Under President Vladimir Putin’s rule, the annual May 9 grand military parade on Red Square in Moscow has transformed into the main ideological prop to legitimize his regime. Changes have already been made to the Russian constitution and additional legislation is being introduced making it a felony to publicly question or rewrite the official version of the events of World War II (Interfax, May 5). According to Putin, continued efforts to alter the history of World War II are being sponsored by the West (the United States), “who, after the end of the Cold War, believed they won and want to overturn the post-war global order and, for that, need to rewrite history.” The Kremlin leader has asserted the existence of “new collaborators” who, like those collaborating during the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War against the Nazis, are today abetting the West in undermining the Soviet-era legacy of heroism and sacrifice (Interfax, September 1, 2020).
Until the mid-1980s, Russian rulers tended to all be World War II veterans, and the narrative of Soviet war-time heroism was an important element of the Communist country’s agitprop. Still, May 9 was more of an unofficial day for veterans to gather together in Moscow in the Bolshoi Theater Square, in the Leninskiye Gory park, overlooking the capital, or in Gorky Park. The grand parade of victorious troops on June 24, 1945, in Moscow, after Nazi Germany’s capitulation, was a onetime event. From 1945 to 1991 there were only three May 9 Victory Day military parades in Moscow’s Red Square: in 1965, 1985 and 1990. The US, the United Kingdom and others had been allies of the Soviet Union in the later years of World War II, but during the Cold War, the ideological standoff and bloody proxy conflicts around the globe turned the former friends into Moscow’s adversaries. World War II history was heavily rewritten in the Soviet period to undermine the Western war-time efforts, achievements and intentions—Victory in Europe (VE) Day, thus, muddled those Soviet propaganda narratives. In Soviet times, the main annual military parade was instead held each November 7—the anniversary of the “Great October Socialist Revolution.” These yearly grandiose displays of military might were mostly designed to impress Western Cold War opponents and send the ideologically right message about the inevitable liberation of the world from capitalist oppression.
The last Soviet military parade was in November 1990. As the Soviet Union and Communist rule collapsed, traditional public displays of militarism became unpopular. But in 1995, then-president Boris Yeltsin used the 50th anniversary VE Day to restore military parades in Moscow, precisely to ingratiate democratic Russia with its former Western allies. And it worked: On May 9, 1995, world leaders, led by then–US President Bill Clinton, flocked to Moscow for the event, despite the ongoing bloody and unsuccessful Russian war in Chechnya, which the West had strongly condemned. Since then, the magnitude and scope of the May 9 military parades expended, turning them (under Putin’s long rule since 2000) into Soviet-style spectacles, with tanks, guns and various conventional and strategic weapons, including land-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). At first, small military contingents from World War II allied countries, including Western ones, would also be invited to march alongside Russian troops on Red Square. But this changed after 2014, following Russia’s forced annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, the war in Donbas and the imposition of sanctions: Western participation quickly dwindled and the number of foreign leaders ready to stand next to Putin each May 9, dramatically diminished.
As Putin’s Russia became increasingly isolated and its confrontation with the West deepened, the May 9 anniversary transformed into a mostly internal PR event, promoting Russian military strength and historical glory but at the same time demonstrating defiance, deterrence and readiness to take on the West. In 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the authorities planned a super extravaganza; but it had to be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Putin’s parade was rescheduled for June 24, 2020, and the display of military might in Moscow and many other Russian cities was impressive; but it was a somber occasion, with few or no spectators present. On June 24, Muscovites were encouraged to stay at home and watch the parades on TV (Newsru.com, June 19, 2020).
This year, Putin’s victory parade happened on time, on May 9, despite the continued spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Russia. Putin has been vaccinated and much more active publicly in recent months, but his only foreign guest at the parade on Red Square was Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon. The Central Asian leader apparently came to Moscow seeking security assurances and military aid because of fears that the speedy US withdrawal from Afghanistan could threaten a new spillover of Islamist threats into Tajikistan. The parade in 2021 mirrored those of previous years, with practically no new weapons displayed. Reportedly, the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN) used a total of 180 kilograms of black and 120 kilograms of green paint to color the three Yars mobile ICBMs that took part in the Red Square exhibition (Militarynews.ru, May 2).
The only newsworthy item was Putin’s traditionally short speech ahead of the parade. The president insisted the “Soviet people” or nation (Sovietsky narod) defeated the Nazis singlehandedly. In a preliminary draft version of the remarks, posted by the Kremlin’s website, Putin was apparently planning to say: “The Soviet people were united (or “edin” in Russian) in the decisive battles and during the harshest times of war.” But instead, he said: “odin” which in Russian sounds almost the same, but means something absolutely different: The Soviet people were “alone” while fighting the Nazis, seemingly denying that the British, Americans and others did anything worth mentioning. Putin also called out “mass gatherings of surviving (nedobitye or un-killed) Nazi killer squad members and their followers who are today rewriting history” (Kremlin.ru, May 9).
Most likely, there are some nedobitye Nazis still alive, but they would today be about 100 years old and hardly capable of plotting anything destructive anymore. The Soviet Union had millions of subjects of various national identities, but it is questionable to suggest that a “Soviet narod” actually existed; and even if it did, it surely dissolved almost without trace in 1991, together with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Still, Putin stubbornly digs himself deeper and deeper into the Soviet past—an alarming endeavor for the institutionally unrestrained leader of a nuclear superpower to indulge in.