I watched Russian TV on Victory Day with mixed feelings – because the coverage itself was mixed. The best part of it was actually the strictly official one – at least one got what one expected, with quite a decent brief address by President Medvedev and the inevitable march past, roll on past and fly past by the Russian Army and Air Force.
At 7 pm a traditional minute of silence on major Russian TV and radio networks added a sincerely solemn element to the day. The worst part of it was, frankly, most of the rest: modern day war films, full of special effects but lacking in substance or soul, pop-concerts with recycled wartime songs, rendered meaningless, and lots more which had a lot to do with the adoration of state authority and little - with remembrance and grief.
A non-stop marathon of 1940s newsreels, run with no commentary or counterbalance on Russia’s elitist (and state-owned) “Culture” channel was particularly appalling. Stalin, Beria, Molotov and other butchers featured prominently. Can you imagine ARD or ZDF broadcasting hours of Nazi “Deutsche Wochenschau” newsreels, with Hitler and Co strutting parade grounds?
For post-Communist Russia, VE-Day is the only date in its historic calendar which people seem to agree on. Or at least, so the sociologists tell us. But even this is a precarious agreement. Because at the same time no other date generates as much controversy as May 9th. On it Stalin and the Communist regime cast a long and ominous shadow over Russia’s past – and, sadly, its future.
Firstly, Russia celebrates the secondary German surrender, which was staged at the insistence of the Soviet dictator. He had a big problem with the Germans capitulating a day earlier in Rheims to the Western allies and he had the power to insist on his demand.
Secondly, the Soviet era insistence that for the USSR the war started on June 22nd 1941 overlooks the fact that Stalin’s regime was actively participating in the Second World War since at least its invasion of Poland on September 17th 1939. Stalin’s shameful alliance with the Nazis is something that is still defended by many in Russia as a strategic necessity. However, it is a very inconvenient truth to deal with for the public.
Thirdly, the cost of war and its consequences, leading to the hardening of domestic repression in the Soviet Union, and bringing new, Communist, occupation to Central European and the Baltiс states is another contentious area for Russia’s historical memory.
One may argue that the allies too have a few unpleasant things to account for. For instance, pre-war appeasement, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bombing of Dresden. The latter two in modern times would have been designated war crimes. Twice occupied Central Europeans and the Balts also have their undeniable share of blame for participating in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours.
But only in Russia’s tragic case, victory in the war served, and, for many Russians, continues to serve as justification for a murderous political regime that no longer exists. Triumph and tragedy, liberation and enslavement, selfless sacrifice and cynical geopolitical games are inextricably linked in this unique moral conundrum. Heated debates in the media about VE-Day prove this – it has become a pivotal date for the country as such, on which its new identity will be made or broken.
A timid suggestion of a de-Stalinization programme by the Presidential Council on Human Rights met with a fierce opposition. For a large section of Russia’s public opinion and politicians, debunking the Soviet myths means undermining their own vision of the new Russia – isolationist, undemocratic, xenophobic, and ultimately, devoid of a moral compass.
The longer Soviet era clichés remain untouchable the more VE-Day will be not so much a day of remembrance and gratitude but a date to celebrate military conquest and nurture national complexes.
One last impression: gangs of drunk youths wearing St. George ribbons – Russia’s equivalent of the Commonwealth poppy, worn to commemorate the veterans – shouting from the Moscow panoramic observation ground on Sparrow Hills: “F**k America!” It seems no one ever told them that on this date this was a particularly obscene thing to say.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.