the laying of flowers to the Monument of Glory. Meanwhile, in Dnipro, clashes first took place between veterans of the war in Donbas demanding that local pro-Russian politicians take down political symbols in the Victory parade march and paid thugs who were protecting the latter, after which the police stepped in to protect the thugs. Dnipro’s Chief of Police was sacked following these scuffles, only to be replaced with a no less dubious character.
However, in Mykolayiv representatives of very different worldviews were able to coexist and mark the holiday peacefully. Altogether, the police said that the Victory Day clashes in Ukraine were less intensive than last year.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the “Immortal Regiment” processions an example of sophisticated political speculation on people’s feelings, stating that “Moscow designed the walk not to honor the memory of the dead but to make the dead help Russia’s military expansion in the neighboring countries.” Meanwhile, Ukrainian Parliament Head deputy Iryna Herashchenko said the processions were an element of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine, designed so that Ukrainians would continue living by quarrels about their history instead of uniting around their historical responsibility.
Resistance to “Immortal Regiment” marches
Some “Immortal Regiment” marches held around the world were met with resistance. In Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, some people brought Sovietized-portraits of figures from the American fantasy drama television series “Game of Thrones;” in Prague, Czech Republic, a handful of people reminded participants of the procession of the damage Communist ideology has caused to the Czechs.
In Boston, USA, activists had succeeded in implanting a Putin carrying a portrait of Stalin into the march, all unnoticed.
Altogether, in the “Immortal Regiment” marches, the Kremlin has demonstrated its ability to hijack and simulate genuine grassroots movements to further its policies, as well as exacerbate existing divisions in Ukraine to generate unrest. Nevertheless, Ukrainian society has demonstrated its resilience to these tactics and a capability for dialogue. Thus far, each May 9 after 2014 served as a polygon for the clash of different World War II historical memories which escalated after Ukraine proclaimed its course towards decommunization.