By Nina Bachkatov
On 9 May, on Moscow Red Square, the military parade was as usual: a brilliant ballet of contrasting uniforms, smart military bands, the triple Hurrahs. But the speech of Putin was even more Putinesque, reflecting years of evolution during which Russians has been cut from their WWII allies. He repeated that, make no mistakes, Russia’s might is “ready to defend the motherland”, and its population determined to join if needed. This was a not too subtle way to remember the “enemies of Russia” that they should think twice before to indulge in provocation or “hostile” gesture.
Part of all this reflects the passing of time. “Real veterans” of WWII are dwindling to the verge of extinction, even if the organisers managed to find a dozen of them to sit in the official tribune, next to the president. But age and Covid prevented them of joining the civilian celebrations that have been central to the feeling of togetherness of the day. Veterans, wearing all their medals, were sitting on benches; dancing in the parks; receiving with a smile gestures of affection and respect; young people were offering them flowers, eager to know about their time in the war, and after.
In the absence of those living memories, the ritual risk to look slightly odder each year.
But, the change of emphasis is also reflecting geopolitical changes. The Russian-centric official tone is a reflect of the slow erosion of the concept of “alliance” that led to the victory in 1945, thanks to the decision to join forces despite ideological differences. When the ideologies died, the Russians believe they have been treated as losers by those former allies and Putin’s message is that never again, they will face destruction and deaths for saving others people who, when the situation changes, will deny their contribution.
This evolution has led Russians to fall back in their historical trap that Russia has allies, but no friends. On the other side, Westerners have been adopting the concept of “totalitarianism”, which puts Hitler and Stalin into the same basket. To the point that many Western people believe that Germany and the Soviet Union were allied “against the democracies”.
In this context, the presence of a Western president sitting on the Mausolea next to “Putin the killer” has been turned into a political embarrassment. So there were not invited anymore. Hence the reduced number of diplomats, military attaches and foreign correspondents in their right-side tribune, whose access was once the object of a fierce competition. This year, Putin wanted to tell them that, yes, despite all the present tension (for which he exonerated Russia of responsibility), he favours cooperation to address common threats, as long as it fits Russia’s national interests. In the meantime, Russians can do alone.
For their own reasons, the presidents of former Soviet republics have also taken their distance. This year, even President Lukashenko preferred to stay home, denouncing Belarus “new fascists” who not only are attempting to grab power by force, but celebrate those who fought patriots during WWII.
In fact, no post-Soviet president has found the way to introduce the “common Soviet fight” in their national narratives. So gradually, they came to prefer to remember the victims of the anti-Hitler coalition on a national basis. It might require a solid capacity to keep a delicate political balance in countries where the war had opposed inhabitants of the present state, and whose divide still weights on national unity.
Among them, Ukraine. The foreign ministry condemned firmly the march held in Kiev on 28 April to honour the WWII anti-Soviet Waffen SS Galicia. This 14th SS-Volunteer division was a German military unit made up predominantly of volunteers of western Ukrainian background.
But then, in his victory address, Volodimir Zelensky made a curious, and divisive, parallel between the veterans of WWII and those of today Donbass’ front line. And, the “republics of Lugansk and Donetsk” were celebrating 9 May with very Soviet military parades.
In other words, the Ukrainian president was digging the gap between Ukrainians. Albeit he stayed short of the bombastic declarations of his predecessor, who called traitors not only the Eastern separatists, but even ordinary citizens who accepted to live under “occupation”, and who were invited to leave the country to real Ukrainians.