The “Cult of Victory” in Russia is an objective fact, not fictitious state propaganda, and must be taken into account by anyone who wants to understand modern Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War. Photo: AP

The lavish nationwide celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and the genuinely positive sentiment surrounding this spring holiday, once again confirmed Victory Day as a key element of Russia’s national psyche. The fact that the state propaganda around the “Cult of Victory” is starting to usurp the symbolic content of May 9 is less the cause and more the consequence of the raw human emotion that remains firmly attached to this date.

The memory of Victory Day in Russia is not only a source of the basic values ​​(patriotism, respect for the older generation, distinguishing between good and evil) that define the national identity, but also influences to a large extent the Russian people’s view of the wider world. It is no exaggeration to say that books, films and TV programs about the Second World War serve as reference points for many Russians in their understanding of modern politics and international relations.

Last year, when fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, the events were perceived in Russia (with a helping hand from state television) along lines familiar to all Russians since primary school: fascists attacking peaceful Donbas, a popular resistance, tanks from the Great Patriotic War removed from their pedestals, reconditioned and sent to defend the motherland. 

There was no need for propagandists to come up with images of their own and implant them into the uncluttered national consciousness, since that consciousness already contained everything required and simply needed to be adapted to the realities of the 21st century.

Russian politicians actively exploit both the memory of World War II and the “Cult of Victory” phenomenon, but it should be remembered that they themselves often view the world through the prism of this terrible national tragedy and the subsequent triumph. The chronic lack of great achievements in Russia’s recent history imparts added significance to the Great Patriotic War and prevents it from becoming a mere chapter in the history books.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Victory Day celebration has been a special ritual ever since he took office. The president’s speeches on this day belong to the genre of “secular prayer.” Addressed to the country’s heroic fallen ancestors and living veterans, they are intended to provide relief from present-day woes with the help of ritual formulas and political recitatives.

Despite all the predictability and reiteration of the phrases uttered by Putin on Red Square on May 9 (this year marked his twelfth appearance as president on the occasion of Victory Day), they have always managed somehow to deviate from the traditional canon, and in these deviations there lies a deeper meaning that, when deciphered, offers a glimpse into the mind and soul of one of the most influential politicians in the world today.

Putin’s reflections on the “lessons of the Second World War” have always been the most substantive part of his Victory Day speeches.

These “lessons” usually contain an assessment of what can be considered as the modern equivalent of the fascist threat (in nine of his twelve speeches Putin has found an equivalent), what mistakes should not be repeated (Putin usually mentions the laissez-faire approach of the international community in the face of the rising fascist threat), and what methods should be employed to combat evil (various alliances — from internal Russian political unity to solidarity with the countries of the former Soviet Union and the entire international community).

On occasion the Russian president has allowed himself to digress from purely military matters and reflect upon what modern humanity needs, besides combating evil, for its wellbeing and prosperity.

Putin’s definition of the modern equivalent of the fascist threat has undergone some important changes over the past 15 years. Terrorism was a staple of Putin’s speeches from 2000 until 2005. Then, in 2006 the threat morphed into “hatred, extremism and xenophobia,” before vanishing completely from his ceremonial addresses.

But it was back in 2003 that Putin first stated his belief that those who “arrogate the right to decide the fate of the world” are no less dangerous than Hitler. It was, of course, a thinly veiled reference to the U.S. government, which had recently gone to war in Iraq without UN backing.

Awareness of the fact that World War II imagery and the process of mapping it to the modern world lie at the heart of the ideological designs of the Russian leader (and many of his compatriots) would have helped Western observers back in 2003 sound the alarm and treat such comparisons with the seriousness they deserved. However, it was all deemed to be empty rhetoric.

In 2004 Putin again referred to the “ideas of ​​fascism stalking the world” as the modern equivalent of bygone threats, and in 2007 added “claims to global exceptionalism and diktat” to this category. Having returned to the Kremlin in 2012, for three years (2012-2014) Putin made no mention of modern day threats on Victory Day.

With hindsight this silence looks ominous, since we now know that during this period all of Putin’s verbal formulations of 2003-2007 were gradually implemented in practical steps aimed at winding up relations with “those who have arrogated the right to decide the fate of the world.”

In his 2015 speech, Putin highlighted “disregard of the basic principles of international cooperation” and “power bloc thinking” as the core problems in international politics. The culprits in his mind’s eye are not hard to guess, and the Russian president intends to deal with them with the same resoluteness with which his forebears fought fascism.

On May 9, whenever Putin broaches the topic of how to overcome present-day threats through the experience of the Second World War, it almost always signifies that he wants to appeal to the “benevolent gods” of the “Cult of Victory” and to remember the anti-Hitler coalition, without which good would not have triumphed over evil 70 years ago.

It is interesting that after two years of effectively ignoring the subject, in 2015 Putin decided once again to call to mind the contribution of the United States and Britain in the victory effort, despite the sanctions against Russia and the leaders of the former allies snubbing the anniversary celebrations in Moscow. Perhaps the Russian president wanted to shame his Western counterparts by appealing to the most sacred element of global historical memory.

Putin’s speeches on Victory Day perfectly illustrate his ongoing disillusionment with Western values. The traditional sound bite of “freedom, democracy and prosperity,” voiced in 2000 and shared by most Western countries, was first stripped of “democracy” and “prosperity,” whereupon “freedom” began to imply not individual liberty, but national sovereignty, and Putin’s core values became ​“love for one’s home and patriotism.”

Despite the fact that each Victory Day celebration is remoter in time than the last, the cult is becoming more and more obvious in Russia. Today it represents nothing less than a secular religion, with all the necessary trappings: creed, rituals, temples, holy relics, even a High Priest. Like American secular religion with its “cult of democracy, the constitution and the founding fathers,” Russia’s extolment of Victory appears at times archaic and inappropriate. 

However, the “Cult of Victory” in Russia is an objective fact, not fictitious state propaganda, and must be taken into account by anyone who wants to understand modern Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.