This year's Victory Day parade taking place in Moscow's Red Square on May 9 will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany. The pompous and lavish event has been dubbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as "Russia's biggest holiday" and will feature 2,000 pieces of military hardware and nearly 80,000 troops. However, despite the great ideological significance of this day to the Russian state and its people — in the light of the Ukrainian crisis and an increasingly revisionist interpretation of history — Russia has found itself on this important anniversary largely isolated in the international community, with few of the invited world leaders in attendance.
Putin initially invited around 70 world leaders to attend the Victory Day parade in Moscow, but the number of attendees shrank rapidly. Apart from Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, no EU leader will be in attendance. Indeed, no leaders of Western countries, including President Obama, will be attending due to Russia's role in the war in Ukraine. This is in contrast to President George W. Bush in 2005 and President Clinton in 1995 attending the anniversary celebrations in Moscow. This year, many countries will send their ambassadors instead, with the U.S. being represented by John Tefft, ambassador to Russia.
Victory Day is comparable to Memorial Day in the United States, and dedicated to the commemoration of all who died in military service. Both are typically marked with parades and the visiting of memorials and cemeteries. The Soviet victory in World War II — also known as the "Great Patriotic War" in Russia — can in terms of mythological importance be compared to D-Day for Americans. Both events have left unforgettable imprints in the psyches of their respective societies.
While paying dues to fallen heroes is commended around the world, Victory Day in Russia has increasingly become a manifestation of a creeping Soviet legacy and even a celebration of Russian imperialism, which made a comeback after the annexation of Crimea. The Russian imperial symbol, the St. George ribbon, has gained massive popularity during the celebrations of Victory Day of the past years, while last year a monument was built near the Kremlin dedicated to 19th-century Tsar Alexander I.
The end of the Second World War has always had a significant place in Soviet ideology and its importance to the Russian people can hardly be overstated. With some 20 million to 30 million Soviet deaths in the fight against Nazi Germany, most Russian families experienced personal loss. However, the Kremlin has regrettably often politicized this great national tragedy as it tried to take ownership of the victory against Nazism while ignoring the participation and losses of many other Soviet nationalities, like Ukrainians or Belarusians. Through the 1990s, the celebration of Victory Day was somewhat muted as Russia and other post-Soviet countries reassessed the more troubling aspects of Soviet history.
Since the 2000s, under Putin's leadership, Soviet legacy increasingly gained prominence in the official ideology of the Russian Federation. The Kremlin began to consciously rehabilitate Soviet-era leaders and symbols as well as the Soviet version of history, which increasingly clashes with Western perceptions. Contentions between the West and Russia include Moscow's distancing from (if not outright denial) of Stalinist repressions, the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In late 2014, Putin himself attempted to rehabilitate the previously condemned secret Soviet-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that sought to divide Eastern Europe by downplaying its significance as a mere nonaggression treaty. Given Russia's revisionist foreign policy and the whitewashing of history, it comes as no surprise that many countries are distancing themselves from Russia and Victory Day celebrations.
The ongoing Ukrainian crisis certainly perpetuates significant tensions between Russia and the West. However, the refusal by U.S. and European leaders to participate in the 70th anniversary of possibly the most ideologically important celebration of the Russian Federation is itself symbolic and underscores the growing rift between Russia and the West. For the Russian public, the lack of participation by Western leaders will be a visual demonstration of Russia's increasing diplomatic isolation, but it will also show that Russia's friends can only be found amid the emerging powers and developing nations.
Grigas is the author of The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia (Ashgate, 2013) and Rebuilding the Russian Empire, forthcoming in 2016 from Yale University Press.