How does a Russian autocrat celebrate Victory Day while losing a war? Expect lies, myths, and propaganda.
Every year on May 9, Russia celebrates Victory Day to mark the 1945 triumph of the Soviet Union and its allies over Nazism. The spirit of militant Russian patriotism reaches its apogee on this day.
It is not uncommon, for example, to see Russians plastering their cars with stickers reading “We can repeat!” Repeat what, exactly? The horrors of war? The destruction of cities? The mass outbreaks of rape and looting? If heard at all before 24 February 2022, these questions have not been heard since.
The centerpiece of the celebration is a military parade through Red Square in Moscow. This year, that parade’s sad distinction will be that it takes place during a full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine. The emphasis of the Kremlin’s rhetoric and Russian propaganda will shift from the “great past” to the “great present.”
But Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine has failed. The Ukrainian president and his family are alive. Volodymyr Zelensky is greeted with applause in parliaments all over the world and portrayed as a hero in all the leading media. The Russian effort to change Ukraine’s democratically elected Ukrainian government by force did not succeed. Ukraine continues to resist, and to exist as a free and independent state.
What kind of victory will the Kremlin dictator present to Russian citizens on Victory Day?
What are the tokens of victory that Vladimir Putin will be able to lay before his people? The portraits of Russian soldiers killed in action, who may now number more than twenty thousand? The guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the once-proud flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which now lies at the bottom of that same Black Sea? The pending NATO memberships of Finland and Sweden, hastened into the North Atlantic alliance, after decades of hesitation, by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? A Ukraine that is not demilitarized but flush with arms shipments instead? A Russian economy boycotted by hundreds of foreign companies that once provided valuable goods and services that made the lives of millions of Russians better but which now shun their country?
Putin will have no choice but to make the best of a bad job. His propaganda, for want of anything better to say, will try to portray a small local success as a grand achievement on the order of the Red Army’s capture of Berlin and raising of the hammer-and-sickle Soviet flag over the Reichstag on 2 May 1945. The small local success that will be hopped up into a “famous victory” will undoubtedly be the Russian Army’s carving of a land corridor from Donetsk to Crimea, made possible by the captures of Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, and part of Mariupol.
The myth about the capture of Mariupol will be of special importance in the propaganda show.
As long as the Ukrainian military continues its heroic defense of the vast Azovstal Iron and Steel Works between the Kalmius River and the Sea of Azov at Mariupol, it is incorrect to say that the city is under Russian control. But Russian propaganda is about wishful thinking.
A deputy to the Russian puppet who falsely proclaimed himself the “mayor” of Mariupol in early April has announced that a traditional-style “Regiment of Immortals” victory parade—in which people carry portraits of relatives who died during the Second World War—will be held in a cleaned-up portion of downtown Mariupol on May 9.
It hurts me to talk about this idiotic occupiers’ initiative because Mariupol is my hometown. I grew up there, I went to school there, and I know every nook and corner of the place. Owing to the blockade that Russian forces slammed down around Mariupol while they hammered this city of more than four-hundred thousand people with heavy weapons, my parents, friends, and acquaintances suffered amid a humanitarian catastrophe that lasted more than a month. They had no electricity, no water, no mobile communications, no internet, and almost no food.
The parade in the ruins of blasted Mariupol will be dancing on the bones.
According to official figures, the Russians in just a few weeks of early 2022 have killed twice as many Mariupol residents (21,000) as the Nazis did during the two years (October 1941 to September 1943) when they occupied the city. In the annals of human disgrace, the planned May 9 action might be said to surpass even the most shameful military ceremony in Soviet-Russian history—the joint parade that the Red Army held with Nazi troops in the then-Polish (now Belarusian) city of Brest-Litovsk on 22 September 1939 as the Wehrmacht prepared to fall back west of the Western Bug River in accord with the plan for dividing Poland and other countries laid out in the Secret Protocol of the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact.
In early April, the Kremlin’s goal — the dismantling of Ukraine—was discussed in an article titled “What Should Russia Do with Ukraine?” Written by Kremlin-aligned commentator Timofey Sergeytsev and published by Russia’s state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, the essay charges that “a significant part of the masses” and the “Ukrainian man in the street” are “accomplices of Nazism” and must be subjected to “total lustration,” “re-education,” and “de-Ukrainization” while under Russian military occupation in a territory organized into “people’s republics” that will replace all of Ukraine except perhaps a western rump (which may itself also be subject to Russian occupation). Is this the blueprint for Putin’s “final solution” to the Ukraine question?
If my bringing up of the “final solution” seems excessive, consider what Putin’s Russia is like today. Do we not see hallmarks of Nazism? There is the cult of the leader, the enforcement of absolute unity against reviled enemies (the First World War Allies and the Jews in the older case, NATO in the current one), chauvinism, revanchism stirred by historical grievances (the Treaty of Versailles, the fall of the Soviet empire), a self-image of the nation as an “older brother” to cadet populations of Volksgenossen (ethnic comrades) seen as “trapped” on the wrong side of unjust borders, gross human-rights abuses, censorship, a state chokehold on the media, and the crushing of all dissent.
In a terrible historic irony, one of the countries that Hitler damaged the most has become an exponent of his ideas.
There is even a new term for Russian Nazism: “Rashism” (or alternatively Ruscism or Russism). It is a word that Ukrainian officials and everyday Ukrainians alike have come to use as they struggle to describe what they and their country are fighting against. This neologism is already beginning to enter world political discourse; you can read about in 28 languages on Wikipedia.
Rashism is somewhat different from classical Nazism. First, it is a form of Nazism that travels in the stolen garments of anti-Nazi slogans. Hitler did not oppose the Nazis, they were his party. Putin does cast himself as a foe of Nazis, but as I noted, if you watch his actions you can see that he is following the Nazi model quite closely. Second, Rashism is Nazism without economic growth. During Hitler’s rule from 1933 to 1939, Germany’s GDP doubled. Under Putin, Russia’s economy has been stagnating for the most of the last ten years.
Most Russians, however, have not yet grasped that the current period in Russia will be a shameful page in history, and that their descendants will be ashamed of the atrocities in Ukraine. The pompous parades of May 9 will go forward, though it has already been announced that the big one—the one that is meant to thunder impressively through Red Square past the Kremlin’s walls—will be more than a third smaller than it was just a year ago, before Putin decided to feed his military into a grinder by invading Ukraine beyond the areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea that he or his allies already controlled. But despite the losses, the show will go on, and we will see smiling people displaying the “Z” symbol as a sign of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That sign is in fact the new swastika.
The cult of victory on which Putin bases his regime will have a bloody aftertaste this year.
In the first days of Operation Barbarossa—the biggest invasion in history, launched by Hitler against the USSR with close to four-million men along an 1800-mile front on 22 June 1941—Nazi forces murdered my great-grandfather. In those days, the forebears of today’s Russians fought for peace, not for new wars. The final sad irony of Putin’s 2022 Victory Day parades is that by celebrating Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, they are insulting the memories of the very people whom they claim to honor, the Russians who gave their lives fighting against Nazis in World War II.
Olexiy Minakov is a political-communications expert from Ukraine. He is a columnist for leading Ukrainian online media outlets including Radio Liberty, Ukrayinska Pravda, NV, and LIGA.net. Since 2019, he has worked as a communications manager at Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation. He also served as chief consultant to the political-system development department of the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv. His Twitter is @Minakov_Olexiy.
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