World War II Is All That Putin Has Left

The regime offers Russians little more than selective memories of Soviet-era military triumph.

Vladimir Putin looking down
Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

In Soviet films, on Soviet posters, in Soviet poetry and songs, the typical Red Army soldier was hale and hearty, simple and straightforward, untroubled by trauma or fear. He cheerfully marched all day, slept on the ground at night, never complained, and never even used swear words. When the British historian Catherine Merridale was collecting the lyrics of Red Army songs for her 2005 book, Ivan’s War, she ran into a wall: Even decades later, ethnographers and veterans could not or would not share with her any satirical, obscene, or subversive lyrics, because no one dared to repeat “disrespectful versions” of the sainted soldiers’ songs.

In the official accounts, the Red Army soldier did not brutalize civilians, rape women, or loot property either. Famously, a staged photograph of soldiers waving a Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag in May of 1945 had to be doctored, because one of them was wearing two wristwatches (they were stolen from Germans; Soviet soldiers typically did not own several wristwatches). Many years later, when another British historian, Antony Beevor, published archival evidence of looting—children as young as 12 traveled to Berlin for that purpose—and the mass rape of 2 million German women, the Russian ambassador to the U.K. accused him of “lies, slander, and blasphemy.”

But plenty of Russians already knew the truth. Stories of the horrors of the war, experienced by veterans as well as those who stayed at home, were passed down within families. Ambivalent memories persisted. Not long after the war ended, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, himself a former member of the Red Army battalions that had rampaged across the German region of East Prussia, composed a poem describing what he had witnessed:

The little daughter’s on the mattress,

Dead. How many have been on it

A platoon, a company perhaps?

A girl’s been turned into a woman,

A woman turned into a corpse.

Neither Solzhenitsyn nor Beevor nor Merridale described these things in order to minimize the heroism of the Soviet soldiers who fought Hitler’s armies from the depths of Russia all the way to the center of Berlin. The historical record of the damage the U.S.S.R. did to Central Europe in the postwar era does not negate the horrors that German soldiers inflicted on the citizens of the territories that they occupied earlier on. But that record does form part of the real story of the war, a story far more nuanced than the cartoon version of the Great Fatherland War that the Russians are now presented with every year during the May 9 victory parade.

That cartoon was on display once again this week. This year’s war commemoration even had a rote, empty quality, as if the Russian state is no longer capable of offering its citizens anything more than cardboard nostalgia—but also as if it assumes those citizens need little else. President Vladimir Putin made a short, dishonest speech about his invasion of Ukraine, just barely alluding to the costs and casualties. Soldiers waved Soviet flags. Spectators saw less military equipment than last year (and no air show at all), but tanks, trucks, and intercontinental ballistic missiles still paraded across Red Square. Mini celebrations unfolded around the country, at least one featuring Russian children singing, “Uncle Vova, we are with you”—Uncle Vova being Putin—followed by one-armed salutes. Even as Russia carries out a brutal war of aggression, one in which Russian soldiers are once again committing terrible crimes against a civilian population, the whole occasion was permeated with a sense of grievance, as if Russia were the only real victim of both conflicts.

This particular World War II cult was not inevitable; it is the result of a set of decisions, a deliberate effort to change the course of what had been an open conversation, starting in the late 1980s. In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin even informed Russians that the conflict did not begin, as their textbooks had long told them, on June 22, 1941, when Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In fact it began earlier, in September 1939, when Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union simultaneously invaded Poland. Yeltsin published the secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed in August 1939, in which the two dictatorships divided Central Europe between them. He also handed the Polish government copies of the documents ordering the massacre of thousands of Polish officers near the Katyn Forest.

Gestures like that are now unimaginable in Putin’s Russia, where any discussion of the 22-month Soviet-Nazi alliance is not only difficult, but possibly illegal. In 2016, the Russian Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a blogger who reposted an article mentioning the alliance. In 2019, Putin himself launched a strange campaign to blame Poland, not the U.S.S.R. and Germany, for the start of the war, as if Poland had invaded itself. Myths about the war are now backed up by politicians, by judges, by the force of law. No nuance is allowed to creep into the official account of a war that was complicated, bloody, and often confusing for those who fought in it. But this simplification is necessary, because there just isn’t anything else to legitimize Putin’s regime, let alone its brand-new war.

In practice, Putinism is a powerful but ultimately empty ideology. Its propaganda divides people from one another, creates suspicion, and promotes apathy. State media put forth multiple nonsensical explanations for reality, including multiple nonsensical reasons for the invasion of Ukraine. In different tellings, Ukraine, a democratic state led by a Jewish president, is “Nazi,” is Russian, is a Western puppet, is nonexistent. Alongside these stories, Russians are spoon-fed cynicism, mockery, and nihilism. They are told endless tales about the glorious past, but given hardly anything to hope for in the terrifying future. They have no idea who or what could follow the Putin regime, or what that would mean for them. They support him because nothing else is on offer. But support does not translate into excitement. Neither he nor his war stories seem able to create enthusiasm for another Great Fatherland War.

Perhaps that was why Putin chose to mark May 9 perfunctorily. He did not, as some expected, declare victory in Ukraine. Nor did he call for an all-out mobilization. He did not issue a call to arms or speak at length about a glorious invasion either. Instead, he repeated, again, that the Russians had no choice but to launch their special military operation in Ukraine, as if some law of history had ordered it. He implied, again, that Russia is the real victim. He left out the true stories, the emotion, the evocative details that would actually inspire people to feel something, about either the old war or the new one.

If he wants to expand the current conflict—if he wants to persuade millions of people to sacrifice their lives and their fortunes to fight across Europe once again—he will need to provide a far more powerful motivation, a far deeper reason to fight, something other than this war’s alleged resemblance to a past tragedy. But he doesn’t have that kind of motivation to offer, or at least not yet.