A Holiday “With Tears in Your Eyes”

9 May 2019, 1410 EDT

One thing that Trump hasn’t done today yet (which he should have if he wants to stay in Putin’s good graces) was to congratulate Russians with Victory day. It’s an incredibly important holiday in contemporary Russia and its commemoration dynamic can help understand a large chunk of Russian foreign policy.

The specificity of Russian collective memory of the Great Patriotic War has been a key factor shaping society’s response to the “fascism” media frame, especially when it comes to the “Near Abroad”. For a number of reasons, the memory of the war is especially immediate and emotionally charged in Russia. In this context, “fascism” is not simply a dry term describing distant events and existing only on the pages of history textbooks. It is a highly evocative term that calls up a series of vivid images that are saturated with distinctive meanings and associations, and that have deep contemporary relevance, touching on issues at the very core of the post-Soviet Russian identity. In this context, the “fascism” frame is thus an especially powerful tool for constructing a sense of existential threat. The well-established, multi-layered and heavily mythologized meanings associated with the Russian memory of “fascism” serve to increase the likelihood that Russian audiences will accept and support securitizing moves that employ this frame. This effect was especially visible during the crisis in Ukraine and Russian population’s overwhelming rejection of the Euromaidan movement framed as a fascist coup in Russian mainstream media.

The Russian memory of the war has a number of distinctive features. First, the struggle with fascism is closely interlinked with Russia’s national identity as a “great power” and as the “liberator of Europe”. As Tatiana Zhurzhenko has noted, by condemning “neo- fascism” in the Baltic states and Ukraine, Moscow not only positions itself as the true defender of European values, but also relives its moment of “geopolitical triumph”. This memory is cherished especially dearly in the context of the international order that was formed with the end of the Cold War and the emotions linked to the perceived fall in status that came with the demise of the Soviet Union. That is why, questioning the heritage of World War II as an unambiguous battle against fascism as it often happens in the Baltic countries or in Poland, strains the relationship with Russia even further.

Second, the vitality and prominence of the Russian collective memory of the Great Patriotic War in part represent the fruits of decades of work by ideologists, from the Soviet period onwards, including recent renewed and intensified efforts aimed at capitalizing on the growing popularity of Victory Day. The Great Patriotic War represents one of the few events in Russian history capable of uniting the overwhelming majority of Russians, and precisely for this reason, the memory of the war was actively used for identity-making purposes in the late 1990s and 2000s. The revival of the Victory parade on Red Square in 1995,20 numerous patriotic commemorative initiatives by pro-government organizations, the use of the St George’s ribbon as a visual commemorative symbol, and the large volume of cinematic works on the war all testify to the activization of the war memory during this period, often with the direct involvement of securitizing actors from Russian government structures.

Third, the Russian memory of the war differs from its European and North American counterparts in its lack of emphasis on the memory of the Holocaust. For Russians, the memory of fascism is associated first and foremost with the immense suffering of the Soviet population, especially the civilian population in the occupied territories. As Maksym Yakovlyev writes, the primary chain of associations evoked by the Red Army’s victory over fascism focuses on atrocities perpetrated against Soviet women and children. This is the standard chain of associations evoked by the concept of “fascism” for the average Russian citizen, who, even if he or she paid little attention in school history classes, will at least have watched a few movies about the war, and whose family will also have been touched directly by the war experience in one way or another.

So Cadet Bone Spurs should really pick up the phone and tweet.