July 08, 2020

Putin's Victorious Summer


Putin's Victorious Summer
"Spared no expense." Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, Wikimedia Commons

Despite health concerns over coronavirus (and Moscow's pavement), this year's Victory Parade on Red Square went off without a hitch. If you haven't seen it yet, check it out here. It's an incredible display of patriotism, complete with the leaders of several nations, participants from 14 countries, and some 20,000 total troops.

President Putin himself, sporting the St. George Ribbon, could be seen greeting veterans, and it seemed like Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus' somewhat eccentric president, shared a laugh with his Serbian counterpart (at about the 1 hour-18 minutes mark). As weird as it is to see these East European leaders act like human beings, it seems like a good time was had by all.

So what was the deal this year? Why all the pomp?

2020, of course, was always destined to be extra extravagant: this May marks the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Jubilee celebrations of various kinds have already been underway all year, some goofier than others.

Even though the parade had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, this ended up adding some extra flair to the celebration. The new date chosen for the extravaganza— June 24— happened to be the anniversary of the 1945 victory parade in Moscow, wherein Nazi banners were laid at the foot of Lenin's Mausoleum by freshly war-weary troops.

Men in WW2 uniforms at the 2020 Victory Day Parade.
Timeless and classic outfits; a nice throwback. | Russian Ministry of Defense, Wikimedia Commons

To further tout Russia's anti-fascist legacy, an op-ed (ostensibly) written by Putin himself appeared in US journal The National Interest. The article, which can be read here, is a wide-ranging pastiche of old Soviet narratives, Russian absolution, and Poland-blaming. The overarching story is that Soviet Russia took down the Nazis almost single-handedly, while the other Allies looked on or, at times, enabled Hitler. While a fascinating read, few historians in the U.S. or abroad take it seriously.

But that didn't stop the Russian Embassy in Berlin from sending it to several German history professors, urging them to use it as classroom reading. Ironically, many of them should, and will, as an example of the fascinating real-world relationship between ideology, history, and policy.

The new date was also convenient for another reason: it was close to the week of voting for a constitutional referendum that carried sweeping reforms, including the maintenance of conservative social policies and, most surprisingly, the ability for Putin to remain president until 2036.

The voting process was far from tranquil: memes lampooning Putin's age (he would be 83 in 2036), ubiquitous government-funded urgings to vote, and some strange, ultra-conservative historical-revisionist themes appeared online. Some even used toys or fruit to stage mini-protests, creating an absurd scene when authorities removed and investigated incidents involving oranges and Barbie dolls. 

A protest featuring an orange pepper with a sign reading "No!"
This orange pepper votes "No." | Instagram user @miniprotest

Despite the backlash (and grammatical mistakes on the ballots), the amendments passed. Voter turnout was reportedly almost 68%, with 77.6% of voters supporting the changes. The only federal subject in which the vote failed was in Arctic Nenets Autonomous Okrug, where only 43.8% voted for the changes. It's hard to imagine that the sweeping wave of nationalism following the parade did not conveniently affect citizens' votes.

In a sense, the vote wasn't just about the constitution, but also a referendum on Putin and his party's rule as a whole. Impelled with Russians' seal of approval— or at least the illusion of it, given accusations of voter fraud— Putin has been re-legitimized by both the past and present and is set to keep on keeping on.

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