The Evolution of the Soviet Victory Day Celebration. The Cult of the Great Victory

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All Soviet and Russian Federation Medals for anniversary of the Great Victory from 1965 to 2010

Tomorrow on the streets of Moscow and other capital cities of the former Soviet Union a large military parade will be held commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in May 9 1945. In Riga, Latvia there are no military parades just a large celebration at the Monument of Victory. Latvian Russian political movements have used this date for their political goals. For last four years the Riga city council has been led by the Russian party Harmony Center that has done a great deal of politicizing this celebration. There are similarities with the March 16 commemoration day of the Latvian SS Legion. While March 16 is  the main mythical date for Latvian nationalists and May 9 is an important date for all who still live with the soviet conciseness. The May 9 Soviet Victory day is artificially made celebration based on Soviet propaganda that made the cult of the Great Victory. Yet in first years after the war nor the soviet people nor the Stalin himself really believed that the victory over Nazi Germany needs to be celebrated.

Despite the fact that Soviet General  Ivan Susloparov had actually signed the capitulation agreement on May 7 at Reims, France that came to power in May 8, Stalin was dissatisfied with this and demanded to make another act of capitulation in Berlin. Because of these Soviets regarded the May 9 as the official end of the World War II.

The soviet Union explained the victory as the superiority of the communist system and the political and the moral unity of the Soviet people with Stalin in the lead. As the radio announced the victory the streets of Moscow rejoiced in celebration. With singing and fireworks from 1000 cannons the May 9 was celebrated with great joy. But, for many is was just sign of relief that the war killed over that more than 26 million Soviet people. In Germany and Poland the repressions and massacre against the German civilians continued for many months. In Latvia the Courland was still under the German control and last shots were fired there.

The Victory parade in Moscow took place on June 24 1945. It was intended that Stalin himself would enter the Red Square on horseback. However, during the practice Stalin fell off the horse and decided to hand him over to Marshal Zhukov. So it was Zhukov who entered the parade. For years this fact has circulated among the historiography and was mentioned even by prominent western historians. While there is a high possibility that Stalin never even took part in the practice as the whole story was made up. For the Cavalry Colonel S. N. Maslov who allegedly choose the horse for Stalin was sentenced in War Tribunal at Germany for 10 years. So he could not choose the horse for Stalin. More significantly this presumably false story was included in Zhukov memoirs. Zhukov memoirs have many false stories many of them not written by himself. So in reality Stalin simply did not want to participate in the parade because he did not consider the outcome of the World War II as truly victorious.

When one American diplomat told Stalin about how grateful for him must be to know that Soviet troops are marching in Berlin, Stalin replied:” Tsar Alexander reached Paris.” There is also another similar quote from Stalin: “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise. If now there is not a communist government in Paris, this is only because Russia has no an army which can reach Paris in 1945.” This is a well known phrase, but most people only pay attention to the first part of the quote about how far the army goes is how far the soviet power goes. It’s true that communist governments were established in every country that was reached by the Soviet army. But, it seems even the whole Eastern Europe was not enough for him as he wanted to establish a communist government in Paris. The main goal for Stalin and the whole Soviet Union before the WWII was the Worldwide Socialist Revolution. Stalin saw WWII as the clash between Nazis and Capitalist forces, where the Soviet Union at the most advantageous moment could make the most decisive strike. As we know that his plan backfired when Germany attacked the Soviet Union first. Berlin was not enough for Stalin, he wanted Paris and maybe even London or Washington. That is why he did not take any direct part in the parade. Even if there was any incident with the horse it was used as a good excuse not to take part in the parade that was shameful for him.

It was also June 24 when Stalin significantly changed the main accents in the Soviet ideology. In the victory ball Stalin made a toast for the well being of the Russian nation, since it was the greatest of the Soviet nations and deserves the main recognition for her bravery in the war. Ethnic Georgian Stalin unleashed the Russian nationalism at the full scale. All talks of internationalism were forgotten, Russian nation now declared as the main nation in the USSR. On 1943 the old Soviet anthem Internationale was replaced with more patriotic and nationalistic anthem praising the Russian nation. Stalin had acknowledged that his quest for international Soviet republic had failed so he instead restored the traditions of the old Russian Empire.

On June 23 1945 a decree was issued to demobilize older soldiers. Complete demobilization was finished in 1948. About 8,5  million soldiers with them 3,8 invalids went back home. 2, 6 million of invalids were completely unable to regain health and find a new job. 2 million Soviet prisoners of war went home as traitors and cowards. 67% of them had to go through filtration camps for the Soviet power was suspicious if they collaborated with the Germans.

During the last years of Stalin’s rule until 1953, no major celebrations for the Victory day ever took place. Despite the official ideology praised the veterans, they got little attention from the state.  Stalin was afraid from the military elite and in coming years discharged most war generals like Zhukov from top posts. The social payments  for veterans and money for receiving awards were reduced.  No celebrations or holidays took place on May 9.

After the death of Stalin in 1953, his successor Nikita Khrushchev seek to remove Stalin from the soviet historical memory. The campaign to disclose the Stalinist cult was underway and Soviet propaganda now accused Stalin of great losses of 1941 and too much trust on Hitler. However, the main myth of the peaceful policy of the Soviet Union before the WWII remained intact and was improved. Also Nikita Khrushchev had not abandoned the idea of the worldwide socialist revolution. He wanted to achieve with the economical and technical supremacy of the Soviet Union. His plans of outmatching the United States generally failed in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. However, for many years his propaganda of the great future reached by space race and technology shadowed the WWII memories.

On 1965 Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev understood that reaching the worldwide Soviet supremacy was impossible; instead his policy was to keep the Soviet system stable for many years to come. In such situation a new festivity that would keep the peoples minds busy was needed. So in 26 April 1965 the May 9 was made as an official holiday. Before that official holidays were May 1 and November 7 the October Revolution day. Many books were published, awards and special coins were made, and special monuments were made. The cities that suffered heavy battles were named as the “Hero towns”.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev introduced the Soviet Victory day celebrations

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev introduced the Soviet Victory day celebrations

Leonid Brezhnev formed his own ideology of the Great Victory. The victory was international and the role of the Soviet Army was crucial in the WWII. The victory meant the Soviet supremacy over Nazi and the capitalist system. Also Brezhnev now called all major nations of the USSR including Latvians as the “infinite heroes”.  Also one of the main points was the commemoration and the worship of the war veterans and the war generation. For the cause for what they fought was infinite.

On May 9 1965 an epic, never before seen parade took part in Moscow. After celebrating 20 years of victory such parades were taken every year. The Victory Day became the main argument of legitimacy for the Soviet regime. The Great victory was the main reason for the revolution and the building of communism. The Brezhnev view of history was close to the Stalinist version of history. War films were made in masses. The main basis of WWII history was no longer the war but the victory. The dark side of the war: the great losses of the 1941-1942, GULAG, Stalin’s aggression’s before 1941, punishment battalions, the Vlasov Army and the Soviet War crimes was diminished by the myth of the Great Victory. This myth halted the Khrushchev policies for anti-Stalinist, and slowed down calls for democracy. With that the Stalinist terror was also partly justified. There was also another prosaic explanation for this new policy. Brezhnev really liked orders and medals and like to receive them and award others. So such festivity was needed for mass awarding of medals and orders. Brezhnev even got himself awarded with the highest award the Order of Victory that he did not deserve in any way.

The monument of Mother Russia in Volgograd (Stalingrad) one of the distinctive sites of the Victory cult

The monument of Mother Russia in Volgograd (Stalingrad) one of the distinctive sites of the Victory cult

Since then the Victory day celebrations have been routine for the Soviet people. Forgotten veterans now enjoyed social privileges. Veterans and war invalids became a special social group. As the years vent the privileges expanded marking the feeling of social injustice among many. This also made many to became a fake veteran. This people made up their birth dates and biography to get the medals and social status.

In 1985 the Victory Day was still celebrated as usual. In 1990 the common policy was more revisionist, mentioning Stalinist crimes, Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In a social survey in Leningrad 60,8 % people agreed that the Soviet Union had begun a bloody war of conquer. Only 20% disagreed. The myth had collapsed as the Soviet power was now held responsible for the great war losses.

After the complete collapse of the USSR the revision of WWII history continued. However, many still believed that the common people during the Stalin’s era where good and honored and got nothing to with Stalinist crimes. Russian democratic regime canceled the official commemoration of the Soviet past. However, the social difficulties in  Russia the failure of the transformation to capitalist system made communist slogans to reborn again. People again looked for an iron hand to fix their problems and Stalin again was praised in many surveys. The Boris Yeltsin government failed to introduce the Russian society with ideas of national unity and the “Russian Idea”. The problem with the Great Victory was that the Stalinist crimes did not allow to use it in democratic propaganda.

The war veterans united in unions and committees.  In 1995 there were 2,4 million surviving war veterans. Yeltsin celebrated the 50 years of victory in 1995 to boost his re-election campaign. Also because of the war in Chechnya the boost for army was needed. The parade in the Red Square was restored. A Medal of Zhukov was introduced. Yeltsin had given up his desires for democracy and again introduced May 9 as the tool to unify the nation. And it worked because of large mass appraisal. The editor of the newspaper Nezavisimaja Gazeta Vitaly Tretyakov called the May 9 as the “unofficial commemoration day of the Soviet Union”.

The traumatic decade of the nighties made many think that the Soviet Union was not so bad, that the greedy statesman was the blame for its collapse. The memories for “good and stable” Brezhnev years again made the Victory day cult rise again. The new president Vladimir Putin sought to restore the good image of Stalin and KGB. And since the Putins reign just as the Brezhnev reign begun with high rise of oil prices that returned stability, the old ways were good again. Also the attitude towards the war in Chechnya also changed from negative to positive.

A new attribute to the May 9 Victory cult was the “George Ribbon”. Taken from the Czarist time ribbon of the Order of St Georgy, the black and orange ribbon became the symbol of the national solidarity. In Czarist times the use of the colors of the St George was only for nobles and awarded officers. The simple mass use of these colors is a degradation of old tradition. On 2005 the celebrations in Moscow hit new heights with massive parades and use of aircraft and rockets. Since the war veterans are slowly depleting in numbers, many think that the Victory day is a day of nostalgic solidarity and commemoration of the great soviet past. As the years pass by the understanding of the WWII events have significantly changed. The young generation is sometimes more fanatical than the old veterans who really faced the war. The biased image of the WWII made by movies, TV documentaries and computer games are causing for young generation to misinterpret the history. The neo-soviet propaganda in Russia is growing. As the Putin’s regime is facing difficulties the pattern of Stalinist revision is making its way. Even if there are great numbers of liberal and educated young Russians, large numbers of Russian youth still worships the victory cult. Even worse a relative number of people who rejects both no-sovietism and liberalism turns to radical nationalism or even Nazism.

Putinist Era propaganda poster for Victory day "I remember I take pride"

Putinist Era propaganda poster for Victory day “I remember I take pride”

In Latvia the May 9, has evolved as the day of protest and day of nostalgia. For some its the way of remembering the Soviet past, for others its a sign of protest against the Latvian democratic system. The Harmony center has failed to enter the government by its own fault for years and uses the Victory day to lure the voters. The movement to remove the Liberation monument where the celebration is held has been active for years. Calls for not using the WWII as a political tool and commemorate the victims on all sides on May 8 has been met with little support.

In the conclusion it must be said that the Soviet Victory day on May 9, was made as the tool of mass control. The struggling Soviet regime was searching for common sign of the Soviet collective identity and found it in the May 9. The main leader of the WW2 Soviet victory Stalin himself did not even want to celebrate his own victory. The cult of the Great Victory was made by people who had small or no experience in war and was made as the only uniting thing for the whole nation. Today as the Russian Federation is struggling to let go of the Soviet past and it has no uniting factor of its own; the Victory day continues to be the main event. It’s a matter of the new generation to finally let go the Stalinist grip and move into the new era.

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