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How Victory Day in Russia raises young murderers and rapists

Terrible footage of Ukrainians from Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel being tortured and shot in the back terrified the world in early April. And while the Russian president honored the soldiers of the 64th Brigade, who were killing and raping in the Kyiv region, intelligence journalists and police threw all their resources into identifying the executioners.

Sailor Mikhail Tkach, 20 y.o, Vladivostok.
Alexei Gaskov, 20 y.o, Buryatia.
Private Sergei Peskarev, 24 y.o, Khabarovsk
Andrei Kildishov, 20 y.o, Primorsky Krai.
Sergeant Nikita Akimov, 25 y.o, Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

Their young age was another factor that shocked the world. Boys, born in modern Russia who do not remember the USSR, the Cold War, or the poverty of the 90s, grew up believing that killing civilians can be done with absolute impunity if it’s done for an ideological cause (or even without one).

You can read more about Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine here

How could it have come to this? There could be many factors. From xenophobic upbringing at home with the glorification of the «great Russian spirit» to the so-called patriotic education at school. However, all these roads lead to one place — the heart of Russian propaganda. To the cult of the great victory, or «pobedobesie,» as Internet users called it in 2005.

Pobedobesie [poe – beh – doh – bes – i – ye] — a term coined in 2005 by Russian priest Mitrofanov, later turned into a popular online term due to its accuracy. Literally — «victory frenzy». It describes the social hysteria surrounding the «cult of victory» in Russia, which militarizes the public consciousness, excludes the rest of the world from the sacrifices of WW2, and unites the society around the idea of Russian exceptionalism as «saviors» of the world from Nazism. Critics of the phenomenon (and government policy) state that this demeans the memory of the victims of WW2, and that romanticizing the idea of a «sacred war» turns the tragedy into an aggressive nationwide cult.

Tbilisi, May 9, 2019. Photo: Patrik Salat, JAMnews

Russian narrative of «the great victory» VS. actual history

World War II was, without exaggeration, the greatest human and geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century (not the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Vladimir Putin states). In these six years, 60 countries took up arms, and the world lost between 50 and 80 million people. WW2 was the war with the largest number of crimes against humanity: mass killings of civilians, the genocide of the Jewish people — the Holocaust, strategic carpet bombing, and the only military use of nuclear weapons in history.

Do these facts make you want to celebrate? Perhaps get a beer on your day off from work, or gather friends for a picnic? Start some fireworks or wear a T-shirt with military symbols?

Probably not, because you were likely not raised in Russia.

A simple and very effective means of Kremlin propaganda is the proclamation of May 9 as Victory Day, despite the fact that the German Instrument of Surrender was signed on May 8. And it is on May 8 that Europe honors the memory of those killed in this war. Russia has separated itself from the pan-European approach. They have their own day, their own traditions, the primary purpose of which is to strengthen the population’s confidence in its military greatness.

Here is a small comparison to help you better understand the informational reality in which Russians celebrate Victory Day from year to year.

What does the whole world know about WW2?What does Russia say about WW2?
The Second World War lasted six years.World War II is something else. There was the Great Patriotic War in Russia, which lasted from 1941 to 1945.

Thus, the USSR “cut off” the beginning of World War II to omit the fact that, in 1939, it acted in alliance with the Third Reich (see the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact).
Victory in World War II was ensured by the unity of the Allies, powerful US military aid in the form of a land lease, and the presence of the Western and Eastern fronts.If not for the Soviet Union, Nazism would have won. The Red Army raised its victorious flag over the Reichstag and defeated pure evil. Other countries just stood by.

You can read more about Ukraine’s role in WW2 in our other article: Ukraine during WWII: a myth of the Great Patriotic War

Who needs Russian military parades with aircraft worth $10+ million?

In the Soviet Union, Victory Day was celebrated as a day off and a day of lavish military parades only four times: on May 9, 1945, then with significant breaks — in 1965, 1985, and 1990.

Why the 15 to 20-year pauses?

The cult of victory met with unspoken opposition (overt opposition was simply impossible in the USSR) from the participants of this war. Historian Volodymyr Vyatrovych remembers his grandfather well, a Red Army soldier who fought on the Far Eastern front against Japan.  “On May 9, he did not have any festive mood and desire to celebrate. Even if invitations came, he ignored them and threw the medals somewhere in his old hat.” 

At the same time, the war did not cause enormous damage to his health. After WW2, many of its participants returned with Group-1 disabilities (in post-Soviet countries — the most severe form of disability, where an individual needs assistance from others on a daily basis), and millions returned with severe PTSD. The presentation of this war as a rather merry walk to Berlin provoked opposition and misunderstanding. Every year fewer and fewer veterans remained that experienced the most hellish parts of the war, so it was easier to present a polished picture of WW2, as Soviet propaganda wanted.

In 1964, Leonid Brezhnev became the head of the USSR, and he had nothing to do with the October Revolution and the first generation of communists who formed the Soviet Union. Brezhnev needed his own legend of his significant contribution to the development of the USSR, so the cult of the “Great Patriotic War” became central, and Victory Day pushed aside the Anniversary of the October Revolution as the most important holiday of the USSR.

This shared memory of the war had to form one common and united Soviet nation from all citizens, regardless of their age, profession, and residence. And it worked. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people raised in the victory cult organized the largest pro-Russian lobbies in almost every country in the post-Soviet space.

As Russia’s newly elected president, Putin understood the potential of this concept of victory and successfully picked it up, making it part of the new ideology of the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir). Thus, since 2005, aircraft have been participating in military parades on May 9, and since 2008 — military vehicles and equipment. Symbolically, it was in 2008 that Russia attacked Georgia.

Over the next ten years, spending on military parades increased significantly:

2010 — $ 4 million
2015 — $ 14 million
2017 — $ 9 million
2018 — $ 10.2 million
2020 — $ 13.6 million
2021 — $ 11.2 million *

* These figures are approximate and calculated according to the ruble-dollar exchange rate of that time.

russian military parade
The Victory Parade ended on Red Square in Moscow
May 9, 2022, 11:00. Photo: RIA News 

The further away Russia is from the victory of 1945, the more magnificent its celebrations become.

Traditions for the sake of brainwashing: St George ribbons, the Immortal Regiment, and threats

Stalin and Putin used the Victory Day tradition to maintain influence in the post-Soviet space and even spread it abroad. Until recently, almost all former Soviet republics, except the Baltic States, celebrated Victory Day on May 9 based on the Russian model.

What is the significance of this?

1. The high-profile military parades we described above are an important part of Victory Day in Russia. This means a gathering of people on Red Square to celebrate Russian military might (we have seen its real worth and “effectiveness” in 2 months of the war in Ukraine) and the opportunity to deliver a loud military speech that everyone in the country will hear.

victory day russia
Military photo shoots for children in the Russian studio “Smena”

2. St. George’s ribbon on this day flutters on literally every pole, car, shirt, and even decorates pets. The cult of the mass use of the black and orange ribbon originated in 2005 and has nothing to do with WW2. It is connected with the reaction to the Orange Revolution of 2004 in Ukraine when Ukrainians used the orange ribbon. The St. George’s Ribbon was intended to unite Russians around Soviet values and against the so-called “orange plague.”

3. Kitsch of the Immortal Regiment. Do you see these photos? It is an exclusively Russian tradition to honor the memory of veterans by carrying portraits of fallen relatives (and sometimes not even their own) at Victory Day parades. Nowhere in the world is memory honored in this way, only on graves and near appropriate monuments. This idea was actively exported to Ukraine by pro-Russian politicians, including exiled President Yanukovych. Russia exports this kitsch through its emigrants to Western Europe, Canada, and the United States. This is a way to mark yourself on the map, to let the world know that Russia is very close.

In the primary school in the Tver region of Russia, teachers organized a performance for Victory Day.
In the primary school in the Tver region of Russia, teachers organized a performance for Victory Day. Children depict the graves of fallen Red Army soldiers. Photo: Rustem Adagamov / Facebook

4. The slogans of Russian propaganda on this day sound like a direct threat to the Western world. The most popular among them are: “We can repeat [our military conquest],” “To Berlin,” and “Thank you, grandpa, for the victory.” This is a way to keep the world from forgetting that Russia is ready at any moment to defeat another state, just as it once defeated Nazi Germany.

The result of the cult of victory is impunity and justification of any crime

What has been written above is enough to understand that Russians have an arrogant belief that they, the children of the USSR, are the only ones in the world who crushed Nazism and Hitler. From a political point of view, it is perfectly clear why Russia is loudly declaring a one-state victory over Nazism now and why it has spoken about it before. Putin did all this for one purpose — if Russians are the sole victors over Nazism, they are allowed to do anything. They are permitted to establish authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, destroy the opposition, and deport people.

Besides, if Russians believe it’s their destiny to defeat Nazis, the narrative becomes: everyone who opposes them automatically is a Nazi. We saw this during World War II when Stalin used this term to describe Ukrainian insurgents, Polish insurgents, dissidents, and anyone who dared to engage in any (not necessarily armed or violent) anti-communist resistance in Eastern Europe. Now Vladimir Putin is repeating this verbatim, and he even declared «denazification»  as one of the fake reasons for the invasion of Ukraine. 

Appropriating victory over the world’s greatest evil is an excuse for Russia to commit all the crimes they are committing now, including in Ukraine.

Author: Yuliia Kleban
Expert: historian Volodymyr Viatrovych