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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.
Cancelling VE Day?  Covid-19 soft power

8 May 2020

Starting the conversation…

Jade McGlynn, Stipendiary Lecturer in Russian at University College, Oxford

With public gatherings cancelled, the Covid-19 pandemic has overturned most countries’ plans to mark the 75th anniversary of VE day. This disruption is perhaps most keenly felt in Russia, where Victory Day is lavishly celebrated each year with militaristic parades, ancestral processions, and firework displays. As well as a show of hard might, Russia’s Victory Day parade is an opportunity for President Putin to demonstrate soft power and influence by inviting various heads of state to observe the parade, with Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping due to attend in 2020. Given that the Soviet victory in World War Two remains a firm source of political legitimacy for the Kremlin, this poses the question: what are the potential obstacles and opportunities for countries, like Russia, using historical memory as soft power in the Covid-19 era?

Russia’s Victory Day parade is an opportunity for President Putin to demonstrate soft power and influence

On first inspection, the obstacles present themselves more readily than the opportunities. Covid-19 has prevented not only large-scale commemorative events but also the various types of memory activism that Russian embassies and cultural centres practise abroad, from the distribution of St George’s Ribbons to ‘historical enlightenment’ activities and tours to promote Red Army battlefield successes. Moreover, there will undoubtedly be other obstacles to what we might term as Russian memory diplomacy’.

Yet, we should also ask how Russia might adapt its memory diplomacy to – and around – these obstacles. In recent weeks, the Russian government has produced a wide array of multilingual digital resources to promote Russia’s selective interpretation of the war. Key elements of Russia’s contemporary Victory Day rituals have been moved online, including the Immortal Regiment procession. Moreover, the pandemic has not suppressed the Kremlin’s appetite for memory wars, including with the Czech Republic, Finland, and the Baltic States. In this light, could the disruption caused by Covid-19 to Russian political uses of history and memory diplomacy be better understood as an opportunity to reach a wider audience online?

Brendan Simms, Director of the Centre for Geopolitics

Despite the passage of time, the memory of the Second World War remains important, and sometimes constitutive, to many European polities. In Britain, which was a victor power and is still a democracy, war is ever-present in discourse, invoked by both sides during the Brexit controversy, and most recently by H.M. the Queen in her speech on the Covid-19 crisis (‘we will meet again’). In Germany, a vanquished power, now a democracy, the war, and especially the Holocaust is the reference point for the entire political culture of the Federal Republic. But what of Russia, which was a victor power, but unlike both Britain and Germany is still an unfree country today, at least by western standards?

As Jade McGlynn points out, the Putin regime has depended heavily on the war for its legitimacy, just as the Soviet regime did before, perhaps more so. Deprived of its traditional 9 May spectacle by the virus, the Kremlin is already seeking new ways to pursue the memory war. The issues
at stake here are not merely antiquarian. The question of who controls the historical narrative is central to Putin’s project of dominating his ‘near abroad’, and confusing western publics. He did this to great effect in early stages of the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis when Russian propagandists succeeded in tarring the Ukrainian nationalist cause with the collaborationist brush. Similar strategies are being employed towards the Baltic states.

At the moment, scholars such as Tim Snyder and Norman Davies lament, people of the same ethnicity are often lauded as ‘Soviet’ or ‘Russian’ if they fought Nazism, and labelled as ‘Ukrainian’ if they supported it. This narrative needs to be investigated. Historians across the free world are now faced with the challenge of balancing the undeniably bleak story of wartime Ukrainian anti-semitism, with the equally remarkable epic of the Ukrainian partisan movement.


Félix Krawatzek, Senior Researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin

The official Russian politics of history seem to resonate widely across the country and even abroad. The main challenge for the regime is therefore not to increase the volume of its history politics. Rather, the actual reach of the politics of memory remains limited, as in any other country, since the intended meaning of historical narratives does not translate directly into the historical memory of society. The Great Patriotic War and what young people make of it is a most striking illustration of that. The war memory remains for every Russian family also a very personal story, and these narratives do not necessarily coincide completely with the official discourse.

The focus of the official memory politics are young people. Russian youth is the target of an increasingly standardised history curriculum at school, programmes of patriotic youth education, and militarised youth organisations such as Yunarmiya. While young people agree that the Great Patriotic War is the most important historical event for understanding today’s Russia, debates about its meaning persist. The most open controversies relate to today’s commemorative events, and a certain frustration with the large-scale events that overshadow the actual human effort that was required for the victory.

Young people do not question the need to honour the veterans and remember the war effort. But their emotional investment remains rather limited as they feel that their family’s remembering is not adequately reflected in the state-orchestrated events. The rushed online events that now take place as a way of dealing with the impact of Covid19 probably do not provide a substitute for the genuine longing of young Russians to have a more open historical dialogue. Irrespective of the medium, politics, media, and culture define the rules of remembering, but young people and their families may well hold historical views that oppose these prevailing narratives. Reiterating the frames of memory online might seem at first glance like an ideal opportunity to reach a younger audience. But since the key problem is less about reach, than about genuinely interacting with society, the shifting media of memory seems unlikely to affect those who do not feel integrated into today’s memory discourse.

Your view…

Jelena Đureinović, Department of History, Justus-Liebig-University Giessen

The Post of Serbia printed special stamps to honour both the Victory Day and the Immortal Regiment procession. It was the first Victory Day stamp since 1985 and the first stamp ever to commemorate a commemoration, namely the Immortal Regiment procession that has taken place in Serbia since 2016. This year, the procession was replaced by a video conference between Belgrade and Moscow in partnership with the Sputnik news agency.

In Serbia, this year’s Victory Day was celebrated more modestly than usual. However, the global pandemic did not change the commemorations’ main narratives and emphasis on the vital role of Russia in the Second World War. As opposed to the staunch anti-communism that dominated memory politics after 2000 and involved the positive reassessment of the Chetnik forces, defeated by the Partisans during the Second World War, the current political elites have embraced communist-led Partisans as a positive historical reference. Ignoring the Partisans’ ideology and its Yugoslav, multi-ethnic and anti-nationalist dimension, the hybrid regime of the Serbian Progressive Party celebrates the Partisans’ victory as the victory of the Serbian army. The actors of populist memory politics present themselves as a bulwark against the very revisionism they endorsed a decade ago and as returning the lost pride to the Serbian nation.

Anniversaries like Victory Day are utilised to showcase Serbian-Russian friendship and promote the narrative of these nations always being on the right side of history. These commemorations exemplify what Jade McGlynn terms as Russian ‘memory diplomacy’ and are welcomed in Serbia, with practices such as the laying of flowers organised jointly by Russian diplomats and Serbian city and government officials. As well as being an ally and partner in these mnemonic endeavours, Russia is also the source of inspiration for Serbia’s memory politics. In addition to the Immortal Regiment, eternal flame memorials and military parades have been appropriated into common commemorative practices. What binds all of these together are St George’s Ribbons, now an integral symbol of Serbia’s hybrid memory culture, regardless of any pandemic.

Christoph Mick, Professor of History, University of Warwick

Russian state media ties the Soviet victory to today’s Russia and consequently also claims the 27 million Soviet war dead. Russian history policy has proved to be quite successful. In an article for Der Spiegel, the German foreign minister Heiko Maas wrote of the commemoration in ‘Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union’. The Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin criticised Maas. In an interview with Deutschlandfunk, the ambassador demanded recognition of Ukrainian victimhood. He suggested building a monument to Ukrainian victims of Nazi occupation in Berlin and implied that the forgetting of the Ukrainian victims and the manipulation of history are being replicated today, with some 14,000 dead in the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky was probably not too unhappy about the cancellation of the victory celebrations. Every year, Ukrainian presidents face the same issue: yes, the Soviet victory liberated Ukraine from Nazi rule but it also led to forty-six more years of communist rule. Many people in Western Ukraine did not experience the Soviet victory as liberation. More than 100,000 Ukrainians were killed resisting Sovietisation, and Soviet security forces deported hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in acts of collective retribution. Ukrainian soldiers of the Soviet Army are heroes in most parts of Ukraine while many in the Western provinces glorify the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose members are often viewed as Nazi collaborators or war criminals in the rest of the world.

In a video message, President Zelensky avoided these controversies and linked the liberation of Ukraine from Nazi rule seventy-five years ago to Ukrainian independence forty-six years later and to the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine. He proposed the installation of four memorial bells: a ‘bell of remembrance’ in Luhansk region, a ‘bell of victory’ in Zakarpattia, a ‘bell of peace’ in Donetsk (currently controlled by pro-Russian rebels), and a ‘bell of unity’ in Simferopol in Crimea (currently controlled by Russia). While Zelensky may be able to install the first two bells, the latter two will – at least at present – not be ringing in their intended location but might – who knows – at least virtually peal out the message that Ukraine has not yet given up on Donetsk and the Crimea.

Tatiana Zhurzhenko, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Vienna

In Ukraine the political dilemmas surrounding 9th May have become even more pronounced since 2014, when the rhetoric and symbolism of the Great Patriotic War was instrumentalised in the so-called Russian spring and inthe ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Every spring, Ukrainians hotly debate – and authorities puzzle over – questions of whether to hold a Soviet-style military parade in Kyiv, the ban on the public use of the St. George’s ribbon, and the new public ritual of the Immortal Regiment imported from Russia. The Covid-19 pandemic has spared President Zelensky most of these dilemmas.

This year, the official politics of commemoration in Ukraine was confined to the realm of symbolic gestures displayed via YouTube. On 8th May, Zelensky visited and lay flowers at the WWII memorial in Milove, a village on the Ukrainian-Russian border in the Luhansk region. He repeated this gesture on the 9th May in Kyiv and in the westernmost region of the country, Transcarpathia. As Professor Mick notes, in his speech to mark the 8th and 9th May, the president announced a commemorative project to erect two memorial bells – the Bell of Memory in the Luhansk region and the Bell of Victory in Transcarpathia – and expressed his hope that one day they will be supplemented by two further bells in Donetsk and Simferopol. While Zelensky, as opposed to Poroshenko, did not explicitly mention Russia as an aggressor, there was no sign of retreat into the pre-Maidan era in the president’s speech: he was still using the new official symbol of the poppy and referring to the contribution of the Ukrainians to the victory of WWII and not to the ‘Great Patriotic War’.

According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation in April this year, 61% of the Ukrainians (72.3% in the west of the country and 48.9% in the east) thought that Ukrainian politicians should not participate in the 2020 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow. The celebrations did not take place but Zelensky had not been invited anyway, regardless of any pandemic.

In conclusion, the impact of Covid-19 on memory politics in Ukraine is as yet unclear: it offers opportunities in terms of digitalisation but also obstacles, albeit ones that may be welcome to President Zelensky as he charts the difficult terrain of Ukrainian memory politics.

Nina Friess, Researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies, Berlin

At first glance, postponing the long-planned Victory Day celebrations until a hitherto unknown later date seemed to be a disaster for Russian officials. However, by taking a closer look at this year’s victory celebrations, we see that many of the new traditions still took place on 9th May, albeit in an altered format. The organisers of the Immortal Regiment procession published a list outlining ‘10 Ways to Celebrate Victory Day without Leaving the Internet’. Among their ideas was a suggestion to take a picture alongside a portrait of a relative who fought in the war, sharing their story on social media. Thus, instead of a huge collective celebration, there will most likely be numerous individual acts of commemoration. Give that such acts consume fewer resources, many more people (and especially young people) will be likely to participate. Additionally, this year’s version of Victory Day could correspond to many young people’s expressed desire for a private, more modest commemoration of the Great Patriotic War – even if coordinated social media campaigns are rarely individualised or intimate.

The Covid 19 pandemic did not lay waste to all Russia’s Victory Day plans; for example, the special television broadcasts in honour of the 75th anniversary will go ahead as planned, except for the screening of the Red Square military parade. Moreover, restrictions on movement mean that these broadcasts can expect significantly more viewers than in previous years. Alongside repeats of Soviet classics like The Officers, The Dawns Here Are Quiet and 17 Moments of Spring, which shaped the perception of the war for generations of Russian and Soviet citizens, the scheduling includes recent and new features, some of which have been advertised with considerable fanfare for weeks in advance. Foremost among these is the much-anticipated premiere of Saboteur, Crimea, the third part of the cult series Saboteur set in 1942. Crimea has always been an important topos in Russian war films but its popularity as a setting has increased since Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. In times of social distancing such popular programmes, accompanied by and interspersed with more official memory acts, such as the president’s speech and a minute of silence, can simulate a feeling of unity among Russian citizens.

As such, whether through the accessibility of digitalised commemorative acts, or the shared nostalgia from/anticipation of watching war films and series, the Covid-19 pandemic provides an audience that is both captive and bored, making people more likely to engage and participate in these memory acts. Moreover, if the full-scale celebrations can take place in autumn 2020, it is very likely that they will involve similar events. Therefore, the postponement of the celebrations might be more of a prolongation and 2020 could indeed become a literal ‘year of memory and glory’, as Vladimir Putin declared, figuratively, in July 2019.

Karel Svoboda, Assistant Professor, Institute of International Studies, Charles University, Prague

The Czech Republic is currently involved in a memory war sparked by the decision of municipal Czech representatives to move the statue of Marshal Ivan Konev to the Museum of 20th Century Memory. Both sides – Russian and Czech – have taken firm and opposing stances on the matter. Czech authorities have also used the Covid-19 quarantine regime as an excuse to prevent public demonstrations. Previous demonstrations had been attended by dozens of participants from both supporters and opponents of the move. Even though there was no connection between the statue’s original setting and Marshal Konev, Russia has reacted very negatively to the decision to move him. This extreme reaction must be contextualised within Russia’s sacralisation of the Great Patriotic War and its claim to have the exclusive right to interpret the entire conflict. For example, a similar situation occurred in response to plans to install a monument to the Vlasovites in Prague, to commemorate the soldiers of the Russian Liberation Army. A collaborationist formation, the Russian Liberation Army switched sides in 1945 to participate in the battle to liberate Prague. Eschewing the nuance, Russia has depicted this decision to erect a statue as support for Nazism and historical revisionism. In both cases, Russia has escalated the matter to the edge of a diplomatic conflict.

As reflected in Brendan Simms’ response, Russia needs the WWII myth to justify domestic policies and distract from internal problems. Domestically, history has become a unifying tool. Externally, Russian politics of history represent an effort to reclaim Russia’s great power status. Russia reserves for itself the right to justify almost any action under the cover of the ‘fight against fascism’, by using ‘memory diplomacy’ (as noted in Jade McGlynn’s starter and Jelena Đureinović’s contribution) and by preventing any questions about the role of the Red Army during the war, as in the Czech Republic. This is nothing more than a repeat of the Brezhnev-era maxim: ‘only fascists and fools are against us’.

In that respect, the Covid-19 situation has not proved a substantial obstacle to Russia’s strategy. True, there was no parade on 9th May, but the same messages and memory wars are being propagated by television, websites, news outlets, and politicians. Direct contact is not essential for this type of history-based propaganda.

Simon Lewis, Associate Professor in the Cultural History of Eastern and East-Central Europe, University of Bremen

On 9th May, the ‘Soviet’ VE Day, one country stood out. In Belarus, military parades were held in Minsk and other cities to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Belarus has gained international infamy as the only country in Europe where public life goes on as normal. Its authoritarian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka has personally taken the lead in downplaying the pandemic, saying that he ‘has not seen’ the virus and that ‘the tractor [a symbol of hard land-based work] will cure us all’.

Lukashenka clearly took pride in staging the victory day events. The memory of the Great Patriotic War is the single most important pillar of his regime’s state ideology. The regime has invested heavily in museums, billboards and public education to make the memory of the war the very raison d’être of the post-Soviet Republic. Recycling the tropes of the victory myth from Soviet times, Lukashenka has nationalised the victory. As he said at this year’s event: ‘Don’t rush to conclusions or condemn us, descendants of the victory of Belarusians.’ Even the Covid-19 pandemic was indirectly linked to the legacy of the war; in the run-up to the parade, the president called on recovered Coronavirus patients to attend the celebrations as ‘vanquishers’.
As Brendan Simms points out, the ‘question of who controls the historical narrative is central to Putin’s project of dominating his “near abroad”, and confusing western publics.’ Precisely for this reason, Belarus’s widely-reported flouting of the Covid-19 pandemic to stage its jubilee commemoration was a fillip for Lukashenka. This was not so much what Jade McGlynn calls ‘memory diplomacy’, but barely disguised memory one-upmanship; it allowed him to upstage Putin on a day when Moscow would normally be the centre of attention. The fact that western news outlets covered the Belarusian display enhanced the effect. For years Belarus has performed a careful balancing act, playing off the West against Russia to gain concessions from both. 9th May 2020 was another opportunity for the Lukashenka regime to advance its interests.

The burning question is the potential price of the regime’s profligacy. In the crowds in Minsk, a visible few were wearing masks – a sign that no matter how much the state denies the effects of the virus, it continues its invisible work. If it spreads further and the number of victims rises, a crisis – both humanitarian and political – may yet ensue.

Paul Goode, University of Bath

In some ways, the Kremlin’s reliance on 9th May as a unifying event has been a liability. Each celebration (especially for significant anniversaries like this year’s 75th) is judged and scrutinized against previous ones. The promotion of VE Day as a relatively uncontroversial unifying national symbol was useful when Russia remained territorially and ideologically fragmented. Over time, however, it has become encumbered with successive policies and campaigns that opportunistically invoke the symbolism of the Great Patriotic War (especially the St. George’s ribbon) such that the celebration is less unifying and mobilizing for the nation.

As Félix Krawatzek points out, war memory remains very personal for Russian families. For many, official celebrations of 9th May detract from sombre remembrance of sacrifice, which was the original motivation for the Immortal Regiment. The fact that the regime co-opted the Immortal Regiment movement and integrated it into national and regional 9th May parades speaks to its insistence upon maintaining a monopoly over national expression, and as Brendan Simms states, of controlling the historical narrative.

Postponing the celebration potentially provides the regime with the space to re-establish the terms of engagement with historical memory. The problem, of course, is that there are few compelling options to replace it. The postponement of 9th May celebrations raises the prospect that they will happen in close proximity to Putin’s desired referendum on constitutional amendments. The crucial question, then, is whether it is possible to shift the core source of legitimation away from the Soviet past to the present regime, or whether such an attempt might feed perceptions of Putin’s regime as cynical and stagnant. Beyond its symbolic and normative function in state-society relations, then, there are potentially far reaching consequences for domestic political dynamics.