Every year on 9 May, Russia observes Victory Day as its most important national holiday. It celebrates the end of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) by staging events that dwarf those of any other country. In 2021, the performance in Moscow included 12,000 Russian troops marching through Red Square, followed by tanks and missile launchers, and it concluded with an aerial show of 76 jets and helicopters—one for every year since the victory over Nazi Germany.
This holiday is designed above all to remind the world of the enormous contributions Russia made in the Great Patriotic War. A few surviving veterans attend the event as a reminder that the Red Army inflicted nearly 90% of all Germany’s combat losses, and civilians across the country solemnly commemorate the 27 million Soviet citizens who died in the conflagration (compared, for example, to about 420,000 Americans deaths).
But Victory Day is not just about the past. It is also about national identity in the present, and as this identity project has changed, so has the memory of the war. In years immediately following 1945, 9 May received scant attention. The country was busy pursuing its global ideological mission of Marxism-Leninism and also in repairing the massive damage it had sustained. But by the end of the 1980s, the declining legitimacy of Communist ideology led authorities to search for other ways to mobilize the population and, in this context, they turned increasingly to Russian nationalism. Among other things, this required a new usable past, giving new meaning to the aphorism: “nothing is so unpredictable as Russia’s past.”
These transitions were much in evidence in how the Communist Party was depicted in the Great Patriotic War. During the Soviet era, Party members were presented as dedicated, courageous, and selfless fighters at the vanguard of the effort to liberate the USSR and the rest of the world from German fascism. A 1964 Soviet history textbook, for example, told of how troops going on the most dangerous missions said their greatest wish was to be considered a Communist. Textbooks of that era also encouraged students to visit history museums where they could see Communist Party members’ cards pierced by bullet holes and soaked in blood. In this telling, the Party was presented as the leader of the masses as they struggled to rout class enemies in the form of fascist murderers.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this picture underwent a drastic revision. The Party’s legitimacy declined and citizens began expressing doubts and criticisms that would never have been heard in public discourse a few years earlier. Comments that might have been part of private debate “in the kitchen” in Soviet parlance surfaced in the media, memoirs, and even official history textbooks. In the exhilarating discussions of the time, well-established Soviet truths about the Great Patriotic War were replaced by claims that would have landed authors in prison in previous decades.
For example, a 1995 Russian history textbook blamed the Party-led regime for the fact that the Germans reached the Volga at Stalingrad, something that had never before happened in Russian history. In this new version, it was only when the Party was pushed aside to allow true military professionals to take over that Soviet fortunes improved in the Great Patriotic War, making the Party an impediment rather than a hero in the war effort. The most important new heroes to appear in this post-Soviet narrative were the Russian masses, the Russian nation.
In short, the transition from the Soviet to post-Soviet era in Russia witnessed a drastic revision in official memory about the most important existential threat of the twentieth century. This might seem to make national memory a fickle servant of political needs, but to leave it at that misses a larger picture. This picture is one a deeper narrative in which the leading actors may change, but the basic plot remains the same. What appears on the surface to be a radical rewrite of national memory turns out to involve the same underlying storyline, and the transition from Soviet to post-Soviet accounts turns out to be a case of telling the same basic story with different characters.
The stable, underlying story at work in such cases is a “narrative template.” This unconscious narrative code gives rise to mental habits that shape the national memory and national identity more generally. These habits form a coherent perspective that is resistant to change, but one that is also sufficiently protean to accommodate varying accounts of events with their specific dates, places, events, and actors. In the Russian case, the “Expulsion-of-Alien-Enemies” narrative template provides the formula for both the Soviet and post-Soviet account of the Great Patriotic War, and also for other events from previous centuries. It helps explain why the expression “Great Patriotic War” caught on so quickly for Russians in 1941, where the conflict was viewed as another instantiation of the same basic plot for the “Patriotic War” waged against Napoleon more than a century earlier.
This is a narrative template that shapes Russian understanding of many events in the present as well as the past. For example, it lies behind Vladimir Putin’s frequent beliefs about NATO as a threat—beliefs shared by many Russians but rejected as paranoid by Westerners. All this makes Victory Day an annual event, which, to be sure commemorates the massive losses of the Great Patriotic War, but is also an occasion on which Russians renew their commitment to a national narrative that defines who they are in the twenty-first century.