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What Is Russia’s Victory Day and How Was It Different This Year?

Ann M. Simmons

WSJ, May 9, 2022

“Mr. Putin said the Kremlin had every indication that a clash with Ukraine, which he says is led by U.S.-backed neo-Nazis, was inevitable, so Moscow took pre-emptive action.”

Every year on May 9, Russia marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II with a parade of troops and sophisticated military hardware and public celebration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin  has typically used the day to unite the nation around its most revered collective memory.

This year marks the 77th anniversary of Germany’s defeat in World War II, which Russia calls the Great Patriotic War.

Putin Justifies Ukraine War at Russia’s WWII Victory Parade

Russia’s Victory Parade in Moscow commemorates the end of World War II – but this year, President Putin used it to justify the invasion of Ukraine. WSJ’s Ann Simmons reports from Red Square as the Russian leader sought to cement support for the war. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/Zuma Press

What is Victory Day?

In Russia, Victory Day is celebrated on May 9 to mark the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II. The liberation of German-occupied territories was aided by Western allies, including Britain and the U.S., whose forces fought the Nazis on the Western Front.

It is the country’s most important secular holiday, a historical touchstone for millions of Russians. Some 27 million Soviet citizens perished during the war, affecting the lives of virtually every Russian family.

Most European countries commemorate the Nazi defeat on May 8, the day the U.S. together with Europe’s allied forces formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Germany’s armed forces. Germany’s act of unconditional surrender was signed late on May 8, 1945, which was already May 9 in Moscow. It is because of the time difference that the victory is celebrated on the different days, according to an article in the newspaper of Russia’s Federal Assembly.

Why were this year’s Victory Day celebrations especially significant?

This year’s celebrations came as Mr. Putin risks being mired in a protracted war with Ukraine, which began Feb. 24 when Moscow invaded its smaller neighbor.

The Kremlin describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation” to demilitarize the country and to defend Russia against an increasingly hostile West.

What traditionally happens on Victory Day in Russia?

File
2020 Moscow Victory Day Parade 008.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

In a show of military might, thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery parade across Moscow’s Red Square before an audience that has included Russia’s president, foreign dignitaries and carefully selected veterans, the surviving few now in their late 90s. Monday’s event was no different in that regard.

In the run-up to the celebrations, state television aired wartime documentaries and movies highlighting the heroism of Soviet soldiers, interviews with veterans and images of service personnel who died in the conflict. Other events included concerts and lectures about the war.

Along with the Victory Day parade each year, Russians participated in so-called Immortal Regiment processions, hoisting placards of loved ones who died during World War II or who survived the conflict. Mr. Putin on Monday joined the procession in Red Square,  carrying a picture of his late father, who fought in World War II.

How has Putin connected his Ukraine invasion to World War II?

The May 9 commemorations provide the Kremlin with an opportunity to bolster popular resolve regarding the war. State and independent polls show support from the overwhelming majority of Russians.

This year, Mr. Putin used the annual commemoration to justify the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine, saying it was the only way to prevent what he said was a planned assault on Russia. Mr. Putin said the Kremlin had every indication that a clash with Ukraine, which he says is led by U.S.-backed neo-Nazis, was inevitable, so Moscow took pre-emptive action.

The Kremlin has provided no evidence to support these claims. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish and grew up speaking Russian, has said that Ukraine lost more than eight million Ukrainians during World War II, so his people could never support Nazism.

Did this year’s commemoration meet expectations?

Some Western officials and analysts had expected Mr. Putin to use the commemoration to potentially declare victory in Ukraine or to call for a mass mobilization of Russia’s army and its citizens.

On Monday, the Kremlin neither declared victory in Ukraine nor ordered a mass mobilization, but Mr. Putin did emphasize his claim that Russia’s actions were in response to what he characterized as an existential threat.

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