Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) poses with World War II veterans after a ceremony of presenting jubilee medals in honor of the 70th anniversary of the victory in the World War II to WWII veterans in the St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, 20 February 2015. Thirty veterans, among them Heroes of the Soviet Union and Full Cavaliers of the Order of Glory, were awarded with jubilee medals in the Kremlin. (EPA/ALEXEY DRUGINYN / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL)

The following is a guest post from MIT historian Elizabeth Wood.

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On Feb. 20, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin handed out medals in a special ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II, the war Russians know as The Great Patriotic War. This would not be so remarkable – he has handed out literally dozens of such medals over his years in power – were it not for the visual montage on his kremlin.ru Web site. There he is pictured standing in front of guards bearing banners that read “First Ukrainian Front,” “Second Ukrainian Front,” “Third Ukrainian Front,” and “Fourth Ukrainian Front.” On the one hand, these are the banners of those receiving the medals. On the other hand, the message seems designed to signal that the Kremlin leadership still considers Ukraine an integral part of the nation.

Officially, he gave out the medals as part of the “run-up” to the Feb. 23 holiday, the Day of the Defense of the Motherland (the holiday known as Red Army Day in Soviet times). While this was probably planned many months in advance, it is also striking for the contrast to Ukrainian celebrations on the same day. In Kiev, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainians commemorated a completely different day, the moment the Maidan protests turned bloody. On this day, according to the BBC, over 50 people were killed last year after Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, now reputed to be in Crimea, gave the order for troops to use live ammunition on demonstrators.

Putin’s language at the ceremony was filled with archaic words and phrases (here is the Russian transcript). Of course, it was natural for him to speak of honoring those receiving medals, but his wording included ancient phrases for warriors [ratnaia sluzhba; voiny]; for honoring both individuals [chestvuem] and “the uniform” [berezhet chest’ mundira]; for not allowing the enemy to subdue Russia [pokorit’ Rossiiu]; and for defending every last inch [piad’] of our native land. (The word translated as “inch” – piad’ – comes from the 12th century and means the distance between the outstretched tip of the thumb and the tip of the forefinger.)

He spoke to the veterans of their “moral tempering” [moral’naia zakalka], a reference to the famous Stalin-era “tempering of the steel.” (In one famous Soviet “Song about Stalin,” Stalin is said to have “tempered the hearts of heroes.”) And he commended them for their work with youth, which he described as “active, patriotic, and educational,” so the youth would know the “truth” [pravdu] about the Great Patriotic War.

At a Gala reception the same evening, Putin equated defending the nation in the war with defending its history today: “These are not just historical facts. These are the memory that lives in every Russian family, and this is our Victory [Pobeda], our history, which we will defend [otstaivat’] from lies and from being forgotten.” Otstaivat’ can mean to defend in conversation, but in the context of Victory with a capital V [not even translated in the English version of kremlin.ru], it clearly means a military engagement, the defending of a nation from an aggressor, be it internal or external.

For Putin, World War II has become a talisman and touchstone, a “holy day” [sviatoi prazdnik]. The problem with fixating on “holy” days is that they mean the speaker – and here it is the president of the largest country in the world – is looking backward toward a mythic time of holy warriors.

Around the country in 2014, numerous groups held events dedicated to reenacting “holy warriors.” Children in Magnitogorsk held “contests in courage” as holy warriors of ancient Rus (the police and bishopric worked on this together). In July, young people were invited to participate in reenacting the beginning of WWII as holy warriors in a small region just west of the Ural Mountains (Kirov oblast). In Moscow one can take tours of the 40 martyred Holy Warriors [Svyatye ratniki] of Sebaste (a place in eastern Turkey).

As I argued in an article I wrote in 2011, “Performing Memory: Vladimir Putin and the Celebration of World War II in Russia,” the reasons for the popularity of this war are many. It serves as a morality tale of suffering and redemption and a foundation myth. It encapsulates a victory myth and a myth of saving Europe. It places current Russian events in the longer sweep of tsarist and Soviet history and reminds Russians of the ostensible unity and determination of the whole Soviet population.

But the current Russian mythologization of that war also contains a number of outright falsifications and dangerous tendencies. Of these the most importance is the practice of referring to the war as lasting from 1941-1945 (an American practice as well, I might add). This ignores the Soviet military annexation of the territories of Poland and the Baltic States in 1939-40. Parts of what is now Western Ukraine were occupied at the very start of the war in September 1939.

Russian panegyrics to “holy Russia” ignore as well the repressions of the many nationalities deported during the war. They ignore the fact that the Soviet Union almost lost the war because of Stalin’s decimation of his own top military in the purges of the late 1930s. And they ignore the fact, as shown by historian John Barber in his The Soviet Home Front, 1941-1945, that the vaunted “buffer zone” of the occupied territories was actually much harder for Moscow to control and defend than genuine Allied territories would have been because the countryside in those regions was riddled with partisans.

Today, Vladimir Putin is waging a war of words but also a war of symbols. To show the banners of the different Ukrainian fronts arrayed behind him is to ignore the complexity of World War II, the deep trauma of the peoples then who went through the war to find themselves in a different country afterwards. And it is also to ignore the sufferings of the Ukrainians on the Maidan on February 20, 2014, who were mowed down by their own police. Above all, it is to blatantly show disregard for the Ukrainians from Donetsk, Luhansk and now Debaltseve who have been displaced and for the thousands who have died.

In the separatist-held region of Donetsk, meanwhile, the rebel fighters held their own “Day of the Defender” celebrations and handed out medals. In a show of masculinity – after all February 23 has long been known as “Men’s Day” [den’ muzhchin] (to pair it with International Women’s Day two weeks later, March 8) — the local leader, Denis Pushilin commented:  “Our guys have proven that they’re worthy of the memory of our grandfathers, who once drove the fascist scourge out of Donbass.”

Thus this day of handing out medals has thus become a kind of Soviet competition for being worthy of the memory of grandfathers, of being a “guy” by killing people and honoring people who do so. Militarized masculinity becomes the core of both heroic and ordinary masculinity. The grandfathers and token grandmothers being honored in the Kremlin barely had room for another medal.

Putin himself commented that he had told one gentleman, “it’s almost impossible to find any room to put another medal.”

“You’ll find it,” the gentleman responded.

Unfortunately, giving medals for “glory” without any reference to the tragedy of lives lost, displaced, and wounded is a show that has too many spectators.

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For more recent Monkey Cage posts on Ukraine, see:

Answering remaining questions about Ukraine’s Maidan protests, one year later

The West should not count on Russian sensitivity to casualties to deter Putin