2018 Moscow Victory Day parade. Photo: Wikipedia

At precisely 10 a.m. Moscow time Monday, thousands of Russian soldiers and sailors will have begun to parade into Red Square to mark the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.

The commemoration is meant to echo one overseen by Josef Stalin that was held in the summer of 1945, to celebrate the Nazi surrender that May. Today’s celebration of a grueling conflict against a powerful war machine is instead being held during Russia’s invasion against a much smaller and weaker neighbor – the conflict, now more than two months long, that was supposed to have been over in a few days.

It is likely that Vladimir Putin, the current Russian leader, will use the occasion to rally his citizens and to blame the invasion’s slow pace on Western powers that have armed the Ukrainians. He may suggest Russia will intensify its damaging offensive. William Burns, the United States director of the Central Intelligence Agency, expects Russia to step up its assaults. “I think Putin has staked a lot on this second phase of what is an incredibly ugly and brutal offensive against the Ukrainians,” Burns told CBS News.

Hence, the need to hold a pep talk rather than somber remembrance. Putin certainly won’t sound the retreat. He has declared Ukrainians imitation Nazis and a danger to Russia. His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Jews are to blame, although Putin retracted the accusation.

It’s hard to know the actual state of Russian public opinion since opposition dissidents have been thrown into jail and others have fled Russia in the thousands. That said, public surveys suggest the population is on board with the war.

In any event, Putin clearly sees Word War II as a useful prop to raise national support.

He won’t be able to match Stalin’s extravaganza – 45,00 troops took part along with hundreds of tanks, armed vehicles, rolling artillery pieces, marching bands, even riders on horseback – all parading in front of Lenin’s tomb. Stalin watched from a long balcony above. In a sort of finale, Soviet soldiers piled Nazi flags and military unit banners in front of the tomb, echoing practices dating from the Roman empire.

At night, revelers filled Moscow streets and fireworks lit the sky.

Since then, May 9 celebrations have had their ups and downs.   

A war veteran takes part in a previous Victory Day celebration. Photo: Stockphoto / Kuzma

Stalin never repeated the spectacle. He feared it would outshine autumn celebratory commemorations of the October Revolution that had brought the Bolsheviks to power. But Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev revived the practice, sans banners of the defeated, in 1965, with the Cold War in full swing. The parade featured war veterans and antique weapons.

The collapse of the Soviet Union prompted Boris Yeltsin, who had arranged with Ukraine and Belarus their exits from the USSR, to cancel the celebrations for three years. He renewed the parade in 1995. Russia’s alliance with Western countries – France, Britain and the United States – was featured on a giant billboard in Red Square. US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister John Major attended.

During Putin’s long reign, Victory Day evolved from a historical commemoration to a window on Putin’s current preoccupations. Antique weapons no more. His parade features fearsome up-to-date weaponry. In 2008, for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, he reintroduced bomber jet flyovers.

China’s leader Xi Jinping attended the 2015 celebration and more than 100 Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops marched. Western officials have stopped taking part.

In the years during, and even after, the Soviet era, Ukrainian representatives were part of the Victory parade – but not since 2014, when Russia invaded and then annexed Crimea and separated parts of eastern Ukraine from Kiev’s control. In 2015, Ukraine changed the date when it celebrates Victory Day from May 9 to May 8, in alignment with Western Europe’s commemorations.

The meaning of Victory Day for Russia has changed over the decades. It does not simply ratify the vast sacrifices made during the war, as when Stalin oversaw the parade, or celebrate Soviet strength, as during Brezhnev’s rule, or nod amicably toward the joint World War II war aims of the West and Moscow, as when Yeltsin oversaw the parade.

Now? Putin’s program suggests that Russia’s World War II victory provides it with the political and moral authority to challenge Western values that had seemed to predominate in global affairs following the Cold War’s end.

Victory Day has “become more about ‘us versus them,’ and therefore a powerful illustration of Russia’s increasing isolation in the world,” Stephen Morris, a professor of Russian history at the University of Miami told the al-Jazeera website.

“The current regime, which calls itself the sole heir of [the WWII] victory, uses this achievement to make itself immune to criticism on other issues while justifying its current militarization efforts and excessive state interference in all aspects of life,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a fellow at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace.

Putin’s behavior stems in part from his belief that Western powers had taken neither him nor Russia seriously – hence his need to pump up Russia’s World War II victory. “He has become a kind of avenging angel,” Lucio Caraciolo, director of the geopolitical magazine Limes, told Rai3 Italian television.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.