A few days ago, on May 9th, Russia celebrated the 72th anniversary of its victory in the Great Patriotic War, or, as it is known in the West, World War II. All but unnoticed in the West, this is a very big deal in Russia. All elements of the parade, the speech, the music—the iconography—are by now beautifully polished. It is a key ritual of Russia’s state cult. Its religious nature is manifested by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, who, emerging from within the walls of the Kremlin standing in a classic Soviet-era limousine, makes the sign of the cross: if you are still stuck in the frame of “godless communism,” you need a rethink. Although the parade is a display of military might, unmistakable in the collection of modern military hardware that rumbles through the Red Square, the overall message is one of peace. “Russia has never been defeated, and never will be” is the overarching message. And although Russians want to be recognized for their tremendous sacrifice in pursuit of victory, they see this victory as everyone’s: everyone—even the Germans—benefited from the Soviet destruction of a perfect evil in the form of Nazi Germany’s genocidal machine.
Victory Day parades have been held ever since the first one was held on June 24, 1945. But over the past two years a new ritual has emerged: throughout Russia, the former USSR and beyond people in their hundreds of thousands and millions parade through the streets with portraits of their fallen relatives. This year, the count throughout Russia was eight million; 600,000 took part in the Ukraine, in spite of threats, harassment and outright violence from the Ukrainian Nazis—descendants and admirers of Nazi collaborators who have recently been posthumously rehabilitated as Ukrainian nationalist heroes.
In English, this popular movement goes by the name of “Eternal Regiment”; and, as usual, something is lost in translation. The word “eternal” in Russian is “вечный” (véchny)—but the word used here is “бессмертный” (bessmértny), which means “deathless” or “unkillable.” And the word “regiment” sounds quite a bit more… regimented than the Russian word “полк” (polk), which is a close cousin of “ополчение” (opolchénie)—a spontaneously formed military volunteer unit, and “ополченец” (opolchénets)—essentially a rebel or a guerrilla fighter. Perhaps the best English can do is this hodgepodge of Anglo-Saxon, French and Spanish: “Unkillable guerrilla.”
The already tremendous and still growing popularity of this movement comes from the potent combination of emotions behind it. On the one hand, it is a veneration of the fallen and commemoration of their extreme sacrifice in the form of public recognition for members of one’s own family alongside all the others. On the other, it is fed by a wellspring of newfound confidence and pride: pride in the most decisive and significant military victory of the last hundred years; and confidence that, should the need arise again, Russia will be up to the task.
There is a popular theory making the rounds in the West that history is just a bunch of narratives, and one is worth another. For example, there is one narrative that the Russians like, in which the Ukrainians now venerated as heroes in the Ukraine were Nazi collaborators complicit in the genocide perpetrated against Jews, Poles and others. But there is another narrative, supposedly just as good, where these same Nazi collaborators were freedom-fighters opposing Soviet Communist oppression and helping fight off Soviet occupation of their homeland by fighting alongside valiant Germans who came to help them. To better make their point, the adherents of this second narrative have been busy desecrating monuments and graves and attacking veterans.
How is an innocent bystander supposed to figure out how to navigate this political and cultural war zone? These aren’t just narratives: people are being hurt and even killed. Nerves are frayed and tempers heated. Say the wrong thing to the wrong crowd, and you might end up having to pay for a whole new smile. There is a temptation to declare that “they are all a bunch of evil bastards!” Millions of people of all ages walking with portraits of their dead relatives through snow and sleet are all “evil bastards”? Really? Let’s look at what’s going on here in more detail.