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Parsing Putin’s Victory Day 2023 Speech

Moscow’s annual May 9th Victory Day Parade, which is the centerpiece in Russia’s commemoration of the USSR’s victory over fascism in World War II, is the most sacred Russian holiday and historico-political spectacle Russia knows today. It simultaneously honors the memory of each Russian family’s dead from the Great Patriotic War, instills Russians with a sense of national pride and patriotism, reaffirms the national political norm of national solidarism, and reinforces the Russian national solidarity in politics, culture, and spirit. It is Russia’s central national sacrament. Therefore, it is worth analyzing the contents of Russian Vladimir Putin’s speech at this, the 78th anniversary of the great military victory, particularly as Russia again finds itself at war—this time with NATO and Ukraine.

Putin’s address sent several messages regarding contemporary issues in his speech, the main purpose of which was to commemorate the Victory over Nazism in the Great Patriotic War: (1) the ‘special military operation’ (SMO) in Ukraine is a defensive action, (2) the conflict with NATO in Ukraine is an existential struggle for Russia and Russians, (3) and Russia’s national solidarity and consolidation behind the war effort. Other points in his address, while less broad or thematic are nevertheless, are worthy of note and so are included at the end of the discussion below.

First, Putin endeavored to reinforce Moscow’s message and belief that the SMO in Ukraine is a defensive action against Western attempts to weaken Russia’s national security, undermine its state sovereignty, and overthrow its government. Thus, Russia has no designs for foreign conquest, does not see the Russia, its civilization, or the ‘Russian world’ as inherently superior to other civilizations, cultures, or peoples, and hopes to have good relations with all. Moscow’s issue is with certain Western governments’ policies, most notably NATO expansion. He noted: “For us, for Russia, there are no unfriendly, hostile peoples either in the West or in the East. Like the vast majority of people on the planet, we want to see a peaceful, free and stable future.” He sought to reinforce the message of a lack of Russian antagonism towards the West’s populations and states (as opposed to their government policies) by highlighting and singling out the contribution to the victory over fascism made by the US and the UK, which are routinely castigated in Russian media as an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ axis of sorts historically set on destroying Russia. Putin noted: “We pay tribute to the Resistance members who bravely fought against Nazism, the soldiers of the allied armies of the United States, Great Britain, and other states.” A new wrinkle came in the word that followed. It reflected Russia’s growing alliance with China: “We remember and honor the feat of the Chinese soldiers in the battle against Japanese militarism.”

At the same time, however, he implied a similarity between German Nazism in WW II and the West’s claim to superiority over Russian culture expressed in the Western civilization’s ‘democratic values’ as being superior to the backward ‘authoritarian jungle’ that constitutes much of the non-West, most of all Russia and China. He did this by renouncing any form of ideological superiority (“We believe that any ideology of superiority is by its nature disgusting, criminal and deadly”), and then shortly afterwards noting: “Western globalist elites still insist on their exclusivity.”

Second, in terms of the existential of the NATO-Russia Ukrainian war, as Putin and many Russians see it, the Russian president declared: “Battles decisive for the fate of our Motherland have always become popular, national and sacred (battles). To buttress the point, the importance of the war, and the people’s support for the troops he stated: “We are proud of the participants of the CBO, … The security of the country rests on you today, the future of our statehood and our people depends on you. You are honorably fulfilling your military duty, fighting for Russia. Your families, children, friends are behind you.” Here we get a hint of the third main theme in Putin’s Victory Day message: national solidarity.  

Solidarism, as I have tried to demonstrate in two recent books, is one of four values – along with monism, universalism, and communalism – that make up a central norm in Russian culture and political culture – tselostnost’ [The Russian Dilemma: Security Vigilance and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson: McFarland Books, 2021) and Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Culture Thought, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022)]. Solidarism – a belief in or aspiration to national unity whether political, cultural, religious, linguistic or otherwise – has been engrained in Russian culture through centuries of struggle with internal social and political divisions, religious schisms, and foreign attempts to divide and rule Russia. As I have noted in the two noted books and in articles published here, Putin addresses this issue quite often in order to reinforce this value as a pillar of stability for his government and fend off a repeat of the collapse of the Soviet state and regime and the instability of the early post-Soviet era in the 1990s.

In his Victory Day speech, therefore, Putin told the Russian people: “There is nothing stronger, powerful, and reliable than our unity.” Russia’s military at the front were told that the people and their relatives “are waiting for you. I am confident you feel its boundless love.” Invoking a consolidated, united nation standing behind the soldiers, he added: “The whole country is consolidated to support our heroes. Everyone is prepared to help, and they are praying for you.”

Thus, one of the charges Putin leveled against “Western globalist elites,” besides their sense of exclusivity or superiority compared to Russians and other non-Westerners, is their efforts to sow discord, split and undermine the solidarity of Russia and other societies. Western elites “pit people against each other and split societies, provoke bloody conflicts and coups, sow hatred,” in addition to their attempts to promote “Russophobia, aggressive nationalism, and destroy family, traditional values that make a person human.” Similarly, in Ukraine the West split society and state by fomenting a ‘color revolution’, and so the Ukrainian people “became a hostage of the coup d’etat and the criminal regime of his Western masters that developed on its basis.” Putin also extended solidarism to the international level, presumably addressing the ‘rest’ as opposed to the West, by asserting that the “experience of solidarity” under the alliance against fascism, “partnership in the years of struggle with a common threat – this is our priceless legacy. (This is) a firm pillar right now, when the irreversible movement to more just multipolar world is gathering strength.”

Putin also alluded to another value he has promoted in order to support national unity: historical tselostnost’. Warning those listening of the threat to the homeland, he reminded that this was a danger to “the land, which remembers the  remembers the vigilantes of Yuri Dolgorukii and Dmitry Donskoi, the militia of Minin and Pozharskii, the soldiers of Peter the Great and Kutuzov, the parades of 1941 and 1945.” Here, despite his anti-communism, Putin nevertheless included the Soviet war experience in this pantheon of Russian patriotic heroism. He brought in the Soviet experience into historical wholeness again when he alluded to the Western-backed Ukrainians “destroying memorials to Soviet soldiers and removing monuments.” It is worth noting Putin’s neglect of Stalin (and the Soviet generals). So much for the frequently met canard that Putin has ‘rehabilitated Stalin’ because he himself is a Stalinist or totalitarian leader. By including Soviet heroism against Nazism in this ‘history’ of Russian war achievements, Putin again upheld the wholeness of Russian history (for more on Russian historical tselostnost’, see https://gordonhahn.com/2023/04/13/working-paper-russian-historical-tselostnost-parts-1-3-conclusion/).

Noteworthy minor aspects of Putin’s speech include Putin’s failure to mention the Wagner Group by name among the numerous units and types of forces he listed, despite the fact that Yevgenii Prigozhin’s private mercenary fighters were then spearheading the successful siege of Bakhmut, which certain to fall soon by the time Victory Day’s commemorations took place. Also, it was quite noticeable that the quantity of troops and equipment that pararded through Red Square on Victory Day 2023 was quite modest in relation to recent ‘Pobeda’ parades. Finally, there was no air force flyover to conclude the parade, and days before the parade Russia’s authorities apparently because of security concerns cancelled the annual ‘immortal regiment’ march through central Moscow, which Putin usually participates.

As I have noted elsewhere, this a central ritual sacralizing not just the Great Patriotic War victory but a sacrament of national solidarity—a living manifestation of Russian solidarism.

None of the above should be construed as being presented of evidence of national solidarity in general or behind the war effort. However, there is plenty of evidence to support that, despite the perpetual presence of Russian dissent from both as well. In addition to opinion polls, which show Putin’s support rising slightly and holding since the SMO began, several trips to Russia since the NATO-Russia Ukrainian war began confirmed for me that there is little opposition to the war effort and substantial support for it, particularly among the middle-aged and elderly. The Russian elite, not least of all Putin, and the media have convinced the Russian people for the most part that the SMO/war is just, defensive war, which if lost threatens the stability and survival of the Russian state. Since Western leaders have declared that fall of the Putin government and even ‘color revolution’ are now the goals of Western support for Ukraine’s war effort and Western opposition to Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, this is not a difficult task and can hardly be considered fake. Russia has a too long and bitter experience of Western invasion, intervention, and domestic interference for Russians – whether in the Kremlin or on the street – not to believe this. The all too robust presence of neo-fascists inside and around the Maidan regime reminds Russians too much of their Great Patriotic War enemies; hence, Putin’s allusions to this parallel. As the West continues to promise Ukrainian membership in NATO ‘after victory,’ persisting in the main cause of the war, and as Ukraine begins to attack the Russian homeland, Russians have little choice but to hold together and continue the fight.

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NEW BOOK

EUROPE BOOKS, 2022

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RECENT BOOKS

MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2021

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MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2018

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About the Author 

Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu

Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.

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