A joke is making the rounds among Vladimir Putin’s opponents in Moscow: His two main accomplishments as Russia's president are Yuri Gagarin’s trip to space and Russia’s victory in World War II. This biting bit of sarcasm, which takes a swing at Putin's populist rhetoric, actually gets at something much deeper. It reflects Putin’s vision of the country’s development as well as the style in which he communicates with his citizens and the international community. And yet, though people in Russia understand him, those in the West do not.
In December 2012, Putin delivered his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly, where he first mentioned Russia’s lack of “spiritual girders.” This vague pairing of words is actually a fairly accurate one: These days, there’s little that holds Russia together. That it has a common language and system of laws doesn’t really count: There are lots of languages in Russia, and the only functioning law of the land is the law of corruption. There is no Russian Dream and, all these years, no one in the Russian leadership has even tried to invent one. Meanwhile, the moribund Russian economy doesn’t give the country much to be proud of: It has subsisted, year in, year out, on the export of energy. In this void, history becomes the only possible unifier.
Putin sees himself as a historical figure. At least, this is what people who spend time with him say. You can see it in his speeches, the way he takes care to associate himself with every period of Russian history: with the Yeltsin years, when he talks about the democratic milestones of the 1990s; with the Soviet era, when he mourns the collapse of the USSR; with the pre-Revolutionary period, when he facilitates the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church, which splintered shortly after the Bolsheviks took power.
All these periods in Russian history are understood differently in Russian society, but there is one theme that isn’t disputed by anyone: The victory in World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Which is exactly why Putin chose it to be the country’s main spiritual girder.
The Great Patriotic War, which cost the USSR nearly 30 million lives, has touched nearly every Russian family in some way, and it is the main—if not only—connecting thread unifying Russians today. Putin knows this in part because he is himself from such a family—he says his brother died during the siege of Leningrad ten years before he was born. He knows the power of this painful heritage. And so, wishing to rally Russians around himself, he has begun to use the memory of the war.
But that memory has to be purged of its negative pages, and so Russia now has a Commission to Prevent the Falsification of History. Russian directors have begun to make movies about the war in which the Red Army is completely flawless and free of sin. Historians who question Josef Stalin’s conduct of the war are ostracized. The past that fills the lacunae of the present must be perfect, and it must be so everywhere, which is why the country is suddenly festooned with black-and-orange striped St. George’s ribbons (once the ribbon on a tsarist medal), which were issued to commemorate the feats of Soviet soldiers.
It all began in 2012 when Putin returned to the presidency. Just two days after his inauguration, he let everyone know how he envisions Russia: as a strong power that plays an important role on the world stage. He announced this during the Victory Day parade. Explaining how Russia would fight new evil in the world, he harkened back to the example of how Russia defeated the evil of fascism back in 1945. “Russia is consistently pursuing a policy of strengthening global security,” he said. “And we have a great moral right to fundamentally and persistently defend our positions, because it was our country that took the main brunt of Nazism.” And, though he didn’t name it outright, it was clear what he meant by the new evil in the world: the United States.
This is how Putin began his third term, and this is exactly how he continued it. The victory in the war is constantly mentioned by the state. The victory in the war is the indulgence for every government sin. The victory in the war is now a weapon in fighting the opposition. When the state decided to put pressure on the independent television channel Dozhd (where I am the deputy editor), it accused the network of offending citizens’ feelings with its poll about the German siege of Leningrad. Immediately, advertisers and cable and satellite operators turned away from us, and state media started calling our channel “fascist.”
The victory in the war is also the justification for every foreign policy escapade. Government media referred to the annexation of Crimea as “the third defense of Sevastopol” and the B roll for the reports were shots of the battle for Crimea in the Second World War. Supporters of the Crimean annexation, as well as the separatists in southeastern Ukraine, differentiate themselves by tying St. George’s ribbons to their clothes. All of them say that they want to be part of Russia so that Russia can defend them from the “fascism” of the new Ukrainian government. Moscow, meanwhile, insists that it supports them for this exact reason, and that it doesn’t really have a choice: The Soviet people didn’t defeat fascism 70 years ago just to see it come roaring back today.
These are just a few examples, but the style is now inescapable in Russian political and even daily life. And, believe me, it works. When the founding principle for political action is such a universally painful and important memory—and the propaganda machine has been going on all cylinders—it’s almost impossible not to get the nation’s support.
And yet at some point in all this national exultation, it becomes clear that words have lost their meaning and symbols their luster; that the holy victory (“holy” is now the adjective used to describe it in Russia) has become something mundane, and a fascist is anyone you disagree with. Half the country is decked out in St. George’s ribbons. For the supporters of Russia’s position in Ukraine, it is a mark of distinction; in Moscow, you pin them to your lapel to show your patriotism. But they’re also being used to block the numbers on license plates, thereby foiling the police scanners that fine cars parked illegally. The fact that people once fought and died for these ribbons somehow seems completely irrelevant.
It’s all rather sad, but I doubt it concerns anyone in the Kremlin, especially given the numbers. The latest poll conducted by the independent Levada Center found that one in two Russians believe that Putin has returned to Russia its old status as a great world power. This number has grown 15 percent since last year, and 71 percent of Russians approve of the job Putin is doing.
Some experts predict that this upswell of patriotism won’t last very long and that, after the drunken giddiness of adding new territories subsides, the hangover will set in. The territories may be new, but the problems that remain are old. I doubt that any of this will get in the way of Putin holding the entire nation captive to one memory. So far, no one has thought of anything better.
Tikhon Dzyadko is the deputy editor at DozhdTV, an independent Russian television channel.
*This post has been updated to correct a misspelling of Putin's name, which we had as "Pupin," which is, admittedly, hysterical.