Written by Anton Troianovski
Olga Romanova’s grandmother served as a front-line nurse in World War II. She was small and thin, Romanova said, but somehow carried “big, grown, wounded men” to safety. She met her husband in her four years on the eastern front.
To Romanova, Russia’s May 9 holiday, marking the Soviet victory over the Nazis, is about remembering those grandparents, a day “to extend our love to them, to somehow express what we couldn’t when we were little.”
But this year, for President Vladimir Putin, May 9 means something very different. Monday’s commemoration will be a lavish government-orchestrated show of Russian might and a claim of rightful dominance over a lost empire — a day to galvanize public support for the war by slandering Ukraine as a successor to Nazi Germany.
Warplanes will fly over Moscow in a “Z” formation — the symbol of support for this year’s invasion — and airborne troops who fought recently in Ukraine will parade through Red Square in their armored personnel carriers. In the Baltic navy town of Baltiysk, the local organizers of the “Immortal Regiment” march — a solemn procession of people with portraits of their World War II veteran relatives, held across the country May 9 — are having wounded marines back from Ukraine join in.
It is a potent political strategy in a country that celebrates May 9, Victory Day, as its most important secular holiday, one that appeals to the shared sacrifice of 27 million Soviets killed in World War II. But to many Russians, Putin’s long-running politicization of the day is an assault on their identity, distorting one of the few shared experiences uniting almost all Russian families and now using it to build support for a 21st-century war of aggression.
“They transformed this unifying myth that Russia had into a justification for an actual war,” said Maxim Trudolyubov, a Russian journalist who has written about the issue. “It’s kind of subtly turned everything upside down — a cult of victory into a cult of war.”
Trudolyubov points to the use of May 9 for the creeping militarization of Russian society. Schoolchildren in some places dress up in World War II military garb, and war movies extol the idea that Russia’s battles were always righteous. A popular World War II bumper sticker reads “We can do it again.” In 2020 the government opened the army green Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces outside Moscow, its dome 1,945 centimeters across and its floor made from melted-down German tanks.
Trudolyubov acknowledges that he and many others missed how much the Kremlin’s obsession with May 9 was readying Russian society for a real war, rather than just mobilizing support for Putin. Even to many of Putin’s critics in Russia, he reflects, the veneration of the Soviet victory provided a “convenient way of thinking about ourselves as being on the right side of history.”
“They apparently did not just use that, as I thought was the case, as a tactic, as a political campaigning kind of mechanism,” Trudolyubov said. “They turned theatrical and imaginary reenactments into an actual land offensive, with all the physical tanks and guns and troops.”
Putin is expected to give a major speech at the grand military parade on Red Square on Monday, with some analysts and Western officials anticipating he may officially declare war or call for a mass mobilization of the Russian public. On Sunday, the Kremlin said that Putin had sent a congratulatory telegram to the heads of the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine; he declared that Russians were “fighting shoulder to shoulder to liberate their homeland from Nazi filth” and vowed that “victory will be ours, like in 1945.”
The most dramatic case of the divisions sown by Putin’s politicization of World War II is the Immortal Regiment, the May 9 practice of marching with portraits of dead family members.
Begun in 2012 as a grassroots movement in the Siberian city of Tomsk, the ritual became immensely popular as a way of bringing to life a fading generation. The marches drew millions across the former Soviet Union and in cities around the world with large post-Soviet diasporas.
But it was soon co-opted by the Russian government, “which saw a threat in an independent movement,” Sergei V. Lapenkov, one of the founders, said in a phone interview from Moscow. Putin personally joined the march on several occasions, seeking to channel the memory of those who died into support for his rule.
Last month, Lapenkov and his co-founders issued a statement disassociating themselves from what their movement had become, declaring that “we no longer consider it possible to associate ourselves with what is happening in the columns on the street.”
This year, Lapenkov said, authorities removed the logo of a crane from the banners held up at the head of the parade, because the bird was seen as too solemn and not “mobilizing” enough. Instead, the organizers are encouraging marchers to affix the letter “Z” to the portraits of their relatives to show support for the war in Ukraine.
“If we go down this path, it will be very dangerous for my country, for my homeland, because it will lead to strife between people,” Lapenkov said of the idea of bringing the “Z” or any other political symbols into the march. “The point of the regiment was to unite as many people as possible.”
Lapenkov said he did not plan to join the march Monday but that many of those who do are acting only in the memory of their relatives, not in “support for a certain political agenda.”
Romanova, whose grandmother was a nurse, is a coordinator of an Immortal Regiment march in the Ivanovo region near Moscow and echoed the idea that World War II memory should not be used to galvanize support for today’s war.
“I think we have to set apart these two events, because if you throw everything into one pile, no one will understand anything,” Romanova, a psychologist, 44, said in a phone interview. “I am going out specifically with the goal of honoring the memory of my loved ones.”
As she spoke, she passed a billboard on the side of a local military commissariat building showing Soviet World War II posters and the words: “Everything for the front! Everything to victory! For victory!” A photo of the billboard she sent later showed that some of the Cyrillic letters were replaced by a Latin “Z” and “V,” another signal of support for the war.
But in the town of Baltiysk, the local coordinator of the Immortal Regiment march, Andrei Vedmuk, 59, has embraced the idea that today’s fight in Ukraine is a continuation of the Great Patriotic War. The Kremlin has pushed that narrative with the false rhetoric that Russia is fighting “Nazi” oppressors. Vedmuk said he hoped that wounded marines in the local hospital would join the march “if they can.”
“It turns out the war never ended,” he said in a phone interview. “Our grandfathers and fathers and all the others fought so that we, too, would get rid of this Nazism.”
For some Russians opposed to the war, though, the current campaign in Ukraine brings troubling reminders of the more sinister side of the country’s 1945 victory. Ivan I. Kurilla, a historian at the European University at St. Petersburg, said he had seen renewed attention to things such as the “trophies” — loot — brought home from the front, still present in many Russian homes, and the rape of German women by Red Army soldiers.
“When war became a reality of present-day life, that war also became more present,” Kurilla said in a phone interview from St. Petersburg. “The memory, itself, about the war is changing.”
Kurilla said he came across a line of tanks preparing for the May 9 parade on the St. Petersburg embankment a few days ago, leaving him with a haunting feeling: Perhaps these killing machines, too, would soon head to the front. Before hanging up, he stopped himself from uttering the felicitations typical in Russia this time of year.
“I don’t even know whether to congratulate you with the upcoming holiday in this context,” he said and did not.