The Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War was a truly significant event of historic dimensions. It will not only be remembered for the coming decades, but by mankind as a whole for centuries. It will be remembered by generation after generation of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, people in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Today they may, in many ways, be fragmented: living in different compartments of the post-Soviet space. But they will all remember this day chiefly as symbolizing a time when all these nations fought and won over a tremendous enemy: Fascist Germany. Remember, it was not that Germany had merely started a conventional war for territorial occupation, like the wars that had taken place in preceding centuries; Germany started a war that aimed to destroy entire nations and enslave people living in Eastern Europe.
For Russians as for other countries in the post Soviet space, May 9 is a very important symbol of their success. It could be argued that the Soviet Union did not achieve all that much. It had of course some highlights; but viewing the Soviet era from an historical perspective, it had negative as well as positive aspects.
Therefore May 9 is indeed a very special day, because of the crucial fact that it was a positive moment in the life of the Soviet Union. As such, it was probably the most significant day in the entire history of the Soviet Union, an event that cannot be compared to anything.
There is of course Gagarin’s space flight, which has also been, and continues to be, a source of great pride. May 9 is overwhelmingly a day when Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and other nations from across the Soviet Union can say “we won, we won the future and we won our lives. It was a real success and we changed the world for the better.” Thus it serves as a time of commemoration for people who lived in a completely different Russia. Democratic Russia is putting a great deal of distance between itself and its authoritarian, Soviet past. Despite this, May 9 will continue to remain a holiday in today’s democratic Russia and probably over the next century.
The question then arises of other options open to Russia in establishing days of national celebration. Take Germany for example: today their main national holiday marks the date of reunification. Before that, the national holiday was a negative date: June 17, when Soviet soldiers shot German workers in 1953. That choice of national day was clearly negative. It was ideologically focused on the containment of Russia or the fight against Soviet militarism. So these dates of commemoration, these national holidays, to a great extent depend on the shared political memory of the country’s population, rather than on day-to-day politics per se.
May 9 will doubtless remain Russia’s main national holiday for a long time to come. Of course, Russia also celebrates November 4, marking the defeat of Polish occupying forces. This is indubitably an artificial creation. There is no live memory of these events among the population, and for many generations it was not even recognized. Then there are religious holidays, which hopefully will also become as celebrated in Russia as they are in Western Europe and Eastern Europe where religious dates like Easter are among the main national holidays.
Looking further into the future, however, it seems likely that the time will come when Russia may adopt August 21 as a national holiday. In doing so they will not only be commemorating the date when the entire nation rose up against the putsch by Kremlin hardliners, they will be marking the date when Russia truly won its freedom. This date will come to be remembered as a crucially significant moment in Russian history.
Alexander Rahr is Director, Berthold-Beitz-Zentrum, German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)