Last Saturday, 16,000 soldiers, 200 armored vehicles, and 150 airplanes, helicopters, and jets combined to form the biggest spectacle seen in Moscow since the days of the Soviet Union. The occasion for the parade, as you’ve probably heard by now, was the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. But history’s judgment is more complex than Vladimir Putin’s triumphant parade would suggest, since in most countries it “liberated,” the Red Army merely came to replace the oppressive fascist ideology with an equally deadly communist one.
Here are seven reasons Putin’s eccentric parade ought to be a little embarrassing for Russians:
- It evoked direct memories of Soviet bellicosity
Show parades like this used to be commonplace during the Cold War. They served as platforms for Soviet leaders to flex their military muscle and strike a posture of strength, especially as relations between East and West deteriorated. This should not be a legacy Vladimir Putin wants to revive.
The largest Soviet parade was announced by Joseph Stalin in 1945, soon after the victory over Nazi Germany—it featured some 40,000 soldiers and nearly 2,000 military vehicles. Even at that moment of heady theatrics, though, the Red Army’s very makeup hinted at a more sinister truth: participants in these marches included soldiers from what would come to be called the “Captive Nations,” such as Ukraine and Poland, a reminder of the imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union.
- It politicized Nazi history
In remarks he made during the parade Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated the well-practiced Kremlin talking point that Ukraine is being run by latter-day fascists. Addressing the crowd in Red Square, Putin warned that, “In the 1930’s Europe did not see the threat from the Nazi ideology, and now, 70 years after, history is again appealing to our minds and our vigilance.”
Kremlin officials and state media have routinely referred to Ukrainian resistance fighters and the government in Kiev as “fascists” or “Nazis,” thus trying to cloak the current Russian landgrab in Ukraine as some holy crusade against the forces of extremism. Even the orange and black St. George ribbon has been transformed from a symbol of Russia’s defense against fascist Germany into a pennant of support for the Kremlin’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
By painting Ukrainian patriots as Nazis, the Russian government cheapens the very memory it is attempting to honor with the Victory Parade.
- Highlights Russia’s growing isolation from the West
Many journalists noted the conspicuous absence of any notable Western heads of state at the parade last weekend, despite invitations from the Kremlin. Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Francois Holland, for instance, all skipped this year’s festivities. It was just five years ago, however, that American, British, French, and Polish heads of state not only joined other world leaders on the dais in Moscow for anniversary celebrations, but lent their troops to march in the parade alongside Russians.
With the 2014 annexation of Crimea, however, Vladimir Putin sent a clear message to Western leaders that their friendship and cooperation were only worth so much to him. He seems more than happy to find new allies in the authoritarian governments of Xi Jinping, Raul Castro, and Nicolas Maduro, all of whom made it to Moscow for the parade. Putin may think that by appointing himself organizer of this rogue’s gallery of global tyrants he is projecting a position of strength, but in reality he is just underlining how increasingly isolated and unpopular his government is on the world stage.
- Teaming up with China
Following up on recent trade and cyber deals between Russia and China, the guest of honor at Saturday’s parade was Chinese president Xi Jinping, who sat to Putin’s right on the inspection platform while honor guard from three services of the People’s Liberation Army marched in the parade.
For decades the PLA has sat at the center of a vast network of terror and violence in China that has claimed scores of millions of lives. Dutch historian Frank Dikötter calls Mao’s Great Leap Forward “one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,” and estimates the death toll from that one period of Chinese history alone at roughly 45 million. It remains a blemish on the honor of Russia’s current government that it would not only deal so closely and amicably with China’s Communist Party, but that it would give pride of place to the PLA, which has maintained the Party’s stranglehold on the Chinese people for the past sixty years.
- Glorified an Anti-Russian Regime
Though many of the Russians gathered in Moscow likely believed they were patriotically supporting Russian nationalism, Putin’s glorification of the Soviet regime actually serves to romanticize the most brutally anti-Russian government in history. Scholar R.J. Rummel estimates that some 61 million Russian citizens were killed as a direct consequence of Soviet policies. Russian society and civic health, not to mention political and economic development, still hasn’t recovered from this collective trauma. Yet this is apparently the regime that Putin wants to hold up as a source of pride and national unity, and whose collapse he called the “greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Russians should be the first to condemn their Soviet past.
- Showcased weapons of international terror
One of the many weapons systems that was on display Saturday was the SA-11 Buk missile launcher. Though the fact that one of them caught fire during the parade should be embarrassing enough, the fact that the very same weapons system was used by trained separatists in eastern Ukraine to shoot down commercial flight MH17 last summer should really have given the parade organizers pause. A just-released report by a German investigative team states definitively that it was the Buk system that killed 298 innocent civilians on board the Malaysian Airlines plane last July; the report also confirms that the missile system was operated by 53rd Russian Air Defense Brigade.
Maybe, then, this particular weapon, which has already sowed so much discord and nearly brought Europe to the brink of another war, should not have been proudly paraded through the streets of Moscow.
- Included symbol of deadly communist ideology…
Nazi propaganda and symbolism is illegal in Russia, presumably because it calls to mind the murderous and shameful legacy of a totalitarian regime. It remains unclear, then, why the Soviet hammer and sickle, symbols of a regime that murdered many millions more than the Nazis did, remains not only legal, but a source of pride for many Russians. Indeed, Soviet symbology was rampant during Saturday’s parade.
- … and glorified Stalin’s image.
Along with the omnipresent hammer and sickle, romantic images of a smiling Uncle Joe were a common sight at Saturday’s parade. This despite the fact that Stalin was one of history’s deadliest dictators, second only in murderous efficiency to Mao Zedong. Nevertheless, the Soviet leader’s image has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation in recent years, with the current president calling comparisons of Stalin to Hitler totally “groundless” while only begrudgingly admitting the “ugly nature” of the Stalin regime.
All of these facts point to one simple truth: The Russian government is trading on the bloody history of its Soviet days in order to fan the flames of national pride and expansionist military policy. This is not harmless rhetoric or empty posturing—this sort of romanticized revisionism has direct consequences for global stability today, as we’ve seen in the Ukraine crisis.
People are dying today because Vladimir Putin’s Russia still believes in the old way of doing things.
We all—Russian and non-Russian alike—must face up to the uncomfortable truths of the Soviet era, and render the right judgments about its legacy. As this most recent bit of theatrics shows, Russia will never move forward, it will never join the community of Western nations, until it forsakes its communist past and properly accounts for its crimes. If Putin wants a strong and prosperous Russia, the first thing he should do is abandon precisely this type of blustery showmanship.