On April 10, 2019, at 10 p.m., fireworks lit up the Moscow sky and a gun salute thundered through the city (Vzglyad, April 10). Gun salutes are a traditional way to commemorate important, mostly military-connected Russian holidays, but April 10 was a working Wednesday and not a marked-out holiday. It turned out Moscow was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Odesa from German Nazi troops in April 1944. In the final two years of World War II, victorious Red Army forces marched westward, pushing the Nazis out of Soviet territory and into Eastern Europe. At that time, the liberation of major European cities was joyously marked by massive gun salutes in Moscow: the first of these instances happened on August 5, 1943, with the liberation of Orel and Belgorod in central Russia. These spectacular salutes later became a hallmark of Soviet (Russian) triumphalism, turning into a patriotic state holiday tradition.
Now, the Kremlin is preparing a grandiose celebration on May 9, 2020, the 75th anniversary of Victory Day in Europe (V-E Day is marked on May 8 in most of the rest of the continent). Apparently, to multiply the propaganda effect, President Vladimir Putin’s government decided to expand the festivities by reenacting the Stalinist victory gun salutes of three quarters of a century ago. After Odesa will come another special salute, on May 10, 2019, to celebrate the taking of Sevastopol. Then come salutes on July 3, 2019, to celebrate liberating Minsk, the capital of Belarus; on July 13, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania; on July 28, Brest, Belarus; on August 1, Kaunas (former capital of Lithuania); on August 24, Chisinau, the capital of Moldova; on August 31, Bucharest, the capital of Romania; on September 22, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia; on October 13, Riga, the capital of Latvia; and on October 20, Serbia’s capital Belgrade. The following year, on January 17, 2020, a gun salute in Moscow will commemorate the liberation of Warsaw, the capital of Poland; on February 13, 2020, Budapest, the capital of Hungary; on April 4, 2020, Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia; the Austrian capital of Vienna on April 13, 2020; on May 2, 2020, Berlin, the capital of Germany; and finally, on May 9, 2020, Moscow will resound with a gun salute for the liberation of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic (Militarynews.ru, April 10).
Of course, of all the cities and capitals that Moscow will remember via fireworks and ceremonious guns fired into the sky, only Sevastopol is today “Russian,” although the entire rest of the international community still considers it occupied territory legally belonging to Ukraine. With the exception of Odesa, Vienna, Minsk and Belgrade, the rest are capitals of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, where present-day Russia is presently seen as a threat. And in many of these cities, their liberation from the Nazis 75 years ago by the Red Army, in some cases accompanied by terrible carnage and mass destruction, is seen as a solemn event and not an occasion for massive fireworks displays. Moscow will hardly make many additional friends abroad with its 75th anniversary V-E Day celebrations. But for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, military triumphalism connected to World War II has nonetheless become a national defining and unifying cause—at least in part due to a lack of other viable options.
Russia is ruled by a small corrupt and super-rich elite that is socially and physically as remote from the impoverished populace as the French aristocracy was from the common French subject in 1789. Since 2014, the Russian economy has suffered stagnation five years in a row, and the inflation-corrected average household income has been steadily declining. This decline has not led to serious protests so far, but the resulting growing mass political apathy could suddenly erupt into social and political chaos. According to the independent pollster Levada Tsentr, up to 85 percent of Russians are not interested in “political matters,” which is typical for authoritarian regimes (Levada.ru, April 8). According to the polling firm TsIRKON, Russian society has been atomized into small social groups, with no clear common agenda and few shared values. Some 76 percent believe personal health is a “highly important value,” and 62 percent feel the same way about family happiness; but only 38 percent believe “freedom and independence” are highly important values, with 18 percent willing to say this about “loving the Motherland” (Kommersant, March 27).
Russians, as a whole, are unhappy and increasingly losing hope that their predicament may improve significantly anytime soon. Some 81 percent say that, in response to economic hardships, they will economize by cutting household consumption (Kommersant, April 9). The number of Russians wanting to emigrate has increased from 7 percent in 2014 to about 20 percent in 2018. Within the 15–29 age bracket, some 44 percent want to leave the country (Newsru.com, April 4). Though the escalating discontent is still passive and nonpolitical, President Putin’s ratings have also suffered. According to the Levada Tsentr, if presidential elections happened now, of those who say they would definitely come to vote, some 55 percent would cast a ballot for Putin. A year ago, in a similar poll, around 70 percent said they would vote for Putin; and on March 18, 2018, he was reelected for six more years with 76.9 percent of the popular vote (Kommersant, April 11).
The next presidential elections are scheduled in Russia for 2024, and under current law, Putin cannot run again. Still, the Kremlin may try to invent new ways to keep Putin at the helm indefinitely. Today’s discontent and public frustration in no way directly threaten the political stability of the regime, but the signals are obvious and the Kremlin is reacting. The authorities have forbidden the monthly publication by Rosstat (the government statistical agency) of data on household earnings (Newsru.com, March 19). But gagging the messenger will surely not be enough.
For now, the government hopes to raise militaristic-patriotic fervor via a virtual reenactment of a 75-year-old triumphant westward push by Soviet tanks across Eastern Europe. Most likely, however, the effect will be marginal. Another idea could be to try to frighten the West into making concessions on sanction relief, on Syria, on Ukraine or other outstanding issues. The Kremlin seems to be increasingly relying on a policy of threats, provocations and brinksmanship—a highly effective though risky Cold War–era tactic of military/nuclear blackmail. Yet, to make it work, more will be needed than just reenacting Joseph Stalin’s victorious gun salutes.