20 years under Putin: a timeline

Surrounding May 9, Victory Day, which commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany, the solemn voices of newsreaders, propagandists, and spokesmen of the Russian government sounded louder than ever. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, authorities at all levels are seeking to use the World War II military victory as the basis for a national idea, while Russian society, being ideologically inexperienced, attempts to imitate the authorities.


A campaign to distribute and wear the Ribbon of Saint George, one of the military symbols of the May 9 Victory Day, was launched in 2005. Over the last 10 years, about 100 million ribbons were distributed in Russia. Photo: RIA Novosti.


The May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Russia were surrounded by an air of bathos, as loyal officials clamored to demonstrate their patriotic enthusiasm in order to be noticed and appreciated by the higher-ups.

This contingent has never shown much creativity. The best they could come up with was a banner praising Stalin on Plyushchikha Street. A scandal ensued (mostly on the Internet), and a couple of days later, the banner was taken down. The overachieving officials didn’t risk anything by putting up the banner, since it is well known that nobody ever gets punished for supporting Stalinism.

It is far easier to display one’s patriotism in the field of bans and repressions, since in that area, one needn’t invent anything new. It only takes one small pretext puffed up into an insult against the country’s patriotism, and then brought down on unsuspecting and clueless citizens who have failed to fully appreciate the immense significance of the great victory.

Teenage girls had it the toughest. For dancing. In January of this year, the Credo dance studio in Orenburg presented a routine called “Bees and Winnie the Pooh.” The video was uploaded on YouTube, in which the dancers, a few minors among them, performed a twerking dance. The incident might have passed unnoticed if not for an ideologic component discovered by watchful patriots: the dancers were wearing orange-and-black striped costumes that, according to zealous officials, bore a suspicious resemblance to the colors of St. George’s Ribbon, the symbol of Soviet Russia’s great victory. The Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigative Committee, not to mention local culture and education authorities, began investigating the activity of the dance studio.

Another scandal broke out in Russia’s Arctic region. The Murmansk branch of the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), a movement started in 2011 by Vladimir Putin, demanded explanations from the authorities of the Kolski district with regard to a local Kinki Anime-Fest event. According to outraged ONF representatives, among the festival participants was a young man dressed as a “transvestite” in stockings and a garter belt, and several underage children wearing excessively revealing outfits.

The dance scandal in northern Russia was followed by another one in the country’s south. In Novorossiysk, six young women performed a choreographed routine in front of the Malaya Zemlya war memorial, an aesthetically meritless monument which locals call “flat iron” for its peculiar shape. The memorial, completed in 1982, was inspired by Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and his memoirs entitled Malaya Zemlya (Little Land).

The Novorossiysk dancers were not as lucky as their northern colleagues. Local law enforcement officials treated their dance routine as hooliganism and sentenced one of the dancers to fifteen days of imprisonment, and two women to ten days. Two more were fined. Since the sixth dancer turned out to be a minor, an administrative case was initiated against her parents.

Even so, local authorities found these measures insufficient. Thus, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Krasnodar region is currently investigating whether the girls violated article 244 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Was the performance an “outrage upon the bodies of the deceased or burial places by a group of persons by reason of political, ideological, racial, national, or religious hatred?” A violation of this article could yield up to five years’ imprisonment.

Dance performances are a great opportunity to emphasize one’s unwavering moral stability and high level of patriotism, but they’re not the only option available.

The authorities should not turn the victory achieved seventy years ago into a cheap show performed high on patriotic fumes, but should instead find and bury the remains of those killed in that war and remember in mournful silence all those who perished.

In Krasnoyarsk, the patriotic public attacked like a pack of hungry wolves a competition called Siberia’s Best Pastry Chef, in which participated a dozen of the best bakers in the region. Contestants, among other things, presented cakes in the shape of the Motherland Monument, the Red Square, a military parade, and other World War II imagery. (Using these symbols for the cakes was viewed as blasphemy). The winner of the contest was Nadezhda Saburova, who prepared a triple-decker cake flanked by real photographs from the war and the traditional “commemorative” glass of vodka.

Soon after, another scandal broke out in the town of Kansk, also in the Krasnoyarsk region. The owner of a local beer shop displayed a banner near his business depicting popular characters from Leonid Gaidai’s film Prisoner of the Caucasus: Coward, Bobby, and Experienced, played by Georgi Vitsin, Yuri Nikulin, and Yevgeny Morgunov. On the banner, a famous photograph from the photo series “Victory Banner over the Reichstag” served as the backdrop for a well-known movie scene in which the three aforementioned characters drink beer. Such a sacrilegious mixture of the sacred and the vulgar could not go unnoticed. The banner was taken down, but luckily, the shop owner was left alone.

In Izhevsk, State Technical University students painted their naked bodies with war images as part of a body-art competition. There were pictures of eternal flame, flying planes, and submarines—all adorned with Russian flags and St. George’s Ribbons. The participants merely wanted to contribute to the Victory Day celebrations, but alas, they were misunderstood and the event was perceived as an “orgy” and a “provocation.” Thus far, no information about the fate of the students has been released.

In the context of the abovementioned encroachments on the historic event, an incident in the town of Ivanteyevka of the Moscow region looks like a childish prank. A street banner bearing a St. George’s Ribbon and the inscription “They fought for the Motherland!” depicted the crew of a German Junkers Ju 88 bomber. The head of the town administration showed signs of distress, apologized profusely, and promised to punish those responsible.

The Russian Federal Space Agency’s (Roscosmoz) failure to properly launch the cargo spacecraft Progress doesn’t look that impressive either. Bound for the International Space Station, the unmanned ship was carrying a copy of the Banner of Victory, among other things. But it failed to deliver its cargo when it missed its target by about thirty kilometers. There have been no consequences as of yet, save rumors about the possible dismissal of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin.

It’s surprising watchful patriots didn’t make a bigger deal out of this incident. Cargo ships, space, course deviation, mistakes, lack of discipline, saboteurs, spies, enemies of the people—there is enough material there for yet another wave of patriotic hysteria. After all, even toys can serve as a basis for a criminal case!

Which is to say, it was recently discovered that the Central Children’s Store on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, having just reopened after years of renovations, was selling plastic toy soldiers clothed in SS uniforms. After all, “Soviet” toy soldiers do need someone to fight against! The Prosecutor’s Office considered the plastic Nazi soldiers to be an insult to war veterans. All sets containing the offending toy soldiers were removed from the shelves. A criminal case was launched against the store in accordance with the article of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation on “extremism.”

The madness that engulfed a considerable segment of the country’s population in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany is quite understandable. Authorities at all levels seek to use the military victory as the basis for a national idea, while Russian citizens, being ideologically inexperienced, are merely trying to imitate the authorities—some sincerely, and others as a joke.

The authorities would do well to remember that in Soviet times, numerous jokes about Vasili Ivanovich Chapayev appeared when Soviet television began showing the film Chapayev on a monthly basis. Or that the country was rolling with laughter at jokes about Lenin while the Soviet government was preparing for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

They should remember this and stop. They should not turn the victory achieved seventy years ago into a cheap show performed high on patriotic fumes, but should instead find and bury the remains of those killed in that war—remains still scattered throughout the woods and fields—and remember in mournful silence all those who perished.

But they will not stop. They feel no genuine grief, and so the show will go on.