Each year, Russia marks the end of the Second World War with Victory Day: a pageant of Soviet-style parades, patriotism, and public celebration. Over the years that Putin has been in power, the national holiday has become an ever more prominent part of Russia’s cultural politics, celebrated each 9 May with parties, concerts, and military hardware trundling across Moscow’s Red Square.
But while mammoth celebrations had been planned for 2020, the 75th anniversary of victory, the Covid-19 lockdown has caused an official rethink. With the traditional parade postponed to September, officials and activists have instead unveiled new, online programmes, creating a very different, more modern kind remembrance. The government has taken a very public role in promoting the makeshift digital programme, with federal and provincial ministries producing promo videos of artists reciting poetry, and Putin himself promising to take part in the online campaign.
Yet with many young people already disillusioned with a holiday they see as increasingly political, the new celebrations are already raising questions on how modern remembrance should look in modern Russia. Many are already moving away from public displays of patriotism to something more personal and more private. And with entire cities now locked in their homes for Russia’s biggest holidays, it won’t just be the cynical who are embracing this very different kind of remembrance, perhaps for the first time.
For 52-year-old Sergey Lapenkov, marking Victory Day is an annual ritual. He is one of the three founders of the Immortal Regiment movement, in which ordinary Russians carry photographs of veteran family members in marches around Russia and the world. The movement has grown to include millions of participants in the eight years since its inception in the Siberian city of Tomsk, largely thanks to genuine grass roots enthusiasm being fanned by generous state support. Part carnival, part quasi-religious parade, with family photos that resemble Orthodox icons, the regimental processions are filled with dressing up, cheery wartime singalongs, and social media photo shoots. This year, however, the Immortal Regiment’s street marches have been cancelled. Instead, they’ve been replaced with opportunities to upload stories, documents, and photos from family archives to an official website.
Lapenkov’s grandfather was a decorated veteran who lost both legs in the war. Now, he laments how little he knew him.
Flattened and placed on a screen, the project may seem small compared to the large parades the movement is known for. Yet the Immortal Regiment’s online campaign has already proved hugely popular, with 150,000 users registered by the end of April. The site is currently daily seeing the kind of traffic that would usually visit on 9 May.
Lapenkov is adamant that the Immortal Regiment has always been about a personal form of memory, and that state involvement only helped to spread the message more widely. His grandfather was a decorated veteran who lost both legs in the war. Now, Lapenkov laments how little he knew him. “I didn’t know much about him, and he didn’t say much about it,” he says.
Victory Day, Lapenkov explains, “was always my grandfather’s day. Wherever I was, it was his day, so I’d get his photograph out of the album and drink to his health.” That act of remembrance is amplified in the Immortal Regiment, which Lapenkov and his fellow organisers envisioned as an attempt to cling on to what can be remembered (images and names) and acknowledge what cannot: the chaotic reality of what Lapenkov calls the “terrible but incredible time” that defined his grandparents’ generation.
Others also see the lockdown as a way or marking old celebrations with new technology. In provincial Russia, Aleksey Rodionov is using the coronavirus-hit celebrations as another reason to redouble his efforts on Victory Day’s communal spirit. Rodionov is the Samara regional coordinator of the Youth Army, a group that recalls the Soviet-era Komsomol and falls somewhere between the cadets and Scouts. The movement is incredibly popular, with over 37,500 members in the Samara region alone.
Rodionov’s group has taken the lockdown in its stride. Its members have received national coverage for their campaign to attach QR codes to veterans’ graves, working in small groups while wearing masks. The scanned codes lead to online stories about the veterans, allowing shared access to historical memory without social contact. The idea, explains Rodionov, “came from the members themselves, who then asked for support” to carry out the campaign.
Samara’s Youth Army members are also marrying war commemoration with the “lockdown culture” that has sprung up across the world. They have assisted isolated veterans, hung pictures and symbols related to the war in apartment windows, and participated in online celebrations of doctors battling the coronavirus.
Rodionov sees his task as raising a “generation of kind-hearted and benevolent” patriots who can “resurrect the best of the old traditions” in the 21st century. He believes that celebrating the war is a part of “a multifaceted education” that encourages participation in a communal culture of support for those that cannot care for themselves. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with the neighbourly spirit needed to care for those self-isolating. Similar groups, meanwhile, are calling for Russians to sing wartime songs together on their balconies on the evening of 9 May — a counterpoint to the balcony singalongs that have sprung up across European countries under lockdown.
But not everyone is taking to the new celebrations with such vigour. Recent research indicates that young Russians, particularly those in Moscow and St Petersburg, are increasingly rejecting Victory Day as a costly incarnation of the state’s cult of patriotism. Pavel Lebedev, 26, a web designer from St Petersburg, is typical of his generation. For him, Victory Day, otherwise known as the day when “the metro is a shitshow and there are tons of people about”, is more of an inconvenience than a celebration.
The apathy of youth like Pavel may, as trust in Putin falls to historical lows and the economy enters uncharted territory, be turning into overt rejection of official culture. Younger social media users met a call by the renowned actor Vasily Lanovoy to participate in the Immortal Regiment’s online campaign with derision: “A good thing my grandfather didn’t live to see this bullshit”; “Go fuck yourself, Vasily.” This sort of candor in relation to Victory Day is unparalleled in recent memory. The Covid-19 crisis may be a pivotal moment in some younger Russians’ apathetic relationship with the state.
The middle-aged are embracing new online commemorations as the younger generation mostly ignore them.
The ambivalent response to the cancellation of public events this year exemplifies how Putin’s is a stagnating cultural politics. The middle-aged are embracing new online commemorations as the younger generation mostly ignore them. Even as youth culture remains as vibrant as ever, official politics is increasingly bound up with places — street parades, monuments — rather than people, and the past rather than the future. The parallels with the Brezhnev era’s impersonal monumentalism in public art and collective ritual are unmissable.
The majority now plan to explore ways of developing a personal connection to the past, rather than participating in mass online rituals, by spending 9 May watching old Soviet movies, talking about family history at home, or phoning elderly relatives. Nikita Kazakov, 25, for instance, usually feels “totally neutral” about Victory Day, and worries that Russian society “takes more pride in events [in the past] than in what’s happening today”. This year, however, he plans to help his grandmother, who lived through the Siege of Leningrad, in the present by phoning and offering any help he can give at a distance on 9 May.
Despite the disruption it has caused, the new, socially-distanced Victory Day celebrations could give voice to this kind of widely held desire for a more personal remembrance.
Sergey Lapenkov agrees. He says that Russia’s youth are tired of “irritating” stories and “myths” and decries mass military parades as “idiocy”. Far from being disappointed in the Immortal Regiment’s new digital turn, he believes that by submitting stories to an online archive, individuals are connecting directly with their history, just as Lapenkov when he drank a toast to his grandfather’s portrait. Telling the story of one’s family “requires internal work, which is much harder” than simply parading on the streets, he says, which “paradoxically discourages people from thinking deeply.” “[Personal memory] stakes a claim to the individual’s importance,” he says.
Without the grand public rituals, Victory Day celebrations will look very different in Russia this year. But even with many of the grandest pageants merely postponed, the Covid-19 pandemic could be a watershed moment to cement something that has already begun: a new desire for Russians to celebrate in the personal or private sphere, rather than on the cobbles of Red Square.
Widespread interest in commemorating the war would not disappear overnight were the government to withdraw its support for parades on Red Square or for events like the Immortal Regiment. Even the most indifferent of today’s youth discuss how important it is to remember those who lost their lives: not, as my interviewees note, to promote an “epic” tale of victory, but as stories of sacrifice remembered without the government’s cultural events as mediators.
Perhaps, as Lapenkov suggests, 2020 is the government’s chance to reinvent its stagnating cultural politics. If willing, it might choose to encourage Russians to seek out new forms of personal connection with the past and thereby delve deeper into what it means to remember the nation’s bloodiest and most heroic era.
After all, behind the parades and the ceremonies, there is something far more powerful for Russia’s young people to connect with. “[War stories are] real stories ,” says Lapenkov, [“And these are] real people”.