Russia’s Militaristic Victory Day

Mark Nuckols

5/9/2014 10:56:00 AM - Mark Nuckols

Today is May 9, which is the date Russia celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany (in Europe and America, May 8 is considered the date that marks the end of the war, but because of the time difference, German commanders signed the surrender documents on May 9 Moscow time). And every year the Kremlin stages a massive military parade and public celebration to commemorate the defeat of Germany.

In the U.S. WW2 has been consigned to history, and it's not an American tradition to have processions of tanks, APCs and missile launchers rumble through NYC and DC. And we're not inclined to gloat over our victory in WW2 or imagine that Germany or Japan are potential enemy states based on long ago events. In Russia, the opposite is true. Victory Day really is about gloating over victory, as people adorn their cars with stickers saying "thanks grandpa for victory" and "onward to Berlin" (this a copy of slogans painted on Soviet tanks in 1945). The military parade is a public spectacle designed to show Russian citizens how powerful their military is, and to reinforce the official ideology that Russia is surrounded by hostile and potentially hostile states, and that only tanks can guarantee Russia's security.

However, Russians have been taught a very selective version of the history of the Second World War, or The Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia. First of all, it is left entirely unmentioned that before Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the Soviets were allies of Hitler. In the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin agreed with Hitler to jointly invade Poland and annex its territory, with the Soviets also free to annex the then independent Baltic states and a chunk of Romania to boot. In addition to dividing Eastern Europe into respective Nazi and Bolshevik spheres of interest, Stalin agreed to supply Hitler’s war machine with raw materials in return for foreign currency and German technical advisors.

Another distortion of history under the Soviets was to trivialize the contributions and sacrifices made by its Western allies, namely America and Great Britain, in defeating Hitler. It is true that far more Russian soldiers died fighting Germany, but that was to a large extent a function of the low fighting efficiency of the Red Army and the willingness of Soviet commanders to use their soldiers as cannon fodder in military offensives that squandered lives recklessly. But this distortion of history has been revived by the Kremlin, which insists that its predecessor state the Soviet Union practically single-handedly defeated the Nazis.

Another purpose of the outsized public celebrations and military parade is to distract Russian citizens from the woeful condition of the Russian state and society. Not one Russian university makes it into the ranking of the top 200 institutions globally. There is virtually no innovation in Russian manufacturing and Russia is incapable of producing anything exportable, aside from commodities and low grade steel. And Russia under Putin has increasingly turned into a one party authoritarian state riddled with corruption and despite massive oil and gas revenues unable to provide high quality public services to its citizens.

Russia truly has come to have a very militaristic culture, and a cult of state power. This explains both the Kremlin's desire to thwart the U.S. over every global issue, merely as a matter of overwrought pride and jealousy, and why Russians continue to believe antiquated ideas such as the belief that Ukraine is the pathway for NATO to invade Mother Russia. And this year both Putin and the Russian public are drunk on the notion that the invasion and annexation of Crimea marks the return of Russia as a great power. It’s an illusory sense of power, however, as Russia is still a fundamentally weak country, with a resource dependent economy and a military which is no match for either NATO or China, but only strong enough to menace its even weaker and smaller neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia.

As long as the Kremlin harbors its outsized and unrealistic ambitions to be a great power and continues to deny its own weaknesses and paint Europe and America as menacing adversaries, Russia will continue to pose a threat to peace and security in its immediate neighborhood. And its grandiose military posturing is a perfect symbol of is militaristic mentality.