Victory Day in Russia was celebrated with especially great pomp this past May 9. An estimated 1.5 million people participated in marches across the country. The anniversary had some distinct novelties this year, such as the Bessmertny Polk (Immortal Regiment), which featured people marching with portraits of World War II veterans who, according to Russian media reports, were their relatives. However, the sincerity of these marches was undermined by reports that the portraits of veterans were subsequently dumped on the streets by officials in an effort to shore up the image of a new generation of Russian citizens celebrating the World War II heroics of their relatives. Observers said that even though government propaganda presented the marches as relatives of the veterans in the portraits, in reality the events were staged and random people were carrying random replicas of old photographs given out at the demonstrations (TV-Rain, May 14).
The Bessmertny Polk may have been designed to demonstrate the unity of President Vladimir Putin with the Russian people. Putin himself displayed a portrait of his father, despite the fact that there are multiple questions about his father that have not been properly answered, since much of the history of Putin’s family is shrouded in mystery (Newsbabr.com, May 12).
The authorities in the North Caucasian republics did not remain on the sidelines of this celebration: indeed, the regional governors have become quite adept at predicting and responding to what the central government in Moscow wants them to do. Some 1,500 people carrying portraits of veterans marched in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, which also hosted the largest military parade in its history. A military parade also took place in Ingushetia’s capital Magas. Military parades and concerts were held in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia (Stav.kp.ru, May 10).
However, the most inventive public show was staged in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Actors reenacted the storming and seizure of the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. The spectacle was significantly modernized and adapted to current political realities, with the flags of the defeated Nazi Germany thrown to the feet of Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of Chechnya (Newsru.com, May 9). Kadyrov proclaimed via his Instagram account the seizure of the Reichstag and warned that anyone “who encroaches on the freedom and independence of our Motherland, Russia,” would meet the same fate (Instagram, May 9). The splendor of the military parade in Grozny was such that the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in Stavropol mistook Chechnya for a state with its own air force, rapturously reporting that “for the first time the air force of the republic [of Chechnya] took part in the Victory Day parade in the Chechen Republic” (Stav.kp.ru, May 10).
The 70th anniversary of the victory over Germany also revived discussion about the legacy of the war. Even before World War II was over, Joseph Stalin’s government had deported Karachays, Balkars, Chechens and Ingush en masse to remote areas in Central Asia, as punishment for “collaboration” with the Germans. Chechnya and Ingushetia were not even occupied by the Germans, but the entire groups were nonetheless sent into exile. The reality was that many North Caucasians were unhappy with Soviet rule by the time Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and some saw the Germans as liberators. The policy of collective punishment of entire groups was revoked after Stalin’s death, and most North Caucasians were allowed to return home. However, those events still have strong reverberations because the deported groups have unsettled scores with their neighbors—fellow North Caucasians who were often allowed to take the property and land of their less fortunate neighbors who were deported.
Despite the fact that nearly three quarters of a century have passed since the end of WWII, arguments in the North Caucasus over the exile of entire groups still runs quite hot. In the current environment of patriotic fervor in Russia, being a “traitor” nation is highly unprofitable and even dangerous, so the exiled groups try to beef up their credentials as protectors of the fatherland. Those who were not exiled try to accuse those who were exiled of being somewhat less loyal citizens of Russia. At the same time, both Russian and foreign historians say that the Soviet government distrusted all the North Caucasians. In 1941–1942, the Kremlin issued several secret decrees that limited the drafting of all North Caucasians. From 1943 to 1944, the government specifically targeted the Balkars, Karachays, Chechens and Ingush, practically halting the military draft among these groups and simultaneously making plans to send them into exile. According to government data, Soviet agents suffered their greatest losses in the small Karachay republic in 1943 (the Karachays at the time had their own autonomous republic), with 60 agents of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) killed and 55 injured. In the Checheno-Ingushetia autonomous republic, 45 Soviet government agents were killed and 29 wounded. In Kabardino-Balkaria, 18 agents were killed and 42 injured. Even in predominantly ethnic-Russian Krasnodar region, 14 NKVD agents were killed and eight injured during the same period (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 9).
The history of WWII in the North Caucasus remains a surprisingly sensitive topic to this day. Since the question is highly politicized, the government is prompted to create yet another contradictory version of history that emphasizes the unity of the people of Russia, even if such unity did not exist.