During his annual New Year’s address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany as the country’s main event in 2020. The celebrations were supposed to culminate with a parade. pompous military in Red Square and the opening of a new Orthodox Christian cathedral dedicated to the Russian army on May 9.
But this year is not turning out to be as successful for Putin as he had hoped. Having to postpone the parade and grand opening of the church due to a major outbreak of the novel coronavirus is a big blow. Both have been a valuable opportunity for the Kremlin to rekindle nationalist sentiment among Russians and try to regain some public support, as the president’s approval rating continues to plummet. He is currently at 59 percent – a historic low.
The construction of the Armed Forces Cathedral took 17 months and cost around 6 billion rubles ($ 82 million). It was funded by the Ministry of Defense as well as donations from citizens and large corporations.
Numerology related to the anniversary has been incorporated into its architecture – the bell tower is 75 meters high (to mark the anniversary), the main dome is 19.45 meters wide (in reference to 1945) and a smaller measure 14.18 meters high, 1418 being the number of days the USSR was at war with Nazi Germany.
The complex around the cathedral has a plexiglass “1418-step path” with Nazi insignia displayed underneath so that visitors can trample on them like Soviet soldiers did in the historic Victory Parade in 1945.
Paradoxically, it also contains Stalin’s war-themed mosaics and various communist symbols despite the fact that, like all other Communist leaders, he opposed religion and the Orthodox Church was severely persecuted under his reign, with thousands of priests killed.
The complex was also supposed to feature a mosaic of Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu at a rally celebrating the annexation of Crimea, but it was removed after public outcry.
These designs of the cathedral and its adjoining complex may seem bizarre, but it is part of the Kremlin’s decades-long ideological project to rally political support for his rule by supporting various nationalist albeit disparate symbols to build a cult of war that nearly equates to a state religion.
Indeed, it may seem strange to position the image of Stalin in a church complex, but Kremlin image specialists know exactly what they are doing when they espouse the veneration of the victory of WWII. world, which began in earnest under communist leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s, with Christian orthodoxy and vicious nationalism.
This ideology presents the current leaders of the Kremlin as facilitators of the symbolic reconciliation between Russia‘s imperial monarchical past and the communist era.
Some communist symbols are already trampled on, such as the Nazi insignia on the new cathedral. Putin held on for a long time Lenin and the Bolsheviks responsible for destroying the Russian Empire, deceiving people with anti-war rhetoric, and turning Russia into a losing party in WWI.
The attitude of the regime towards Stalin is more nuanced. Although Putin and his supporters publicly condemn Stalin’s terror and, to a limited extent, encourage its memorization in monuments and films on public television, they give the Soviet dictator credit for rapid industrialization and above all for having won WWII.
Presenting himself as a reconciler who heals historic wounds allows Putin to portray all those who want him to leave, namely the pro-democracy liberal opposition, as extremists sowing civil discord and preparing revolutionary bloodshed. Speaking to his young supporters in 2014, for example, Putin compared what he calls “the non-systemic opposition” meaning liberal politicians like Alexei Navalny who he forbids being elected in parliament, with the Bolsheviks who openly advocated the defeat of Russia in the world war. I, thus precipitating the revolution of 1917.
At the same time, the original WWII cult of the Brezhnev era, imbued as it was with the spirit of communist internationalism and anti-fascism, is gradually turning into a far-right product. modern, aligning Russia with a major trend. in Eastern and Central Europe. It is increasingly embellished with a nationalist symbolism that focuses on the Russian ethnic majority.
Of course, it is difficult for Putin and his entourage to reconcile their natural far-right tendencies with their own personal histories as subordinate Soviet bureaucrats or KGB agents and to get around the fact that Russia is after all a multi-ethnic federation, but the extreme – the good political product is in great demand.
Unsurprisingly, the war cult, with all its contradictions, played a key role in selling the annexation of Crimea to the Russians as an act of protecting its Russian-speaking population from fascist-leaning and defensive Ukrainian nationalists. of the legacy of the 1945 victory.
As the Kremlin has unfolded its nationalist ideology over the past two decades, it has also begun to embed it into Russian law, starting with a 2013 law that criminalizes “insulting” believers. More recently, Putin proposed constitutional amendments, which would allow him to stay in power beyond 2024, when his current term expires. They also contain a reference to ethnic Russians as the founding people of the nation, affirm the duty of the state “to honor the memory of the defenders of the homeland and the defense of historical truth” and mention “our faith in God. In the preamble, although the country is officially secular.
The amendments were supposed to be voted on in a strategically scheduled plebiscite two weeks before the Victory Day parade – April 22. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also ruined that plan.
These amendments, assuming they are passed in the referendum, bring Russia closer to other neighbors in Eastern Europe who sought to build their own ethnic nation states after the fall of the USSR.
Russia may often be at political disagreement with its Eastern European neighbors, but the convergence of their political cultures is in full swing. As countries like Hungary and Poland embrace elements of Putin’s authoritarianism, Russia is slowly reforming itself as an ethnocentric nation-state.
The existing hodgepodge of lingering Communist-era iconography and modern far-right trends has created a messy ideological landscape in Russia, but the overall direction is clear from the work of state propagandists whose job it is to to probe and guide public opinion.
In recent years, ideological agents have begun to broadcast even more radical far-right views that may appear to contradict the official narrative of Russia as a heroic anti-fascist nation. One of the biggest Kremlin television propagandists, Dmitriy Kiselev, recently offers erecting a monument to Russian Imperial General Pyotr Krasnov who served under the Nazis and hailed Hitler’s attack on the USSR as a war of liberation against Communists and Jews.
Another notorious television propagandist Vladimir Soloviev made a movie it sounds like an apology from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
In 2016, the now-retired Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky caused an uproar in St. Petersburg when he unveiled a commemorative plaque to Finnish warlord Carl Gustaf Mannerheim whose troops helped maintain the Nazi blockade of Leningrad, which claimed at least 600,000 lives. and immense suffering for the survivors.
The Kremlin’s complacency with such escapades of its own ideological workers contrasts sharply with its aggressive reaction to Eastern European countries questioning its view of WWII history. But this is part of another game, in which regular quarrels over history to feed a fruitful symbiosis between the Russian leadership and its ideological relatives in neighboring countries – both sides profit from such public clashes because they fuel nationalist fervor at home.
As in the rest of the region, there is no left force in Russia to counteract this sharp turn to the right. The Russian Communist Party pays lip service to its origins by displaying red banners at public gatherings and bringing flowers to Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square.
In reality, it was an ultra-nationalist and imperialist organization from its conception after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Its leadership is on good terms with the Russian Orthodox Church, while its presidential candidate in the last election was a wealthy businessman.
The liberal opposition was once disturbingly elitist, prone to extreme forms of libertarian social Darwinism and sympathetic to nationalist populism. It was only in recent years that its leader, Navalny, began to systematically address issues of social justice and workers’ rights and to support independent unions.
It is high time that only a highly modernized left force campaigning on pressing issues of social inequality can reverse the authoritarian tendencies facilitated by the nationalist heirs of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.