The History Behind Victory Day in Russia

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Victory Day is always a big holiday in Russia: It marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, a conflict during which more than 8 million Soviet soldiers died.

But this year, as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, the day will take on new meaning. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, there’s been speculation about whether Victory Day will mark a turning point in the war that has already killed thousands and forced millions to flee from their homes.

In March, the Kyiv Independent reported that Russian troops were being told the war must end by May 9, while more recently, U.S. and western officials have openly wondered if Russia will officially declare war on May 9, escalating what Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted is merely a “special military operation.” But on May 1, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said, “Our military will not artificially adjust their actions to any date, including Victory Day,” the Moscow Times reported.

“We will solemnly celebrate May 9, as we always do,” Lavrov continued. “Remember those who fell for the liberation of Russia and other republics of the former U.S.S.R., for the liberation of Europe from the Nazi plague.”

World War II has shaped Putin’s approach to the Russia-Ukraine war; In justifying the invasion of Ukraine, he claimed he had set out to “denazify” the country—a phrase that many pundits noted is inaccurate in this context given Ukraine has a Jewish President.

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World War II has always been central to the Russian state’s approach to telling the country’s history. While the Allies marked May 7 as “V-E Day”—Victory in Europe Day—to commemorate the Nazis surrendering in Reims, France, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wanted to wait to celebrate until the Nazis surrendered in Soviet-controlled Berlin the next day. By the time the text was signed late at night, it was already May 9 on Moscow time.

As TIME has previously reported, in the 1960s Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made May 9 a national holiday, complete with military parades. Russia’s first post-Soviet President Boris Yeltsin turned those into an annual tradition; under Putin, hundreds of thousands of spectators have gathered to watch military personnel march alongside tanks and missiles. Billboards and buses have featured posters of Stalin for Victory Day. Tens of millions of Russian citizens have marched in Moscow carrying portraits of relatives who died in World War II. Ivan I. Kurilla, a professor at the European University of St. Petersburg, told the New York Times in 2018 that acknowledgement of family sacrifices during the war “is probably the only social glue to form a single society” in Russia.

But scholars say that often lost in the Victory Day celebrations are hard truths about what Russia’s victory in the war really meant. “The Stalin regime was almost as criminal as the Hitler regime,” scholar Nikolay Koposov stated in a Wilson Center webcast in 2020, “and most Russians do not realize that the war was not for their freedoms but was largely a battle between the two dictators.”

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Pundits in Russia have pointed out that Victory Day has also become about more than just celebrating Russia’s military achievements in the past; it’s very much about galvanizing support for Russia in the present and showing off the strength of Russia’s military forces.

Journalist Andrei Kolesnikov wrote in a 2017 article about the modern-day significance of Victory Day that it’s “central” to Putin’s view of Russian history, and “the Great Patriotic War” has become his nickname for World War II. “The current regime, which calls itself the sole heir of this victory, uses this achievement to make itself immune to criticism on other issues while justifying its current militarization efforts and excessive state interference in all aspects of life,” Kolesnikov wrote. “In its official conception, Russia’s commemoration of Victory Day in 1945 is only formally an occasion for collectively mourning for Russia’s war dead. It has turned instead into an instrument for providing support to the most militarized, bellicose kind of Russian leader.”

In the walk-up to Victory Day this year, the United Nations says that the Russia-Ukraine war has displaced more than 5 million Ukrainians so far—and projects it will displace more than 8 million before it’s done.

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