Putin uses the Soviet defeat of Hitler to show why Russia needs him today
By DAVID FILIPOV | Washington Post | Published: May 8, 2017
MOSCOW — A takeout sushi place offered a Victory Day roll, covered in black and orange roe. Superstores stocked balloons, coffee mugs, T-shirts and flip flops, all decorated in orange and black.
Orange and black - once the colors of the Soviet World War II service medal, now the hues of Russian patriotism - adorned the lapels of TV talk-show hosts, the home pages of news sites and billboards urging people to join Tuesday's celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The Soviet Union lost more than 20 million people in World War II and bore the brunt of the fighting in Europe between 1941 and 1944. Pretty much everyone in Russia has an ancestor who fought or died as a result of the war. And some Russians are turned off by the way the holiday is taking on aspects of a great, orange-and-black celebration.
"This was always a holiday with tears in your eyes, but now the tears are gone, and what's left is naked fun, although there's no reason to have fun with this," journalist and historian Nikolai Svanidze said in a recent interview with the independent TV Rain news site.
But getting people to rally around the orange and black is something that comes straight from the top. The Soviet victory in World War II - called the Great Patriotic War here - is central to Russian President Vladimir Putin's effort to portray his regime as the logical outcome of the country's history.
In the Kremlin's view, saving the world from fascism was not just the Soviet Union's greatest achievement. It also provided the basis for post-Cold War Russia's return as a great world power, as reestablished by Putin, a point underscored by the nuclear missiles that will rumble across Red Square on Tuesday morning and by tanks and other military hardware in parades across Russia.
"War is one of the things that legitimize the Putin regime: It names itself the inheritor of the victory that is sacred for all Russians, and therefore, the government is above all criticism," said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at Carnegie Moscow Center. "If you criticize the government, you are criticizing Russia."
What some in the outside world may describe as Russian adventurism in Syria, occupation in Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin and its news outlets portray as Russia's continuing effort to protect the world from the forces of chaos and fascism. In this view, criticism of Russia today is tantamount to criticizing the Soviet Union for saving the world from evil.
"Over recent years, history has become a target for the large-scale information campaign unleashed against our country and aiming to contain it and weaken its authority on the international stage," Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said at a recent Kremlin meeting.
Soviet leaders also used Victory Day to justify communist rule. They had to leave out some of the ugly parts of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's history, such as the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact that aided Adolf Hitler at the outset of the war, or the Soviets' brutal subjugation of Eastern Europe after the Nazi surrender.
As the communist grip on power began slipping in the late 1980s, those omissions were exposed as Red whitewashing. Under Putin, mentioning Stalin's errors or excesses amounts to "attempts to paint with the same brush Nazi Germany, the aggressor country, and the Soviet Union, whose people bore the brunt of the war and who freed Europe from the fascist plague," as Karasin put it.
The result has been a recent spate of state-subsidized movies that emphasize the heroism of Soviet soldiers and play loose with the facts. But who needs facts? "The facts themselves don't mean too much," wrote Russia's culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky. "If you love your motherland, your people, history, what you will be writing will always be positive."
Being seen as the architect of military victory works wonders for popularity ratings. Putin's hasn't dropped below 80 percent since he annexed Crimea in March 2014. A poll in March 2016 suggested that 71 percent of Russians believe that "whichever mistakes and vices can be attributed to Stalin, the most important thing is that under his leadership, the nation emerged the victor in the Great Patriotic War."
That attitude might have informed the design of a children's version of the World War II-era uniform worn by Stalin's notorious NKVD secret police, which was on sale until a few days ago, when an uproar on the Russian Internet apparently drove it off the market.
Another sign of the patriotic commercialization of Victory Day is the company that, for no more than $20 a pop, can turn a picture of your parent or grandparent or great-grandparent whose life was touched by World War II into a tasteful poster, decorated in orange and black.
These are for the march of the "Immortal Regiment," something that started as a grass-roots effort to remember veterans and those who died in the war. Citizens carried pictures of their loved ones and shared their stories, without the patriotic hoopla.
But the event has been appropriated by Putin's government, and big organized marches are as much a part of the official celebration as tanks and nuclear missiles, along with the fireworks that will light up the skies over Moscow on Tuesday.
Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the St. Petersburg city legislature, recently lamented about how personal symbols of commemoration have been turned into symbols "of state patriotism, not so much of the memory of the war, but of loyalty to the state and the current political course."