Vladimir Putin’s campaign to appropriate World War II history for his aggressive dismemberment of Europe’s paltry security order reached a crescendo Saturday, when Russia celebrated Victory Day with a massive military parade. Since its inception, the primary purpose of Victory Day has been to serve the political purposes of whoever happens to rule the Kremlin. It was not until 1965, that May 9—the day when news of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in 1945 reached Moscow—became an official holiday. Josef Stalin had feared that a commemoration of the wartime triumph would valorize the country’s generals at the expense of his own cult of personality.
After a decade of subtler celebrations in the 1990s, a period when the country’s leaders hoped to tamp down Soviet-era traditions, the traditional Victory Day pomp and circumstance returned in full force when Putin came to power. In recent years, the Kremlin and its associated propaganda instruments have attempted to revivify the Soviet narrative of World War II, erasing the opportunistic Hitler-Stalin Pact from the history books while simultaneously claiming all credit for defeating the Nazis and thereby saving humanity. In this telling, it was not just the Soviet Union (with all of its many republics and nationalities) that defeated the Germans, but more precisely Russia and the Russian people. The Red Army—a multinational force with conscripts spanning the empire from Armenia to Kazakhstan—is now recast as a Russian army, and the role of, say, Ukrainians, in defeating the Germans is conveniently ignored.
The unscrupulous deployment of memory politics has its obvious uses in today’s political context, as Russia moves from having fought real Fascists 70 years ago in Germany to imaginary ones today in Ukraine. Ever since the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014 ousted the corrupt, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power in Kiev, incessant streams of Kremlin propaganda allege the new government to be composed of “Nazis” and “Fascists.” Revivifying the language of World War II provides Russians with an easy framework in which to understand their current political predicament. That this narrative of Russian “anti-fascism” must compete with strange occurrences like the attempt of a Putin-blessed, ultra-nationalist biker gang to retrace the route of the victorious Red Army across Europe (a menacing road trip cut short, thankfully, by enthusiastic Polish border guards) appears to create little cognitive dissonance in the Russian nationalist mind.
The Russian historical whitewash was lent an appearance of respectability late last month when the Wilson Center, a federally funded U.S. think tank, hosted a panel discussion commemorating the era of American-Soviet cooperation. Organized by the center’s Kennan Institute in cooperation with the Russian Embassy (a questionable endeavor considering the wide array of sanctions placed on Russian officials and institutions), the overflow event was more than just an occasion for reminiscence and remembrance. Its barely concealed purpose was to convey a timely, if repulsive, political message: The United States and Russia were allies in times of far greater adversity, and they should not let petty squabbles about the fate of small, politically insignificant Central and Eastern European countries get in the way of what should be a productive relationship between great powers. Disturbingly, orange-and-black St. George’s ribbons—a military decoration from the tsarist era that has since become an emblem of pro-Russian separatists tearing Ukraine apart—were distributed to guests at a post-panel reception.
“Our wartime alliance proves that despite the time that went before and the time that came after, very close cooperation on the basis of shared interests can be achieved and that such cooperation can build the interest of mutual trust,” Matthew Rojansky, the institute’s director, said in his opening remarks. While “today there’s no galvanizing force” such as Nazis rampaging across Europe to unite Moscow and Washington, “neither is there such a gulf in understanding between us as represented in the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism.”
Yet an enormous gap over basic concepts like the inviolability of borders, the rule of law, and respect for human rights has existed for some time between Russian and Western political elites; since the Crimean annexation, no reasonable observer of global affairs can deny it. Putin believes in a world where might makes right, a far cry from the ethical code embraced by most Western political leaders, especially Europeans, who embrace a consensus-based politics in which use of military force has been all but banished from statecraft. Yet Rojansky and other Kremlin apologists would have us believe that these major divergences in worldview are but minor squabbles, inflated by American hawks and East European Cold Warriors.
Next up was Russia’s Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Echoing Rojansky, he stressed that America and Russia’s wartime alliance “showed that we can work together irrespective of problems that do exist on ideological and other fronts because we were fighting for survival.” As an example, he praised President Barack Obama’s acceptance of Putin’s 2013 proposal to cooperate in removing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. For the Russians, this was indeed a diplomatic victory to celebrate. But for the United States, coming off Obama’s climb down from his own self-imposed “red line” stipulating a military response to the use of said weapons, it was a humiliating defeat. Kislyak concluded by expressing his concern at the “revival of Nazi … thinking in a number of countries,” listing, of course, Ukraine, where “we see marches staged the way the Nazi fascists were marching,” and the Baltic States, whose governments the Russians routinely accuse of supporting “fascist” policies.
Most over-the-top was the journalist Martin Sieff. Last year’s 70th anniversary D-Day celebrations, he said, “should have been a season of joint celebration, thanksgiving, the rebuilding of bridges and the recommitment of the great nations of East and West to a renewed era of mutual peace and mutual respect.” Instead, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron treated Putin with “deliberate rudeness,” as if the leaders of the two most important NATO countries ought to embrace a man who perpetrated the first forced annexation of territory on the European continent since World War II, started a war in Eastern Ukraine, and just last weekend defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Sieff went on to praise the “soldiers of the Red Army,” whom he said, “deserve primary credit for ending the Holocaust” a point that he would stress several times. This analysis of the liberation of the death camps, along with hysterical Russian claims of rampant Ukrainian anti-Semitism, cohere into a Kremlin narrative that portrays Russia as a historic protector of the Jews. That narrative is a pernicious lie. As historian Timothy Snyder has written, by allying himself with the Nazis in 1939 to carve up Poland, “Stalin understood, of course, that he was making an arrangement to destroy the largest homeland of European Jews with the most important anti-Semite in the world.” Stalin paved the way for the very Holocaust that Sieff and other Russia defenders claim he put an end to. Himself a paranoid anti-Semite who, by the early 1950s, was carrying out purges against Jewish officials, Stalin possessed a Jew-hatred that would very likely have turned genocidal had he not died suddenly in March 1953.
If there’s any regime in Europe today that resembles a ‘fascist’ one, it is Russia.
Today, pro-Russian revisionists speak of the Soviets liberating Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps as if they did so out of some sort of deep-seated, philo-Semitic humanism, rather than the real, more tedious reason, which is that the camps were located along the Red Army’s march to Berlin. The Soviet Union that liberated Auschwitz was the same regime that instituted the gulag archipelago; the Red Army that liberated Eastern Europe also committed millions of rapes and paved the way for over four decades of Soviet occupation, tragic chapters in history that are being written over with simplistic veneration of the Soviet role in defeating Hitler.
One cannot help but get the sense that all these Russian cries about “fascism,” the elevation of a high-school debater’s lazy reducto ad Hitlerum to the level of grand diplomacy, are a sort of twisted, Orwellian projection. Because if there’s any regime in Europe today that resembles a “fascist” one, it is Russia. Like the Nazis, Russia has invaded a neighbor based on the principle of ethnic comradeship, is targeting a vulnerable domestic minority (homosexuals) with state-sanctioned bigotry, and officially labels any and all dissenters “national traitors.” As Moscow relives its glorious past, monopolizing the heroism of World War II and slandering its contemporary adversaries as latter-day Nazis, it inches closer and closer toward becoming the sort of fascist regime its forebears once fought against.
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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.