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Putin’s May 9 WWII obsession shows he’s closer to Britain than he might think

The UK and Russia – albeit in vastly different ways – seem unable to move on from the events of eight decades ago

Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on the screen speacking during the Victory Day Parade at Red Square on May 9, 2022 in Moscow (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

Thank God for Vera Lynn and 1940s dresses. When the Brits do war celebrations, they opt for folksy nostalgia. Towns and villages across the land spent much preparing for the 75th anniversary of VE-Day: cakes were to be baked; trestle tables ordered. The royal family, in full regalia, were to appear on the balcony. An extra bank holiday had been granted.

Then Covid struck. In place of the national jamboree came socially distanced wreath-laying, a rebroadcast of Winston Churchill’s speech and a more sombre address from the Queen. The Prime Minister – a man who likes to break the law while telling others to obey it – urged people to watch the events on TV and hold tea parties within their household bubbles. Solo trumpeters were encouraged to play the Last Post from their homes.

Many did come out on to the streets, stopping at their doorsteps to wave their union flags and sing We’ll Meet Again. The plucky underdog wasn’t going to let a pandemic, six weeks in, get in the way of a wartime celebration. Then they resumed the lockdown.

Covid, at the start, while it was novel and before Boris Johnson was rumbled, reinforced a sense of national solidarity. Who could forget the Thursday evening ritual, Clap for the NHS? The ‘Blitz spirit’ was everywhere. Testing labs in the early stages were likened to ‘Dunkirk little ships’; Her Maj got into the spirit, equating the sadness of self-isolation with wartime evacuation. In some senses it played to a centre-left narrative of the state coming to the aid of the vulnerable. But for the most part it was hijacked and harnessed by the right, providing another opportunity for its particular take on patriotism and post-Brexit English exceptionalism.

As the historian AJP Taylor once wrote: “The British were the only people who went through both world wars from beginning to end. Yet they remained a peaceful and civilised people, tolerant, patient and generous.”

That is, to put it politely, moot.

Yet while the Farnborough Air Show remains extremely popular, while Red Arrow flypasts have many looking up to the sky, it should be said in Britain’s defence that its version of wartime pomp is not menacing. In any case, the UK has for some time been incapable of mounting a campaign on its own, or even to take a prominent role. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya felt like the end of an era, even at the time.

Not so the parade in Red Square this week to mark the 77th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. Each May 9 (the Russians hold it a day later than the Western Allies because of the time difference on the day the surrender was signed), has served as the great occasion to demonstrate Soviet/Russian might. From Stalin to Khrushchev, from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, the show remained the same.

Since the 1980s I’ve watched many of these extraordinary displays of hardware. Defence attachés from foreign embassies were invited, scribbling notes about tank turrets and missile launchers. This pleased the Russians, gave them a sense of purpose, even as their political system atrophied, and their economy crumbled. Being regarded as an adversary was acceptable, even desirable. Being regarded as a joke was not. Nobody knows who coined the phrase “Upper Volta with missiles”, but it hurt deeply.

To those of a nationalist disposition – and for that count not just Putin but millions of ordinary Russians – the decision to scale down the May 9 parade was one of many humiliations Boris Yeltsin meted on his people.

When Putin came to power in 2000, he could have undertaken a modernisation of Russia. With its scientific prowess, it could have become a big player in information technology. International goodwill was abundant; investment was starting to flow in. A glistening ‘innovation centre’ was built at Skolkovo, in the west of Moscow, but nothing much happened. Russia did become a world leader in cyber hacking, if that could be counted as an achievement.

Instead, in order to knit together his country, he fell back on the invocation of past wars and the theories of encirclement, victimhood and grievance. The collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, was one of the great tragedies to befall Russia, as Stalin was rehabilitated in school books.

Putin’s speech from the podium on May 9 was noticeable for what was not in it – no discernible threat of escalation of the war in Ukraine, not for the moment at least. He cannot win, but at the same time will not completely lose, because he has his nuclear weapons and because, in his dictatorship, he can portray any land taken as a victory. Instead, he linked Donbas, Crimea, plus his designs on Kharkiv and elsewhere, with the second world war. Russia’s forces in Ukraine, he said, with his standard distortion of history, are “fighting for the same thing their fathers and grandfathers did.”

Across Europe and beyond, all countries involved commemorate the two world wars in their own ways, affording those who died, either soldiers in battle or civilians murdered, with the respect they should be afforded. Of the other Allies, the French reserve their pomp for July 14 (Donald Trump once remarked to Emmanuel Macron that he would love a parade such as that); the Americans have their day 10 days earlier.

What is about the Brits and Russians that, in their vastly different ways, seem so paralysed by the second world war, who vest so much of their notions of nationhood and pride in those events eight decades ago? Is it because they have struggled to recognise that the world has moved on, that they need to find a more contemporary sense of self-worth?

One moment, steeped in bathos, makes me wonder. It was Victory Day in 1993. I was driving down a Moscow street when stopped by a traffic cop. That was normal; it didn’t matter whether you were actually speeding or not. You would hand over your passport, with a few dollars wedged inside. After a sombre perusal, the document would be handed back, but without the cash. On this occasion, the officer gave it back, all of it, wishing me a fond farewell, with the words: “On a day such as this we are knitted together as peoples united in victory.”

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