We have yet to have a big discussion about holidays in Russia. Holidays, which used to be the real spiritual bonds of Putinism. The fake holiday of November 4, the so-called “People's Unity Day,” just passed. It did not even pass, it flew by unnoticed. Well, Putin visited the Minin and Pozharsky monument, and talked on camera again to the same FSO crowd who were playing “the people” (I wonder if Putin himself is not sick of seeing the same faces?) Well, Medvedev wrote yet another load of rubbish – about Lucifer and Iblis –Twitter jokers will have something to laugh about. But otherwise, nothing. Deafening silence. It's as if this “holiday” hasn't even existed for 17 years. But just a few years ago, it was a day of fierce controversy. Nationalists held their “Russian marches,” and pro-Kremlin youth organizations mirrored them. The Communists demanded that November 7 be reclaimed as a red day on the calendar.
Now it's over. The winds of history have blown away the false siding off the edifice of Putinism. And no one was upset: it was, after all, a part of an all-encompassing lie. No one had initially believed in the importance of the anniversary of something connected with the Poles in 1612. Well, just some moderately cunning political technologist from the noughties came into the office on Staraya Ploshchad and said: I have an idea how we will break November 7. Perhaps it was this cynical insight, superbly described by Viktor Pelevin in Generation P – thatthere is no good and evil, but only political technology plus some wheeling-dealing – that led us to the moral catastrophe of 2022.
But while the Putinism “siding” comes off easily, it is not the case with the foundations. We all know very well what holidays lie at the heart of Putinism. It is the May holiday, and it is the Victory Cult as the main “spiritual bond”. It is understandable why it is so much more durable than the “National Unity” day. After all, they have been building it for a long time, for decades. First in Soviet times - approximately since the Brezhnev era - and then in post-Soviet, modern Russia. It would be no exaggeration to say that May 9 is the pivot on which the entire mental construct of Putinism now rests. And this has been done, of course, deliberately. In essence, a mythological picture of the world has been constructed, in which May 9, 1945, became ground zero. As if the country itself in its present form and the nation itself were born out of an epic battle between good and evil in World War II. World War II is also usually referred to as the Great Patriotic War, while the allies are carefully obscured, as if they never existed.
This is precisely why any attempt to take a critical or even more sophisticated look at what happened is so genuinely irritating. From the story of the “Bronze Soldier” in Estonia to the contemporary discourse in Poland that the Red Army did not bring liberation, but only new enslavement. The mythological picture of the creation of the world cannot but be black and white. And anyone who questions it is inevitably perceived as an enemy. Because they are trying to destroy the very idea of the universe: it seems that if the idea of Victory is wrong, then everything in the world will fall apart like a house of cards. So,it is not surprising that Putin's Russia has ended up with a series of laws that literally forbid reflection on World War II, under pain of criminal prosecution. It makes sense that the semantic framework of May 9 is the one within which the war in Ukraine has been described to the average Russian viewer over the past eight years. First there was a “militia” (a positive rhetoric of the Great Patriotic War), and now there is “denazification” (a strongly negative rhetoric).
In retrospect, one can see how society was inevitably drawn into this abyss. In the twenties, it became increasingly clear how a formerly genuine holiday, “with tears in one’s eyes”, was gradually transformed into a celebration of aggression and militarism, where the main mantra for those bewitched with the procession of tanks and missiles was the militaristic maxim: “We can repeat.” And we have repeated it, but in a very different way. An unjust war of aggression is being waged - for no good reason. Can we continue to be proud of our victory over Nazism? We have yet to answer this question for ourselves. This year, in the hustle and bustle of the first months of battles, the May 9 holiday passed almost unnoticed. But next year, people will inevitably start reflecting.
After the aggressive and unjustified war, can we still be proud of our victory over Nazism?
From here on out, if one has to be proud, the governmentshouldn’t have to do anything with it at all. No government in Russia - after Putin, of course - will have direct propaganda access to Victory Day anymore. But what about the shattered worldview, the fact that everything will supposedly fall apart like a house of cards? Well, we weren't the first and probably won't be the last.
The Germans reassembled their self-consciousness after 1945 without national supremacy. With relative ease they gave up (although, according to contemporary historians and sociologists, it took them almost a whole 30 years to do this - and it was the next generation which definitively accomplished it) the idea of a “thousand-year Reich,” of an “Aryan race” and of German exceptionalism opposed, of course, to the mercantile spirit of the Anglo-Saxons.
And the Japanese somehow survived the collapse of their beliefs. In 1945, just after the country's defeat in the world war, Shinto's status as the state religion was abolished, although it seemed to Japanese conservatives that without that bond, society would collapse. It did not. Moreover, the following year, 1946, Emperor Shōwa issued the Humanity Declaration denying his divinity. Before that, the Japanese had believed in the divine nature of their emperors. Here is a characteristic quote from there:
“The ties between Us and Our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine, and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.”
Even our ancestors after the defeat in the Crimean War (there is no need to look farther for examples) easily renounced such “spiritual bonds” of Nicholas I's Russia as serfdom, the recruitment army and judicial arbitrariness. True, no “bond” was created based on the victory over Napoleon in Nicholas's time. But serfdom was truly a cult at the time, a real “bond.” The entire repressive machine of the empire was engaged in suppressing those who said that it could and should be abolished.
Moreover, - even among intellectuals many said serfdom was a good thing. They said that false freedoms and revolutions were only good for Europe, not for us, God forbid. The peasants obey the landlords, and the landlords obey the Tsar. Here is a typical quote by Tyutchev from 1848:
“And when over such a tremendous collapse of <Europe and Western values> we see an even more tremendous Empire surfacing like the Holy Ark, who dares to doubt its calling, should we, its children, show disbelief and cowardice?”
A few years later, after the defeat in the Crimean War, in a letter to his wife Tyutchev wrote that it was a war between “crooksand scoundrels.”
This crushing defeat somehow organically swept away all the ultrapatriotic narratives about serfdom and Russia as a shining holy ark (also Tyutchev’s metaphor).
According to Leo Tolstoy, in 1856 “the time came when all Russia (!) celebrated the destruction of the Black Sea Fleet, and white-stone Moscow greeted and congratulated the remnants of the fleet's crews on this happy occasion, offered them a good glass of Russian vodka and bread and salt, in keeping with good Russian custom, and bowed at their feet.”
Tolstoy continued: it was “a time of civilization, progress, questions, the revival of Russia.”
In general, it turned out that an old idea gets easily replaced with new ones, such as civilization and progress. The next 15 years of great reforms passed under the sign of those ideas. And Tyutchev stopped writing about politics – he only said that “one can only believe in Russia.”