Skip to main content
Subscriber Exclusive

Putin uses cherished WWII Victory Day to glorify Russia and himself. Now he's using it against Ukraine.

Recalling Russia's historic defeat of Nazi Germany, Putin says Russian troops in the Ukraine war are fighting for "the motherland."

Published Updated

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russians in Ukraine are "fighting for the motherland, its future," at a May 9 military parade marking Victory Day, which celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

Putin did not, however, announce victory in Ukraine as some sources suggested he would, or anounce an escalation in the conflict.

The war has focused attention on May 9 as a Russian national holiday, on Putin's use of it to advance his own image as a leader, and how Putin claims, falsely, that Ukraine is controlled by Nazis to justify the invasion.

"Putin understands the power of the World War II story," says Simon Miles, assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

"It's the same way that Americans who talk about the Greatest Generation understand the war as harkening back to a time of great personal sacrifice," Miles says.

What's the significance of Victory Day in Russia?

"This is a bit more of a dangerous situation, more of a turning point, than anything we've seen thus far," retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, former National Security Council director of European affairs, told Axios.

It's not surprising that Victory Day is being connected to the Ukrainian war. Russia's May 9, often cited as the near-equivalent of America's July 4, is the country's largest public holiday and a symbol of its national pride.

Russia's overall role in World War II is mixed. It signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, which ended when the Nazis invaded Russia on June 22, 1941. On that same day Russia joined the Allies and later defeated Germany along the Eastern Front, paying a high price in casualties.

In Russia, it's called 'The Great Patriotic War'

Russia calls World War II "The Great Patriotic War." Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day, was announced on May 8, 1945. Russia, however, celebrates it on May 9.

"May 9 is a huge day," Miles says. "It's especially important to the Russian state, which capitalizes on the public relations element of the big parade in Moscow."

The parade is massive, with troops and military weaponry on review through Moscow's Red Square. More than 12,000 soldiers, 190 pieces of hardware and 80 military planes were part of the 2021 parade.

Russian servicemen march along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021.
Russian servicemen march along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV, AFP via Getty Images

Since 1945, however, Victory Day celebrations have evolved to do more than commemorate Germany's surrender.

"In the 20 years between 1945 and 1965, the entire population celebrated more locally," says Amir Weiner, associate professor of History and Director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Stanford.

"It was something that that meant a lot to tens of millions of people, because it was directly personal," Weiner says.

"There was almost not a single family that was not impacted by the war, either by losing someone, someone who was injured, friends or families losing their property, being relocated, and so on."

Russian Victory Day parades, by year and leader

On the national level, the Great Patriotic War has evolved into a kind of cult, says Georgiy Kassianov, professor at the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland.

"It involves the legacy of the USSR," Kassianov told USA TODAY. "It includes the unity of Russia through common tragedy, sacrifice and achievement, and retains the international image of Russia as a liberator of Europe."

May 9 parades were held every year beginning in 1995. They've transformed over the years, Kassianov says.

"After 2005, Russia was presented as a liberator," Kassianov says. "After 2015, Russia was seen as a combatant against Nazism."

Russia has "really cracked down to kind of co-opt the story of World War II," Miles says. "It's become a national narrative of survival against all odds, victory against the forces of evil that are encircling and conspiring against Russia."

Russians, however, did not learn the true cost of the war until long after it was over.

Stalin underplayed Russian WWII casualties

In 1946, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin said Russia lost 7 million people, soldiers and civilians, in the Great Patriotic War, what Russians called the war with Nazi Germany.

But Stalin knew that was false. He wanted to protect his own image and didn't want the world to think the war made Russia weaker. Higher casualty numbers were disclosed years later.

Soviet leaders "would hide people crippled by the war, some of them in remote areas," Kassianov says.

Though succeeding Soviet leaders were more forthcoming, most Western nations did not learn of the heavy price Russia – and the Soviet republics, including Ukraine, paid in World War II until the Cold War began to thaw.

Ukraine was occupied by German forces in 1941. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation and 700 cities and 28,000 villages were destroyed.

While Soviet leaders gradually admitted the World War II death toll was higher than initially acknowledged, it took 20 years before the nation officially observed the May 9 holiday.

"A reassessment came in 1965 under Leonid Brezhnev, who started to praise the victories in the war," Kassianov says. "He introduced the politics of a great victory and great respect to veterans of a great and tragic war."

The higher casualty numbers "were a sort of declassification story, not a history revision story," Miles says. "I would characterize it as Soviet and later Russian leaders coming to grips with the country's World War II history."

That marked a resurgence of official interest in the war, leading to the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1967.

President Vladimir Putin attends the annual Red Square parade in Moscow on May 9, 2006, in celebration of Russia's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
President Vladimir Putin attends the annual Red Square parade in Moscow on May 9, 2006, in celebration of Russia's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. MIKHAIL METZEL, AP

Interest and passions surged under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, "who declassified huge amounts of information on the Stalinist periods," Miles says.

Gorbachev revealed, "for example, penal battalions who were basically used as human shields or given suicide missions," Miles says. That and other revelations increased the casualty count to nearly 27 million.

Putin embraces The Great Patriotic War ...

In Russia, "the glorification of war is also a part of the glorification of the Soviet leader," Miles says.

"I think Putin recognizes the war's utility as a national myth," Miles says. "Putin likes the military trappings. That's the image of Russia, that kind of muscular image that he wants to project to the world."

But there are secondary messages.

Putin is also telling Russians that "for the good of the state, you need to put aside your personal wants and needs," Miles says. "His big point is always, if it's not me, it's the disaster of the economic, social and political chaos of the 1990s."

Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev, right, makes a point to President Richard Nixon during a Kremlin reception in Moscow on June 27, 1974.
Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev, right, makes a point to President Richard Nixon during a Kremlin reception in Moscow on June 27, 1974. AP

... but the practice started under Brezhnev

The reverence for Great Patriotic War began under Brezhnev – a "deeply immodest man," Miles says – who took ownership of the war as being his own story.

Brezhnev served in the war but he wasn't a field officer. "He was responsible for the political education of soldiers, though he knew what war was," Kassianov says. Brezhnev did exaggerate his own role.

As premier, Brezhnev "had a desire to give people a national narrative around which they could rally," Miles says. And Putin is doing the same.

A woman passes a giant poster depicting Leningrad residents getting water from the frozen Neva River during World War II in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Jan. 26, 2009.
A woman passes a giant poster depicting Leningrad residents getting water from the frozen Neva River during World War II in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Jan. 26, 2009. Dmitry Lovetsky, AP

Putin's connection to World War II is real, however. He was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, the Russian city that was under siege by German forces for nearly 900 days. About 1.1 million people died, many from starvation.

Putin was born seven years after the siege but "his family in Leningrad suffered greatly," Weiner says. "He lost one of his older brothers, and his grandmother and uncles. The war is a personal memory, not just historical."

Kremlin records say Putin graduated from Leningrad State University in 1975 and joined the KGB, the Russian security agency. Soviet university students were required to take military training, the Guardian reported, and in 2019, Putin said he was a lieutenant in an artillery battalion.

When he came to power, Putin "picked up the Soviet myth of great victory and turned it into central unifying myth for Russia," Kassianov says. "The underlying idea was the victory was the achievement of all the people and the state."

Putin started early. On May 9, 2000, two days after his presidential inauguration, Putin met with Russian veterans of WWII and thanked them for their service.

“You not only destroyed the enemy and won. You lifted up a devastated country, rebuilt it anew,” Putin said. “From time immemorial, Russia has been a victorious country.”

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed in 1991. In the ensuing decades, some of its former republics and Warsaw Pact members have joined NATO. Ukraine and Georgia have also sought membership in NATO and the European Union.

How Russia lost influence across Eastern Europe

Post-World War II: USSR and Warsaw Pact allies

1991: After USSR collapse

In justifying the invasion, Putin has said Ukraine’s government is controlled by Nazis and has characterized the war as a peacekeeping mission. "We will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” Putin said on state television.

That's despite the fact that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and had relatives who died in the Holocaust.

"Putin can say whatever he wants, because that's what he's been doing for the last 20-something years," Weiner says. "We have to simply accept that this is a regime that creates its own narrative."

It's also the type of absurdist claim that's happened before. On a lesser matter, Putin was ridiculed by outside sources in 2011 after saying he found two ancient Greek urns while diving in the Black Sea. A spokesman later said the find was staged.

"I feel Putinism has always about saying, 'this is what we can make you accept,'" Miles said.

"It's almost like the state is saying to the people, as an exercise of power, 'look at this absurd claim we're going to make, we're going make you treat it as if it's true,'" he said.

Putin could stay in office until 2036

No matter what happens in Ukraine, it's possible Putin could stay in office for another 14 years.

Putin, 69, signed a law in 2021 that will let him run for office twice in the future. That means he could be Russia's president until 2036, giving him a total of 36 years in office, more than Stalin, who reigned for 29 years.

While Miles is skeptical that Putin will be able to declare victory by May 9, he does believe Putin will stay in power. "I think nothing will stop him from running again, kind of reshuffling the deck in order to give himself more time," Miles says.

"I believe that Putin will stay until then, unless there is some divine intervention or medical intervention, nothing will stop him," Weiner says.

"We all try to speculate how secure he is in power," he says. "I believe he's very secure. He is the person we'll have to deal with for the long term."

Putin could use Russia's Victory Day on May 9 against Ukraine
May 9th is Victory Day in Russia, the day Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945 at the end of World War II. Vladimir Putin has been using the holiday to glorify Russia and himself.
Anastasiia Riddle, USA TODAY

________

SOURCE USA TODAY Network reporting and research; The Associated Press; Getty

Published Updated