On Saturday, 15,000 Russian troops, 200 tanks and trucks, and 150 airplanes and helicopters will parade through Red Square in the largest military spectacle held in Moscow since the collapse of the USSR. Songs will be sung. Speeches will be made. New weapons will be unveiled. Clouds will even be seeded with silver iodide to prevent rain. All of Russia will stop for a day to remember the victory of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union over Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, 70 years ago to the day.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s historic spectacle will be the latest in a long line of cynical and systematic attempts by the Kremlin to minimize the horrors of Soviet Communism — and the decades of occupation it imposed on millions of human beings throughout Europe and Eurasia. In glorifying the totalitarian rule of the Soviet era, it is also a not-too-subtle effort to justify the cruel realities of Putin’s Russia today.
No event in Russia’s history is celebrated more than World War II, which the Kremlin calls the “Great Patriotic War.” Since rising to power 15 years ago, Putin has tried to turn May Ninth into a Russian holiday that combines the patriotism of America’s July Fourth with the reverence of the Christian Easter Sunday. By recalling a time when Russia changed history, Putin tries to make his struggling nation believe it can change history again. By invoking the memory of a time when Russia was surrounded and invaded, he hopes to distract his people from his own invasions of neighbors. By commemorating one war, he hopes to prepare Russians for another.
That other war is already being fought, of course. It began with Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and it continues in eastern Ukraine. Reuters reports that state-run television stations are “showing constant war films in addition to war footage from east Ukraine,” in a possible effort to fuel “aggression and xenophobia” and to unite the Russian people, “a tactic used by the Soviet Communist leadership.” Even the orange and black ribbon of Saint George has been transformed from a symbol of Russia’s defense against fascist Germany into a symbol of support for its aggression against what the Kremlin calls “fascist” Ukraine.
Since rising to power 15 years ago, Putin has tried to turn May Ninth into a Russian holiday that combines the patriotism of America’s July Fourth with the reverence of the Christian Easter Sunday.
Putin’s false narrative depends on suppressing historical truths: In the past two years, Soviet-era archives have been closed, Gulag museums shut down, and school textbooks changed. So intent is Putin on exploiting an imagined past that last year he made it a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, to “distort” Russia’s role in World War II. That means it might be a felony to point out that Russia’s official retelling of that war is a self-serving whitewash.
It might be a felony to say, as Poland’s foreign minister recently did, that Russia is actually where World War II “began”; Hitler invaded Poland only after he and Stalin agreed to divide Poland through the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.
It might be a felony to report, as acclaimed historian Ian Kershaw has done, that Soviet soldiers raped approximately one of every five women living in eastern Germany.
It might be a felony to comment that the Soviet Union’s “liberation” of Eastern Europe simply replaced Nazi totalitarianism with Soviet totalitarianism.
It might be a felony to say that Hitler and Stalin shared practically identical tactics and goals, and that they should each be remembered as the blood-soaked tyrants they were.
Capping off this Orwellian reeducation campaign will be Putin’s grandiose victory parade, which will feature the new Armata T-14 tank, which can fire guided missiles and may soon become fully robotic. Also on display will be the Buk anti-aircraft missile system, the same weapon that was likely used last year to shoot down a commercial Malaysian Airlines flight cruising peacefully over eastern Ukraine.
The parade’s gallery will not, however, feature most of the 68 world leaders whom the Russian president invited to attend the festivities. Barack Obama will not be there. Nor will the heads of state of most of Russia’s other allies in World War II: Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and France. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel will not attend the parade, either, though she is set to visit Moscow the next day and, alongside President Putin, lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
But Putin’s guest list also includes leaders or representatives of regimes that more closely resemble his own — Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and North Korea will all be represented at the parade. China’s head of state, Xi Jinping, will make an appearance. Moscow’s new best friends, the Maoists and Communists in Greece’s ruling Syriza coalition, will also be in attendance.
So far, very few countries have refused to participate at all. Lithuania, for example — a country that Stalin brutally annexed with the acquiescence of his then-ally Hitler — flatly refused any representation at the parade. Which raises the question: Why haven’t more nations done the same? Why hasn’t the United States, which managed to liberate half a continent without raping and executing the very populations our troops were sent to liberate?
To be sure, history is complicated. We must not oversimplify or imply that there were no Russian heroes in the struggle against Nazism. The Soviet Union was an important military ally of the United States and helped to defeat the Nazis and end the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were murdered. Twenty million Russians died in the fight against Adolf Hitler’s evil regime, and their sacrifice should be remembered.
But so too should we remember and honor the death of every man, woman, and child murdered in cold blood on the orders of Joseph Stalin. We should also remember the horrors of Soviet Communism that plagued Eastern Europe for four and a half decades after Stalin’s henchmen replaced Hitler’s in the bloodlands of Central and Eastern Europe. Last year the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation honored the life’s work of Ukrainian human-rights activist and Gulag survivor Myroslav Marynovych; Marynovych has warned that “forgetting the crimes of Communism has put the world at the edge of a new Cold War” and called for “acknowledgment,” “confession,” and “forgiveness” by those involved in the sins of the Soviet past. As long as Putin and his enablers continue to portray that history as something worthy of triumphant parades, true reconciliation will be impossible.
A brighter future for Russia cannot be built on lies about the past. In Winston Churchill’s words from seven decades ago, “this is certainly not the Liberated Europe we fought to build up. Nor is it one which contains the essentials of permanent peace.” Rather than participating in Vladimir Putin’s bellicose revision of 20th century history, Western governments should be defending the truth about Soviet crimes.