Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 92

Yesterday Russia celebrated the 55th anniversary of Victory Day, the official holiday marking Nazi Germany’s capitulation and the end of World War II. President Vladimir Putin presided over a ceremony on Moscow’s Red Square which featured a march by both veterans of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, and units of Russia’s present-day armed forces. As was the case with Putin’s inauguration two days earlier (see the Monitor, May 8), the Victory Day events were a bellwether of growing nationalism, and of Putin’s aim of harnessing and increasing this sentiment to promote his stated goals of political stability and social consolidation.

Like the inauguration ceremony, the official Victory Day embraced Russia’s past, including its Soviet past, while restating the government’s continued commitment to reform and democratic governance. Putin addressed the veterans and active armed forces units from a podium built directly in front of Lenin’s Tomb on Red Square. During such celebrations during the Soviet period, members of the Politburo presided over military parades from atop the sarcophagus itself. In the television coverage of yesterday’s event, which was provided exclusively by a feed from Russian state television, Lenin’s Tomb provided the backdrop for Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who was also on the podium. This could not have been accidental: The event’s organizers, after all, could have built the podium elsewhere on Red Square. It is worth noting that during the 1990s, the Yeltsin administration reportedly gave real consideration to the idea of removing Lenin’s body from Red Square. Given the current emphasis on consolidation and continuity, it is doubtful that the idea of reburying the Soviet founder will arise again in the near future.

On the other hand, Putin was also careful in his Victory Day address to draw distinctions with the Soviet past. Thus while he effusively praised the World War II veterans–certainly an unobjectionable sentiment, and one held by virtually all Russians–he also declared that the victory over Nazi Germany “will help our generation to build a strong and flourishing country, will raise high the Russian banner of democracy and freedom.” “We know that peace first of all consists in economic strength and the well-being of the people,” Putin declared. “The people are the basis of Russia’s domestic and foreign power, its defensive capability and security. We shall pass this vital military secret to our children.” At the same time, the newly inaugurated Russian president made an apparent reference to the current war in Chechnya, calling the 1945 victory “a warning to those who see terror and violence as their main weapon” (Russian agencies, May 9).

Some of Putin’s supporters were explicit in calling the Victory Day celebration as an important step toward consolidating society. Film director Nikita Mikhalkov, who provided commentary on the event for NTV television, praised Putin for restoring the military to an honored place in Russian society. Mikhalkov said he saw Putin’s accession as a victory for “conservatism”–meaning a restoration of respect for traditions and a renewed emphasis on “spiritual” values. Mikhalkov even called for changing the name of Volgograd back to Stalingrad. The director, who is a monarchist, stressed that this should be done not to honor the Soviet dictator, but to honor the Russian soldiers who died in the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, which the Soviet forces won at the cost of a half million troops (NTV, May 9). This comment was another indication of how much the Russian zeitgeist has changed over the last decade, given that in 1994, Mikhalkov directed and starred in the award-winning anti-Stalinist film “Burnt by the Sun.”