Ian Garner is an expert on Russian war propaganda and the author of Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat & Survival.
This year, Moscow is making grand plans to mark Victory Day, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany to end the Second World War on May 9, 1945. The usual cavalcade of troops, tanks and rockets will parade across Red Square. All over the country, civilians will attend their own parades, listen to the dwindling number of veterans reminisce, and watch Soviet-era and modern war movies on state television. The country is gripped by its usual pobedobesie: ”victory mania.”
Yet Russia is actively engaged in another war that seems to be quite far from victory. President Vladimir Putin has promised that the “special military operation” in Ukraine is an effort to save that fraternal country from another (and, of course, fictitious) Nazi threat. Yet 20,000 troops have been lost, and Russia finds itself embroiled in a strategic quagmire.
Many in the West might wonder how Russians can celebrate a past victory over Nazism when they have been startlingly incapable of achieving one in the present. But such dissonances, even or perhaps especially on Victory Day, are unlikely to have any effect on support for Mr. Putin’s war. After all, over the course of the 21st century, Victory Day has become the most important annual event in a state religion that mixes Soviet myths with Orthodox Christian beliefs. Through Victory Day celebrations, Russians reinforce a spiritual vision of military martyrdom that canonizes the 25 million Soviets who died in the Second World War.
For the past two decades, Mr. Putin has been reconstructing the Soviet-era cult of the Great Patriotic War – as Russians call the conflict on the Eastern Front – in a manner that has all the hallmarks of a religion. There is a pantheon of heroic saints – martyred soldiers and troops who gave up their lives to save humanity – who are celebrated with Orthodox-style icons and portraits in homes, official buildings and public displays. There is a commemoration of a moment of messianic sacrifice – the Battle of Stalingrad, when a million Soviets died in a last-ditch attempt to halt the Axis powers on the Volga River – which is celebrated as the “dawn of a new day.” Other public events feting the military win similarly do dual duty as an opportunity for faith leaders to preach to their flock.
The government reinforces these narratives through the production of big-budget films, television serials, books and educational programs. They are now more ingrained in Russian culture than they were even under the Soviets, when commitment to the cult of victory depended on the prevailing political winds. In 2021, about 10 million Russians attended the Immortal Regiment, when families parade through the streets holding iconlike photographs of their veteran ancestors.
The Russian Orthodox Church and the state have become ideologically and politically indistinguishable. The priesthood has sermonized on the government’s behalf, which has led to ruptures with Orthodox churches abroad. The state contributed $40-million to constructing Moscow’s Cathedral of the Armed Forces, a neo-Byzantine structure opened to mark Victory Day in 2020; it mixes Orthodox and war iconography and has even hosted exhibits about Russia’s wartime sacrifices. The Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has also blessed Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine, parroting the absurd official line that “Russia has never attacked anyone.”
As a result, a godless religion – the state’s cult of the Second World War – has been incorporated into Orthodox Christianity, and vice versa. The key tenet of this faith is not just observance of rituals such as attending Victory Day or church services, but the act of self-sacrifice. The worthiness of martyrdom – whether Christ’s sacrifice or wartime sacrifice – is woven throughout. Wartime losses are simply part of the road to victory, and to sacrifice oneself for the cause is inherently holy.
In a widely televised speech in the recently captured city of Mariupol on May 5, presidential deputy chief of staff Sergey Kirienko described Ukraine campaign as part of a continuum: “Russian troops are finishing the battle that our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers waged against Nazism. … Russia’s mission is to create a world free of Nazism.” That claim rests on faith, however. For Mr. Kirienko, the war is not just a geopolitical obligation but an implicitly holy mission that demands a victory calculus of a spiritual, not empirical, nature.
For the many adherents of the Russian religion of war, Victory Day’s celebrations will be a reminder that the battle for spiritual victory demands self-sacrifice. As such, losses on the battlefield may not turn the faithful away from their support for the war in Ukraine; in fact, the national rite may only serve to boost enthusiasm for the invasion.
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