FOR BOTH the Soviet Union and modern-day Russians, World War II represented a great triumph over fascism.
To this day, it is referred to as ‘The Great Patriotic War’.
The Soviet Victory over Nazi Germany was used to legitimise the USSR throughout the second half of the 20th century, as well as to justify Soviet domination over Central and Eastern Europe.
Now, it’s a legacy Vladimir Putin readily employs to drum up support for his own aggressive foreign policy.
The employment of this legacy has been particularly potent – and particularly deadly – amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But why is this legacy so powerful?
According to Dr Maria Domańska, Senior Fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies, the Soviet victory over Nazism is “the only historical event that truly unites Russians”.
As such, it has long been central to Putin’s personal political project, as well as to the establishment of a new, collective national identity following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
She told Redaction Report: “As 1945 marked the apogee of Russia’s superpower status, it became the founding myth of Putinism.”
“The Kremlin exploits the messianic image of the USSR as a chosen nation, a victor-saviour – and an innocent victim of Nazi aggression. In this narrative, Russia inherited from the USSR the ‘moral mandate’ of ‘the only genuine opponent of Nazism’, who saved the world from absolute evil and should therefore now have a decisive say in shaping the European security system.”
Crucially, this narrative appeals to a sense of exceptionalism, a sense of injustice, and a collective identity built in opposition to the eternal ‘enemy’ – an outside danger that has, for long stretches of Russian history, been perceived as coming from the West.
It’s important to note that the USSR certainly contributed heavily, and suffered greatly, in the Second World War. As many as 27 million Soviets lost their lives through combat injuries and attacks on civilians, as well as widespread famine and disease ― representing the greatest casualties of any nation. In light of such great, and perhaps unresolved, trauma, appeals to national pride and moral superiority are hugely powerful.
This legacy is now used to justify the Kremlin’s current foreign policy.
Recently, the Kremlin’s political instrumentalisation of WWII has been thrown into the international spotlight by Putin’s affirmation that Russia’s invasion will ‘denazify’ Ukraine. In light of this claim, Western media outlets have made much of the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is himself Jewish, lost family in the Holocaust, and recently signed into law new legislation combating antisemitism within Ukraine. This is all true, but in Russia, the word ‘Nazi’ doesn’t necessarily have very much to do with anti-Jewish violence.
Indeed, Dr Domańska points out that contemporary Russian propaganda now uses the term ‘Nazi’ against anything and anyone who opposes Russia’s aggressive, neo-imperial ambitions.
“In this logic, liberal democracy is presented as the new ‘Nazism’. Ukrainians, for example, were labelled ‘Nazis’ because they chose the Euro-Atlantic path,” she said.
This branding of Russia’s opponents, and its victims, as ‘Nazis’ is not the only way the Kremlin employs the WWII legacy to drum up support. Professor Oleksa Drachewych – a researcher at Western University in London, Ontario – noted that current political discourse deliberately echoes that of the Soviet WWII leaders. For example, a major present-day slogan (“Our cause is just”) openly references a slogan employed by Stalin in the early 1940s.
What’s more, in recent years, as noted by Dr Jade McGlynn, a researcher at the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies, the Kremlin has increasingly sought to insert the narrative of the Great Patriotic War into everyday life. This is accomplished through, among other initiatives, launching children’s military/historical after-school clubs and summer camps, constructing WWII-themed metro carriages, and funding cinematic productions about famous battles.
In this way, she said, “the Kremlin tries to make the war feel more immediate, all while perverting the real history of the war and memory of its heroes to justify violence against its own people and others.”
Dr McGlynn notes that propagandists have to tread very carefully in their employment of this traumatic period of history:
She told Redaction Report: “Many Russians dislike the obvious political instrumentalisation of WWII, a cultural and familial memory that they cherish.” In order to get around this, the Kremlin often seeks“to disguise its own initiatives as grassroots, or to stage hostile takeovers of any genuinely grassroots commemorative activities.”
But can Putin keep clinging onto this legacy indefinitely?
Professor Drachewych sees little hope that the political instrumentalization of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ will grow stale in Russia. “Barring the introduction, and consistently so, of new sources of information that shatter the narrative the Russian government is providing, it is unlikely it will stop being effective.”
Until the reality of Russia’s actions in Ukraine ― a violent invasion, marked by reports of major brutality and war crimes ― can be consistently presented to the Russian public, “in a way in which the Russian government cannot explain it away”, Professor Drachewych believes that the Kremlin’s propaganda will continue to find an eager audience.
Stephanie Stacey is a freelance journalist from Cumbria. She studies French, Russian and Polish, and enjoys writing on everything from international politics to contemporary art.
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