The celebration of the 75th anniversary of Victory (always with a capital “v”) in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany was supposed to be the pivotal political moment of the year, marked by an extravagant parade on Red Square and multiple public shows. The arrival of the shockingly severe COVID-19 pandemic derailed these plans, and only symbolic air parades were organized in Moscow and several other cities, weather permitting (Newsru.com, May 9). President Vladimir Putin emerged from his self-isolation to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at the Kremlin wall, and to make a televised address. These curtailed official ceremonies left much empty space for Russians to reflect upon the meaning of this event, sacred for many families but converted by the regime’s pervasive propaganda into a glorified assertion of Russia’s “greatness.”
The triumphalist spin rings strikingly false amidst the fast-escalating pandemic, which domestically adds more than 10,000 new cases of coronavirus infection every day; in terms of total numbers, Russia is now set to overtake Italy and the United Kingdom in the coming days (Vedomosti, May 6). The government’s obvious unpreparedness for an outbreak of such intensity and the helplessness of the corrupt state bureaucracy in organizing proper responses invite analogies not of heroic battles but of the shocking Soviet defeats during the first weeks of the Nazi German invasion, in the summer of 1941 (Moscow Echo, May 8). Illustratively, even the usually subservient Russian media outlets have been daring to publish critical opinions regarding Joseph Stalin’s role in enabling the early German advance as well as his decision to downplay the Victory celebrations during the late 1940s (Lenta.ru, May 8). The somber memories of the war—the enormous human cost of which has never been properly assessed—has, this year, been mixing together with widespread Russian anxieties about the awkwardly enforced, patently ineffectual quarantines and resulting deepening public discontent (Forbes.ru, May 9).
Putin promised to stage another celebration later this year. He clearly wants to stick to the political agenda set at the start of 2020, in which the tightly managed public support for the revisions in the constitution would grant him an indefinite prolongation of his “reign,” while the Victory Day parade would signify his superior status. And now, the eventual “victory” over the evil virus is meant to confirm his omnipotence (Moscow Echo, May 8). This fixation on legitimizing and enshrining his hold on power underscores how out of touch Putin has become with political reality: the present crisis—and his seemingly aloof response and downward relegation of responsibility (see EDM, April 24, May 4)—has left him seriously and perhaps irreparably compromised (Rosbalt, May 8).
Opinion polls show a new dip in Putin’s popularity, even if respondents are understandably reluctant to express disloyal views over the phone. So taking for granted the public readiness to vote for his new presidential term may be a serious mistake (Levada.ru, May 6; Carnegie.ru, May 7). For the majority of Russians, who used to see the state as the ultimate support structure, the bureaucratic eagerness to enforce restrictions and demonstrative rejection of expert suggestions on targeted financial aid to the most affected urban middle classes have come as bitter disappointment (Republic, May 7).
One particular twist to the official tale of the ever-lasting Victory is the idea that Russia, as the “liberator” of Europe, has particular privileges in international affairs and commands moral superiority over states that allegedly sacrificed less in the monumental struggle (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, May 8). This idea underpins the desire to engage in fierce propaganda battles with Central and Eastern European states, which dare to deviate from Russian discourse on the causes and consequences of World War II and even dismantle some monuments to the Soviet army (Russiancouncil.ru, May 8). It also prompts Moscow to sharply condemn any omissions of the decisive role the Soviet Union played in defeating Nazi Germany, as in United States President Donald Trump’s recent message (RIA Novosti, May 9).
More importantly, the narrative on the enormous Soviet effort in bringing the devastating war to Victory is used to fuel militaristic chauvinism and justify huge investments in the military buildup. Putin, thus, found it opportune to take this occasion to confirm that the production and deployment of modern weapons systems would proceed as planned, no matter what (TASS, May 10). Though the parade has been postponed, demonstrations of military muscle continue nonstop. In the Arctic, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov was sent to conduct missile tests in the Barents Sea in order to interfere with a nearby US-UK naval exercise (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 6).
Putin has yet to announce a new date for the postponed parade, but one possibility is September 3, which now officially marks the end of World War II, against the historical fact of Japan’s capitulation the day before but in accordance with the Chinese political calendar (Vedomosti, April 22; see EDM, April 20). China is an increasingly prominent reference point in Russian security discourse, and the escalation of US-Chinese tensions over the COVID-19 pandemic attracts extensive commentary (RBC, April 30). The tone of many expert opinions is cautiously balanced: they reject US accusations that Beijing had abjectly failed to contain the epidemic, while simultaneously suggesting that the malfunction of China’s party-political system slowed the response to the outbreak in Wuhan (Valdaiclub.com, May 5). Mixed opinions also appear regarding the Chinese methods of enforcing lockdowns and about the attempts to imitate those in Moscow, which registers more than a half of all infections in Russia (Kommersant, May 8). Insightful experts are also warning that Russia is in no position to benefit from the unfolding confrontation between the US and China and cannot count on Chinese support in its own unrelenting confrontation with the West (Russiancouncil.ru, May 4).
Such warnings are most probably lost on the Kremlin, which is keen to exploit even the curtailed celebrations to assert Russia’s resilience to grave external threats as well as to reinforce the imperative to unite around the indispensable leadership. Russians are, indeed, forced to tap into their deepest reserves of hardiness and forbearance, but they cannot fail to see the inefficiency, heedlessness and arrogance of their self-serving rulers. As they look at the old photos of their great-grandfathers who delivered the tragic Victory, the question of responsibility for meeting the challenges of today comes to the fore. Raising up and standing tall against oppression and injustice is always a difficult personal choice, but the memory of bitter joy brought by the dawn of peace gives courage.