Russia’s 70th annual VE day celebration is now over. Therefore we can provide an objective analysis of he controversy around it. Predictably Russia’s claque in Europe, the UK, and the US attacked the political leaders who declined to attend this pageant of Russian military prowess. Those refusals were, of course, in large measure due to Russia’s continuing aggression against Ukraine. The obscenity of celebrating Russian military might and appearing to lend legitimacy to this regime under such conditions is obvious to all. But for Russia’s trolls here and abroad that apparently is a lame excuse. These trolls charged that refusing to legitimize that aggression at this ceremony (and make no mistake that is exactly what it was among other things) is an insult to Russia’s government and/or the Russian people and as another sign of the inveterate Russophobia that supposedly prevails in the West. Some of these apologists for Russia even claimed that this pageant contains no political content whatsoever and merely memorializes the great victory of the USSR in World War II. That argument is either cynical or naïve, and delusional like its spokesmen.
Undoubtedly the sacrifices endured by the Soviet — not just the Russian—people and their heroic valor — deserves commemoration, solemn respect and acknowledgement. But a true ceremony to mark the end of World War II cannot celebrate a new Gulag, Russian neo-fascism, and aggression. These ceremonies have always been festivals intended to legitimize either Soviet or Putin’s rule beyond acknowledging the sacrifices of the Soviet people. Indeed, there were not even any such ceremonies from 1948-53 under Stalin when the war as a much fresher and vital memory for many more people. This fact shows the constant politic al impetus behind these festivities.
Today a true celebration of the end of Nazism should celebrate not just that particular victory but Europe’s progress since then to a continent of peace, prosperity, and democratic rule, not a military parade to justify a regime based on violence at home and abroad, rampant criminality and repression. A regime that suppresses Memorial, the organization set up to preserve the memory of Stalin’s crimes and to glorify Stalinism and the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty possesses no claim or right to celebrate the end of Nazism. A true celebration would also acknowledge the full truth of the Soviet history of World War II: the horrors of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Stalin’s incredible incompetence before and even after 1941 that caused the death of 27 million Soviet citizens and the imprisonment as POW’s of a multitude of Soviet soldiers. It would acknowledege Stalin’s genocides both those that preceded and those that occurred during the war. And it would also acknowledge that viciousness and violence of the Stalinist regimes that were then imposed upon all of Eastern Europe and constituted not a liberation but a new enslavement.
It is worth juxtaposing this pageant to the hundred year anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Although the Erdogan government hardly is responsible for that crime it still cannot find the courage to admit what Turkish rulers did in 1915. As a result memories and feelings throughout the Caucasus between Armenians and Turkic peoples (Turkey and Azerbaijan) remain poisoned, Turkey remains mistrusted, and the unresolved issues of memory and truth help frustrate any progress towards peaceful resolution of the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the legacy of that century old genocide.
The same holds true for Russia. Indeed, this cynical celebration highlighted all the reasons why few if any states trust Russia or are willing to grant it the status it claims. Instead of acknowledging the truth as Germany has done Russia continues to glorify Stalin and Stalinism. Rather than admit its history Russia persecutes Memorial. Instead of acknowledging the genocidal campaigns during collectivization in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and then afterwards in the North Caucasus, denial and unapologetic chauvinism prevail over memory. Instead of freeing Russia from the repressive burden of memories that cannot be or are not being acknowledged Moscow insists on physical and cognitive repression. Instead of celebrating the glories of Soviet and Russian culture Moscow parades its tanks.
As a result, for all the controversy and sound and fury over this celebration it remains an insubstantial pageant that will do nothing to make Russia or anyone else feel good about that country or its government. But this empty ceremony does confirm that for those who seek a Europe whole and free and at peace that includes Russia the struggle for the truth remains a priority. If anything this ceremony and the cynical controversy it generated brings home with new force the truth and accuracy of Milan Kundera’s observation, written against an equally repressive regime, that, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” If and when there is a new parade to celebrate the end of World War II let it not be a phony pageant set up to justify Putin’s neo-fascism but one to celebrate truth, justice, peace, and Russia’s movement towards a democratic regime that alone will allow its citizens the peace, prosperity, and dignity that they deserve.