Why World War II Matters So Much To Russians Today

Massive celebrations are taking place across Russia on Friday to commemorate victory in World War II. After the Soviet era, May 9 wasn’t always such a big deal — until Russian President Vladimir Putin brought it back.

1. In Russia and much of the former Soviet Union, May 9, or Victory Day, means big parades, open-air concerts and emotional tributes to the past.

2. The holiday marks the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany, with special emphasis on the role of the Soviet Red Army.

3. Schoolchildren lay flowers at WWII memorials — nearly every Russian town has one — and honor elderly veterans.

4. Orange and black ribbons, the colors of the Soviet Order of Glory, are ubiquitous.

5. Soviet imagery is everywhere.

6. It’s an emotional day for Russia and Ukraine, which both suffered heavy casualties. An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in the war.

“Fyodr Nikolaevich Bulkin. Born in 1914 in the village of Motavino, Kalininskaya region. Infantryman … He went missing in August 1941. His last letter came from Estonia. This is my great-grandfather!”

7. Young Russians and Ukrainians are sharing photos of their relatives on Instagram.

“My great-grandfather, the great Pyotr Nikolaevich, test pilot, died in 1942 while defending the city of Oryol. #moscowremembers”

8. The Soviet state tapped memories of the war to build up a sense of national pride. Throughout the former Soviet Union, WWII is still known as the Great Patriotic War.

Wikimedia Commons / Via

9. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, May 9 celebrations in Russia became more muted. Over the last decade, Vladimir Putin has again advanced WWII as a centerpiece of modern Russian identity.

Eric Draper/White House via Getty Images

In 2005, Russia pulled out all the stops to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1945 Allied victory. Putin welcomed heads of state in Moscow, which was decorated with 50,000 flags for the occasion. “For the people of the former Soviet Union, it will forever remain a day of the people’s great heroic deed, and for the countries of Europe and the entire planet — the day on which the world was saved,” he said in a public address.

10. With Russia and Ukraine at odds, this year’s Victory Day celebrations have taken on a political cast. Russia’s pro-Kremlin state media describes the Kiev government as “fascist,” a particularly charged term in the former Soviet Union.

Kiev's hero city stone only one in Moscow's Alexander Gardens w/out flowers as 9 May approaches TT @EvgenyFeldman

— Jenny Mathers (@jgmaber)

11. Orange and black ribbons have become a symbol not only of Soviet military valor, but also of support for pro-Russian separatist militants in eastern Ukraine.

Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times / MCT

12. Ukrainian lawmakers from the Svoboda party introduced a bill that would restrict display of the ribbons. Some Ukrainians are marking May 9 with different symbols — red poppies and the blue and yellow national flag.

“Never again.”

13. Amid rising tension, the Ukrainian government scaled back public events planned for May 9 in Kiev.

For the first time in #Ukraine's independent history, Victory Day celebrations curtailed due to threats of violence

— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM)

14. Putin attended Victory Day celebrations in Crimea, drawing the ire of Ukraine, the U.S. and other governments that denounced Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in March.

Putin in #Sevastopol: You fought back against fascist in 1945. You fought for your liberty in 2014 too.

— Maxim Eristavi (@MaximEristavi)

15. Critics say Putin has exploited memories of WWII for political gain. “The victory in the war is the indulgence for every government sin,” opposition journalist Tikhon Dzyadko wrote.

Putin Is Using WWII for Propaganda Because It's the Best Memory That Russia Has via @tnr

— Тихон Дзядко (@tikhondzyadko)

16. In the midst of celebrations, clashes broke out in Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine.

heavy weapons used on police building which is charred wreck. Locals say army attacked police for siding w- separatists, Kiev says otherwise

— Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7)

A real mess in Mariupol, seen 2 dead bodies outside police station, assume many more. Emotions high, trying to piece together what happened

— Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7)

18. And for some Ukrainians, Victory Day felt different than it has in the past.

“To celebrate Victory Day in a past war, which we did not see, and at the same time to be living in such a fragile world today, on the edge of a war that we may have to join — it’s scary and sobering at once.

I have never been as happy to celebrate Victory Day as I am today. Thank you, dear veterans, for winning peace. I hope that we can also protect it.”

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Susie Armitage is the Global Managing Editor and is based in New York.
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