Victory Day and What It Means to be Russian

By: Arabella Schwarber

Victory Day – a 2018 documentary by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa — opens in Berlin’s Treptower Park. Several groups of boys dressed in military uniforms practice military drills, marching in sync and saluting one another. They laugh and smile while doing so, all the while, a hauntingly beautiful Soviet song plays in the background describing the tragedy of World War II: “wake up, wake up, my dear comrade” the man sings, “grab your coat… let’s go home”.

            Victory Day is a major holiday celebrated in Russia that marks the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Most in the West tend to see Victory Day as a bombastic celebration: one with military parades and boasts of weaponry and show of arms. However, in Russia, Victory Day means much more than just an opportunity for display of military might: it can be a somber holiday, one in which thousands of Russians remember their lost loved ones and flowers are displayed at memorials. It is undeniable that Victory Day has become central to post-Soviet Russian identity.

            Sergei Loznitsa’s stylization of the documentary plays an instrumental role in displaying to the audience how Victory Day has been consumed into Russian identity. He plays imagery of crowds of people in public, many of which are dressed in old Soviet military uniforms and carry old Soviet flags, and he only allows certain selections of dialogue to be heard. Amongst these bustling scenes, a particular speech that stands out is one given in German that states: “Today is the 9th of May, 2017. And it is obvious here in Germany and in Europe, and in particular Russia,  it’s obvious that World War II is not over.”

            An essential conception within Russian political ideology is the idea that Russia must be viewed as prestigious and powerful – somebody with respect on the global stage. Coupling this conception with a history of imperialism and military invasions in both Russia and from Russia creates a sense of identity that Russia is a nation who is capable of military power and therefore must protect itself from foreign invasion, particularly from the West. This feared invasion, however, is not only territorial, but ideological – anything that threatens to dismantle Russian authority can be viewed as a threat. The dialogue from the speech in which a man states that World War II is not over, particularly for Russians, highlights this idea that there is an ongoing battle between Western and Eastern ideologies within European space. Part of the rhetoric for the war within Ukraine is the idea of “denazification”: in Russia, the idea that western influence has introduced fascism into Ukrainian political ideology is used to “justify” their invasion. If they were able to “save” Ukraine from this fascist propaganda, so the thinking goes, then their perception of prestige on the global stage would escalate as they would see themselves as heroes.

            Victory Day plays a similar role in which Russia – the USSR then – views itself as a hero in the previous “denazification” of Europe. Russia’s leaders believe this has granted them universal global respect; however, fear of Western alliances and ideologies still permeate the Russian psyche due to the historical trauma of World War II. As a result, an underlying distrust still exists and Russian leaders feel justified in the need to “protect” neighboring countries from what it views as political enemies.

            In my opinion, Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary captures Victory Day in its true nature: old Soviet uniforms, Soviet songs, and Soviet flags serve as a reminder of past greatness and power, something that Russia is still trying to achieve in the present day. The military might and victories of the USSR have entered Russian identity and psyche as justifications for intervention within neighboring countries in hopes of being able to project an image of a prestigious nation with capabilities of protecting those around it. However, in reality, it has done the opposite. The Russian military intervention in Ukraine has produced widespread opposition throughout the globe. Victory Day helped serve as a catapult for justification of Russian military intervention, and although it can be a day for remembrance, its use as political leverage has shifted its meaning into something of glorification of Russian power.

Arabella Schwarber is a second year majoring in Political Science and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies

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