Historical story

The story behind Russian Victory Day

"Victory Day" is always a big holiday for Russia:it marks the bloody victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in World War II, during which more than eight million Soviet soldiers fell dead.

But this year, as Russia's war with Ukraine continues, the day takes on a different meaning. Since February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, there has been a flurry of speculation about whether this year's "Victory Day" will mark a turning point in a war that has already killed thousands and forced millions to flee their homes.

In March, the news site "Kyiv Independent" reported that the Russians had told their troops that the war must be over by May 9, while more recently, American and Western officials openly questioned whether Russia would formally declare war on the 9 May, escalating what Vladimir Putin has described as nothing more than a "special military operation".

But on May 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said according to the "Moscow Times":"Our military will not adjust its actions based on any date, including Victory Day.

We will officially celebrate on May 9, as we always do. Remember those who died for the liberation of Russia and the other republics of the former USSR, as well as for the liberation of Europe from the Nazi plague."

World War II has also shaped Putin's approach to the Russia-Ukraine war. In justifying the invasion of Ukraine, he claimed that he had set out to "de-Naziize" the country - a phrase that many experts have noted is inaccurate, given, among other things, that Ukraine also has a Jewish President.

The Second World War has always been a very central part of how the Russian state has told the country's history. Although the Allies established May 7 as "V-E Day" or "Victory in Europe Day" to commemorate the surrender of the Nazis at Reims, France, Joseph Stalin wanted to wait to celebrate until the surrender of the Nazis in Berlin controlled by the Soviet Union the next day. When the text was signed late at night, it was already May 9, Moscow time.

As TIME magazine previously reported, in the 1960s Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev established May 9 as a national holiday, with military parades. Russia's first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, made it an annual tradition. And under Putin, hundreds of thousands of spectators have gathered to watch soldiers march past tanks and missiles.

Billboards and buses have occasionally been donned with posters of Stalin for Victory Day, while tens of millions of Russian citizens have marched through Moscow holding portraits of relatives who died in World War II.

Ivan Kurila, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, told the New York Times in 2018 that recognition of family sacrifices during the war "is probably the only social glue with which a unified society is formed in Russia."

Of course, there are scholars who argue that the Victory Day celebrations actually hide the hard truths.

Experts have pointed out that "Victory Day" is not just about celebrating Russia's past military achievements. It has more to do with boosting support for Russia today and demonstrating Russian military power.

Journalist Andrei Kolesnikov wrote in a 2017 article that the modern significance of "Victory Day" is "central" to Putin's view of Russian history and that the "Great Patriotic War" has become the nickname of World War II War.

"The current regime, which calls itself the sole heir to this victory, uses this achievement to remain immune to criticism on other issues, while justifying current militarization efforts and excessive state intervention in all aspects of life," he wrote.

"In its official perception, Russia's celebration of Victory Day in 1945 is only formally an occasion to mourn the war dead together. Instead, it has become a tool to provide support for a more militarized and bellicose type of Russian leader."

According to the UN, as of today, the day the victory in the war against the Nazis is celebrated, the Russia-Ukraine war has so far displaced more than five million Ukrainians. He predicts that by the time it is completed, it will have displaced more than eight million.