Victory Day – May 9 – is the most politicized date in the post-Soviet calendar. The most widely observed military commemoration in the world today, it is much more than a military parade on Red Square, featuring an astonishing variety of both official and grassroots events across the former Soviet Union and beyond. It is also an occasion for strident debates about the present-day political implications of World War II memory as well as Russia’s role in neighbouring countries and the world at large. Pitting those who consider the date sacred against those who denounce it as a product of political manipulation, these highly emotional discussions render a sober assessment of Victory Day very difficult, despite a growing body of empirical research (see here, here, here, or here) on the reality of post-Soviet war commemoration.
One way to advance beyond these charged normative debates is to consider possible scenarios for the future of Victory Day by drawing on the global history of war commemoration.
Nobody can foresee the future, especially in a region with such an unpredictable past. However, having a widely observed military commemorative day is by no means a Soviet or Russian invention or limited to authoritarian regimes, as Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand illustrates. Every national and historical context is unique, but a look at the evolution of other military commemorative dates throughout history might give us some clues as to possible scenarios for Victory Day.
Thus, as an intellectual exercise, let’s try to imagine what Victory Day might look like in 2055. Why 2055? Because we need to look beyond the inevitable crescendo of the big anniversary celebrations. The 75th anniversary celebrations in 2020 will be huge, and the 100th jubilee in 2045 might well surpass the 1912 festivities for Russia’s victory over Napoleon 100 years earlier. But what might a more regular Victory Day celebration look like when the great-great-great-grandchildren of Red Army soldier’s will have come of age?
I would like to propose four scenarios, drawing on commemorative traditions in other countries. The point here is not to erase the vast differences between what is being commemorated in each case, and how. I am not suggesting that Victory Day will – or could – develop exactly along the lines of any existing tradition of war commemoration, or indeed that the scenarios are mutually exclusive. The point is to stress that Victory Day is not unique. Other wars have been celebrated, mourned, and commemorated in various ways around the world since well before WWII. Looking at some of these different traditions can provide the long-term perspective that is often lacking in the passionate political debates surrounding Victory Day. It can help us highlight particular aspects of post-Soviet war commemoration, and think about what conditions would have to be met for it to develop in any given direction.
Scenario 1: Vidovdan
Given the significant symbolic resources the Russian state has been investing in war commemoration, many assume that the day will retain its current significance indefinitely. It is of course imaginable that, at least in Russia, Victory Day might remain a widely celebrated holiday long after the last surviving war veteran has died, a date with strong connotations of national pride that are reproduced through patriotic education and flare up in times of international or interethnic tensions, similar to the role Vidovdan celebrations to commemorate the 1389 Battle of Kosovo have played for Serbs, or to the status of Ilinden in what is now known as North Macedonia. What makes this scenario plausible is the ubiquity of war memorials that serve as potent reminders and obvious rallying-points, as well as the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in commemoration, which has vastly increased in recent years. Another indication is that while Victory Day speeches and events continue to stress the joint war effort of the peoples of the Soviet Union (and sometimes mention its allies), the tendency not just in Russia, but also in Belarus and Kazakhstan has been increasingly to stress the contribution of those from one’s own republic. Given the dearth of other symbols that such a broad cross-section of (some) post-Soviet societies can identify with, political elites will continue to appreciate the unifying potential inherent in an (increasingly stylized) image of the Great Patriotic War.
In this scenario, commemorating the war would be especially important for certain segments of the population—those with more conservative or patriotic views, those closer to traditionalist institutions such as the army or the Church. But within those segments it would be a socially significant occasion with a rich tradition of practices, and at times of crisis it would draw in larger parts of society.
Scenario 2: Memorial Day
The first scenario is rooted in a top-down perspective that stresses the role of political elites in maintaining military commemoration. In so doing, it neglects two factors that have been extremely important to the development of Victory Day: family dynamics and the role of grassroots groups. In fact, much commemorative activity in the post Soviet world today tends to be organized by two (overlapping) groups: the grandchildren of those who fought in the Great Patriotic War and members of grassroots groups that include military reenactors, volunteer search units, amateur historians, and veterans of later conflicts (e.g. Afghanistan) or individual army branches (e.g. paratroopers).
Generational dynamics are crucial to understanding Victory Day’s current importance. Similar to many other world regions, grandchildren tend to be more interested in the stories of their (now mostly deceased) grandparents than their parents were. It is no coincidence that the most significant commemorative initiative in the former USSR today – the Immortal Regiment – was launched by a group of journalists who are all grandsons of WWII participants. In the hundreds of interviews that my colleagues and I have conducted with organizers and participants of Victory Day events, two motivations were among the most frequently mentioned: wanting to honor one’s grandparents (and learn more about them) and to pass their story (and that of Soviet victory as a whole) on to one’s own children.
Another driving force has been the milieu of what could be called military affinity groups. While outside observers often assume that such groups are tightly controlled by the Russian state, they actually cover a spectrum from the subservient to the oppositional. They also maintain intense international connections both within and beyond the former USSR, including across borders between conflicting states such as Ukraine and Russia. Be it openly or behind the scenes, these groups often provide much of the infrastructure for Victory Day celebrations.
Given these developments, one likely path of development might be reminiscent of Memorial Day (and more generally, Civil War commemoration) in the United States. In this scenario, once the grandchildren’s generation with its strong affective links to war participants steps aside, Victory Day will remain a day with a widely recognizable cultural significance, but one that is primarily kept alive by the specialized groups that already play a crucial role in organizing World War II commemoration in the post-Soviet world.
Scenario 3: Cinco de Mayo
Outside of Russia, especially in countries with large Russian-speaking communities such as Latvia, Germany, or Israel, 9 May has increasingly become an occasion to celebrate one’s minority identity and Soviet or Russian heritage. Participants and even organizers in Victory Day celebrations in some of these countries include second generation immigrants with limited knowledge of Russian and a hazy idea not just of the official history of the war but even of the postwar Soviet canon of war commemoration in film, print, and ritual. In these contexts some of the practices that tend to irritate critics of Victory Day the most – such as wearing the St George’s Ribbon or dressing up children in Red Army uniforms – are slowly evolving from commemorative symbols to non-specific expressions of Russianness. While such practices often carry political connotations, these connotations are not always about identifying with present-day Russian policies and the Russian World (as both critics and Russian officials often assume) and may have more to do with recognition in one’s own society – this is perhaps most graphically visible in Israel with events organized e.g. by “Generation One a Half,” an association of young Israelis with Russian origins.
In these countries, Victory Day might develop along the lines of the Cinco de Mayo – a day that originally commemorated the victory of Mexican Forces over France at the Battle of Puebla of 1862, but one that was created by Hispanic Californians rather than in Mexico, and is now primarily observed in the United States, where it has evolved into a generic celebration of Latino culture largely detached from the original event.
Scenario 4: Sedantag
All of these scenarios assume some form of continuous development of commemoration, albeit one that ends up transforming it. However, we also need to entertain the possibility of a more radical rupture. As the French historian Henry Rousso has argued, our historical imagination tends to reach back only to the “latest catastrophe” (considered worth remembering).
In the history of military commemoration, this thesis is perhaps best illustrated by Sedan Day. In the newly formed German Empire after 1871, the Sedantag was a holiday that commemorated victory over France. Observed annually with massive popular enthusiasm and patriotic fervour even though it was not a work-free holiday, this day effectively became more important than other dates that attracted greater official endorsement, such as Emperor’s birthday. Bracketing out all the obvious differences, this process is reminiscent of how Victory Day came to rival and then supersede October Revolution Day in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia.
Then World War I intervened, and Sedan Day disappeared almost without a trace. This shows that celebrations intended for eternity sometimes do not last longer than a human lifetime. We need to be especially careful with drawing parallels here. After 1991, it was widely assumed that extensive commemoration of the Great Patriotic War would not survive the demise of the Soviet Union. The lesson is that not everything that appears as a catastrophe will turn out to be a memory-altering cataclysm. However, there is another lesson for those who associate Victory Day with the current Russian political regime and would like to see it go away. Commemorative traditions are usually more than just top-down political projects, and they don’t often end just because a political system changes, let alone simply because someone thinks they distort the historical record. Something big—though not necessarily another war or catastrophe of similar proportions—needs to happen for war commemoration to stop entirely. I doubt whether such change is ever anything to look forward to.