Russia’s War in Ukraine Undermines the Real Meaning behind the 9th of May Anniversary Celebrations

Guest blog post by Natalia Telepneva, author of Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961–1975.

We are proud to offer Cold War Liberation in our usual print and ebook formats, plus as an open-access edition available through the Sustainable History Monograph Project.

‘My greatest wish for my children and grandchildren is that they never experience war’, my grandfather used to say, especially as the topic of war came up during yearly celebrations of the Soviet Victory over Nazi Germany on the 9th of May. For me, a Russian teenager growing up in St. Petersburg of the 1990s, the 9th of May commemorations always revolved around my grandfather, a Soviet Jew and a first-year university student who had volunteered for the Red army in July 1941 and my grandmother, who was lucky enough to survive the siege of Leningrad.  To WW2 veterans like my grandfather, war was a brutalising experience that could never be allowed to recur.

The Soviet leadership also knew the real meaning of the 9th of May too well. After the first famous military parade on the Red Square in 1945, state-sanctioned celebrations of the day were muted. In 1947, the Soviet government made the 9th of May a regular working day and there would be no military parades. Major state sanctioned celebrations of the 9th of May recommenced only in 1965 under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Himself a decorated war time veteran, Brezhnev ramped up the celebrations since he saw the potential for the WW2 to act as a unifying ideology of patriotism for a new generation of Soviet citizens who had never experienced the October revolution.

This is not to say that the Soviet leadership didn’t use violence to achieve foreign policy goals. Joseph Stalin was more than willing to use intimidation for his imperialist goals in East-Central Europe after the war, installing local Communists with the support of the Red Army. Stalin’s successors also used military force — notably in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 — to maintain hold of Empire in Eastern Europe. Although these interventions had highly damaging long-term consequences for the legitimacy of the Soviet system, these were not ‘wars’ in a common sense of the term since Soviet tanks were dispatched to intimidate civilians and local elites, rather than fight professional armies. The Soviets used the false rhetoric of fighting ‘right-wing’ forces during their intervention in Czechoslovakia. However, Moscow usually reserved the wrath of their propaganda for the ‘other side’ of the Iron Curtain. Socialism was supposed to have cleansed the countries of East-Central Europe from ‘Nazis’-real of imaginary. 

Elsewhere, the Soviets tried to avoid getting directly involved in military conflict. Starting from the 1950s onwards, Moscow was increasingly willing to support what Nikita Khrushchev termed as ‘sacred wars’ of national liberation in Africa, Asia and Latin America in line with principles of ‘socialist internationalism’. In Sub-Saharan Africa, demand for Soviet weapons and training grew exponentially as struggles against white minority rule in South Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa and Portuguese colonial rule in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau intensified in the 1960s. The peak of Soviet interventionism in Africa came in the mid-1970s when the Soviets armed and trained a local ally, the MPLA, during a Civil War that turned into a Cold War ‘hotspot’ in Angola and supported a revolutionary regime in Ethiopia during its war with Somalia. However, as my most recent book, Cold War Liberation shows, the Soviets were reluctant to intervene. In fact, they preferred an ‘African solution’ to local conflicts and significantly stepped-up support only at the request of local allies and the Cubans, who did most of the fighting.

The most notable exception was the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. The decision began with what was supposed to be a quick ‘special military operation’ to install a preferred local leader, but it quickly turned into a military quagmire, as Soviet troops were forced to stay in the country and fight a bloody war against an elusive and motivated adversary, supplied with US weapons and supported by neighbouring Pakistan. By the mid-1980, it was obvious to the majority of the Soviet leadership that Afghanistan had been a blunder, with Mikhail Gorbachev trying to figure out how to extricate the Soviet Union without ‘losing face’ or betraying their local ally. The task proved exceedingly difficult, as the Soviet army bled and real news about the war started to seep through the cracks of increasingly weak censorship during perestroika. 

It seems that now both the lessons of Afghanistan and the real meaning of the 9th of May have been forgotten. In 2012, the public-march known as the ‘Immortal Regiment’ became widely popular in Russia and among the diaspora since it offered a way for ordinary people to commemorate the war veterans—their relatives who didn’t survive WW2, but also those who did and died of natural causes. At the same time, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 saw increasing militarisation of WW2 memory, with ordinary citizens decorating their cars with stickers calling ‘To Berlin’ and ‘We can repeat it’. Since then, state propaganda has only inflated such sentiment, often using the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region as a reminder of the injustice inflicted upon a Russian-speaking population, whilst ignoring the Kremlin’s role in instigating the conflict in the first place.

As Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February, the authorities have cynically used the memory of WW2 to claim so-called ‘de-Nazification’ as one of the goals. So far, a combination of toxic propaganda, the elimination of alternative sourced of information and state repression of dissent have at least partially worked to ensure a degree of popular support for the ‘special operation’ in Russia. However, that outcome is not assured to last. In 1942/43, the tide of Soviet war against Germany turned in part because Soviet citizens experienced the gruesome reality of Nazi occupation policy, turning the war into an existential struggle for survival. It remains to be seen when the tide of Russia’s public opinion turns against the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, but it will be inevitably linked to the dissipation of the ‘de-Nazification’ myth. In the meantime, struggles around the meanings of the 9th of May will continue. 

Natalia Telepneva is lecturer of international history at the University of Strathclyde.