By Ivo Mijnssen and Philipp Casula

When downtown Moscow’s pavement trembles under the weight of tanks, and fighter jets roar overhead, Muscovites know it is Victory Day. Since 2005, when then-President Vladimir Putin revived the Soviet tradition of military parades, the Russian government has used May 9 to project the image of a powerful, united nation. Most of the time, the parades were accompanied by great-power rhetoric. Only a year ago, President Dmitry Medvedev emphasized the strength of Russia’s army and its willingness to defend the country against all enemies. This year, however, the parade sounded and looked quite different: Medvedev highlighted the common victory of the World War II Allies. The bear hats of the British Welsh Guards wiggled in the Moscow air, next to American and Polish troop delegations. Western nations in a Russian May 9 military parade? This would have been almost unthinkable even a year ago.

This celebration of unity between East and West in general and particularly between Russia and Poland is very surprising. During recent years, relations between the two countries were worse than merely tense — which put a damper on Russian-European relations as well. Among the points of contention were the Nord Stream pipeline project connecting Russia and Germany — and bypassing Poland. Polish politicians went so far as to call this project a new Hitler-Stalin pact. The Russian ban on the import of Polish meat prompted the Polish government to block a successor pact to the 1997 European Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. During the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia even threatened Poland with a nuclear attack: Commenting on the plans for stationing parts of a U.S. missile defense shield in Poland, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, then a spokesperson for the Russian armed forces, crudely explained that, in case of a military conflict, Poland, by hosting antiballistic missile systems, exposed itself to a nuclear strike — “100 percent.” The intensity of the quarrels and the frequent use of war rhetoric show that more was at stake than oil, meat or defensive missiles.

The entire field of geopolitics in Eastern Europe is still overshadowed by a mutual distrust rooted in World War II, which brings us back to Victory Day. For official Russian historiography, the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany is the keystone in the liberation of Europe. There is a widespread complaint that Europeans, particularly former Eastern Bloc countries like the Baltic states or Poland, do not appreciate Russia’s contribution and its enormous death toll. For many countries in Eastern Europe, however, “liberation” meant Soviet occupiers replacing the Germans.

Poland’s experience as an occupied country was particularly painful. The Hitler-Stalin pact divided up the country between Germany and the USSR. In the eastern part of Poland, the Soviets committed a war crime of huge proportions in 1940: In the forests around Katyn near the Russian city of Smolensk, the Soviet secret service murdered over 21,000 members of the Polish elite. For fifty years, the Soviets blamed this crime on Nazi Germany, and when they finally admitted it they did not apologize to Poland.

Recently, however, the Russian government has made some surprising gestures: On April 7, Russian Prime Minister Putin and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, paid tribute to the victims of the Katyn massacre. Although Putin did not utter a formal apology, he bowed his head to the dead and stressed that Stalin’s terror made both Poles and Russians suffer; he condemned as cynical lies all past allegations of German responsibility. After Polish President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash three days later, the Russian president and prime minister were among the only high-ranking international guests at the funeral, having made the trip despite a flight ban in Europe due to the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano eruption. The détente continued on the eve of May 9, when Medvedev handed over classified files on the Katyn massacre to acting Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.

Domestically, the Russian government has also shown an increased willingness to confront the darker sides of its past. In an interview with Moscow daily Izvestiya before Victory Day, President Medvedev stated more clearly than Putin ever had before that Stalin committed a “mass of crimes against his own people.” In the same interview, he condemned plans by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to put up posters depicting Stalin. Luzhkov had argued that, despite all the crimes he committed, Stalin had played a crucial role in winning the Second World War and hence should be commemorated. Luzhkov subsequently had to abandon his plans. Nonetheless, Medvedev emphasized that his condemnation of Stalin did not narrow the significance of Victory Day in the least: Without the effort of “our people,” he said, Europe today would be “a big concentration camp.”

This episode highlights the dilemma at the heart of the issue: On the one hand, the Russian government uses Victory as a centerpiece on which to base the country’s national identity and as a source of pride for the population. On the other hand, Victory is inextricably tied up with the figure of Stalin. Russian official historiography faces the complicated task of breaking with its totalitarian past while contemporarily incorporating its Soviet heritage. Unlike the Yeltsin administration, Putin and Medvedev see the 70 years of Soviet rule, which inculcated in the population core values, not as a mistake of history. Most schoolbooks and the official media now present a rather uncritical image of the era, aware that leaving out the Soviet past would mean alienating entire generations. Authorities wanted to make sure that Russians could be proud again of their past in its entirety.At the same time, today’s Russian government tries hard to depict the country as democratic. Open adoration for Stalin is thus out of the question. The solution offered by the Putin-Medvedev government could be dubbed — if the process continues — a conservative destalinization. By distinguishing between the crimes of the leader and the virtue of the people, Victory can continue to serve as a keystone of national identity.

With regards to the Katyn massacre, a similar strategy is applied. The Russian leaders admit a certain degree of responsibility, but no guilt, since the Russian people they represent were as much victims of the Stalinist regime as the Poles. This is certainly an important first step. Critics argue, however, that it is not enough. Arseny Roginsky, the head of the Russian human rights group Memorial, states in an interview with the daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung that Russians need to confront “the evil” in their past and take responsibility for it. Roginsky demands that those who were guilty of crimes against humanity be named and tried. “We have to open all archives to the public without exception. We have to rehabilitate all victims.” This kind of action is still far off, as the Russian authorities have restricted access to the archives of the secret services in recent years.

The reluctance of the Russian authorities to promote open and self-critical debate on the USSR’s role in World War II and the cost at which the country won the war has an additional dimension. The idealized Victory is used to present the USSR as a member of the club of advanced nations that ostensibly got the world to where it is today. In the broadest terms, World War II was an instance where the country fought on the right side of history, together with Western powers, defeating fascism and helping negotiate a new, peaceful world order. The tensions of the Cold War are ignored in this narrative. The present-day Russian state hence uses Victory to bolster its demand to be treated as an equal partner in world affairs by other great powers — the United States foremost. This quest for recognition has been a leitmotif of Russian foreign policy since the late 1990s, under Yevgeny Primakov, who was both foreign minister and prime minister, and even more so during Putin’s tenure.

In this context, the “restart” in the Russian-American relationship offered by President Barack Obama during his summer 2009 Moscow visit was well received. His speech at the renowned New Economic School started with references to Russia’s “timeless heritage” and its contributions to world culture. Obama went on to recognize that Americans and Soviets had been “allies in the greatest struggle of the last century” and that “Soviet soldiers from places like Kazan and Kiev endured unimaginable hardships to repel an invasion, and turn the tide in the east.” His speech culminated in proposing a global partnership that “will be stronger if Russia occupies its rightful place as a great power.”

This aperture has eased tensions and led to some results in the form of a new arms reduction agreement and increased cooperation on solving international issues like Iran. Particularly with regards to Iran, however, Russia has wavered between supporting sanctions in principle and continuing to pursue its own economic interests in that country. Other Russian proposals, such as the establishment of a new European security architecture to replace NATO, have remained vague and appear to be at least partly motivated by the desire to weaken NATO, in which Russia does not have a say.

The Russian self-image in domestic and international politics is still today closely intertwined with a past that is far from pristine. In a positive sense, Russia’s past can be interpreted so as to position the country as a constructive partner in international relations. In a negative sense, World War II as a point of reference for issues between nations can lead to an exaggerated sense of threat and a recourse to nationalist rhetoric and reflexes. Ultimately, the continuation of Russia’s pragmatic foreign policy — for example toward Poland — will to a large extent depend on whether it achieves the desired results.

Exactly what Russia desires, however, is not so clear. Russia remains ambivalent about its place in the world: The century-long question of whether Russia is a Western or Eastern power and the flaws in the country’s democratic institutions continue to prevent it from pursuing a coherent domestic and foreign policy. One might add, however, that the frequent lack of a coherent Western policy toward Russia has not helped it find its place either.

Ivo Mijnssen holds an M.A. in Eastern European history and sociology from the University of Basel, Switzerland. He worked as a researcher in the Swiss National Science Foundation’s project “Democracy and the Nation in Russia” and wrote numerous scientific articles on memory and memory politics in contemporary Russia. He is currently working as a freelance journalist based in Europe.

Philipp Casula is a research fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Basel, Switzerland. He studied sociology in Munich, Rome and Berlin and further specialized in Russian affairs and political theory. Among his latest publications are “Identities and Politics during the Putin Presidency” (co-edited with Jeronim Perovic, Ibidem, 2009) and “Political and National Identity in Russian Political Discourse” (with Olga Malinova, published in Lecours/Moreno: Nationalism and Democracy, Routledge 2010).

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