The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic cut short Russia’s vast ambitions for celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in 2020. The large-scale parade scheduled for 9 May, which some Western leaders were due to attend, was postponed to the date of the first victory parade in 1945, 24 June, but with no official Western presence. The pandemic also obliged the popular Immortal Regiment marches to move online.
Victory Day remains the most important element of twentieth-century history for Russians. But this year’s festivities coincide with increasing pressure on the Kremlin. Internationally, Russia is confronting a more outspoken and assertive US president Joe Biden. Domestically, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are again at a historic low of just over 60 per cent, while the resolute crackdown on mobilisation in support of the imprisoned opposition figure Alexei Navalny illustrates the regime’s anxiety over societal discontent.
With funding from the Daimler and Benz Foundation, ZOiS conducted a survey in January 2021 among some 2,100 Russians aged 18–65 living in cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Quotas for age, gender, and place of residence replicated the underlying population structure. The survey explored respondents’ assessments of World War II and the break-up of the Soviet Union and included questions about free speech in relation to history and the need to legislate historical debates.
Victory Day preparations in 2021: neither pomp nor circumstance
Preparations for this year’s Victory Day celebrations have been largely silent. Tellingly, the slogans created for the seventy-fifth anniversary still feature on numerous web pages: Russia’s militaristic youth movement Yunarmiya still shows last year’s science fiction war clip on its home page. And unlike in previous years, Putin did not speak about World War II or history in general in his April address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. Key questions about this year’s commemorations remain unresolved, notably the extent to which activities such as the Immortal Regiment marches may take place offline.
Some uncertainty about the parade was reduced in April when the Kremlin announced that it would not invite any foreign leaders. Press secretary Dmitry Peskov explained that this was not a jubilee year. After the question of whether Western heads of state and government would attend in 2020 drew diverging responses from European countries, the pandemic has taken some diplomatic pressure off in 2021.
A boost for online commemorations
The ZOiS survey shows that the war victory continues to interest Russians of all ages: the celebrations are a prominent topic of discussion with friends, colleagues, and family members. Among respondents aged 35 or over, 67 per cent talked about the war at least sometimes, while for those under 35 the figure was 60 per cent. The number was higher for religious people and those who expressed higher trust in Russian state institutions.
Last year’s online activities are remarkably well known. More than 80 per cent of respondents had heard about the online Immortal Regiment, which enabled people to virtually walk next to their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers. Nearly one-third of those surveyed recognised other activities such as Windows of Victory and Faces of Victory, and the Hashtag #МыВместе ('We are together') was known by 19 per cent (Figure 1).
Participation in these activities was lower: 35 per cent of the respondents took part in the online Immortal Regiment, 13 per cent in the Windows of Victory—a share that is lower for other events. Potentially, online commemorations could reach out to the younger generation and those who are sceptical about pompous militaristic events. But so far, online gatherings have failed to do so: young people surveyed were less likely to know about or participate in these activities.
Nevertheless, state pollster VTsIOM found that more than 60 per cent of society expressed positive feelings about the online events and wanted them to continue. Another poll indicated that 60 per cent of the Russian population watched and largely approved of last year’s victory parade.
Assessments of World War II
Public and political discourse in Russia emphasises a heroic and sanctified view of the war that should be adopted by the country’s population. Central to the narrative is Putin’s claim that the Soviet Union played no role in the outbreak of the war: it only signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany after France and Britain had done so and only invaded Poland after the country had lost control of its armed forces. Such assertions downplay the fact that the Soviet government colluded with Nazi Germany, notably when signing the Secret Protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which carved up Polish territory between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In our sample, an overwhelming majority of nearly 80 per cent of Russians attributed the main responsibility for the outbreak of the war to Nazi Germany. As a result, the Soviet Union’s own responsibility is downplayed which conforms to Russia’s government policy and the persistent use of wartime rhetoric to discredit opponents.
The figure was lower for younger people—only 70 per cent of those under 35 thought Nazi Germany was solely responsible—although the youth do not fundamentally question the official war narrative. Meanwhile, men tended to agree much more with the view that Germany was exclusively responsible, as did those who trusted state institutions. It is remarkable, though, that level of education, city of residence, and wealth played no role in the responses, illustrating the overlap between public opinion and elite discourse.
Related to the question of responsibility for the war is the question of who contributed most to the victory (Figure 2). Here, a similar picture emerged, with men and older people more often mentioning the Soviet Union only. The difference between the generations was striking, with 60 per cent of those under 35 mentioning the Soviet Union, compared with 75 per cent of those aged 35 or over.
This year’s victory parade and activities involving the wider Russian population will blend online and offline forms. A large share of the population approves of the events, as the official framing of the war corresponds to societal interpretations of it. Differences can be discerned between the generations, although it is too early to say whether these divergences will transform public perceptions of history in the long run. Moreover, in a context where defending history has become one of the state’s central goals, the space for dissenting views is increasingly restricted.