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May 9, the day when Russia celebrates the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, gives rise to a large military parade in Moscow. This rally is also accompanied by a march called the “immortal regiment”. Millions of Russians across the country hold up portraits of their ancestors who took part in the Great Patriotic War. In a few years, this procession was exploited by the Kremlin to serve its propaganda and, today, to justify the invasion in Ukraine.
Portraits in black and white or sepia brandished on placards. Shots of women and men in uniform or in 1940s attire. Streets black with people. A marching crowd. In 2019, before the health crisis, there were 14 million all over Russia to take part in the parade of the immortal regiment. Marches have even taken place in nearly 80 countries around the world wherever there is a Russian community.
For the past ten years, on the occasion of May 9, the day of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, this civil parade has continued to grow. As war rages in Ukraine, the 2022 motorcade should be no exception. “I expect there will be a lot of people because it is very important for the Russian regime to show that this war is approved by the people. I think they will even try to organize parades of the immortals in a few occupied cities in Ukraine”, anticipates the historian Galia Ackerman, specialist in Russia and author of the book “The immortal regiment” (Premier parallel editions).
“He was very quickly monopolized by the Putin regime”
This march, which has become one of the most important tools of Kremlin propaganda, nevertheless stems originally from a private initiative. In 1965, students from a school in Novosibirsk decided to parade with portraits of veterans. The idea was taken up in 2010 by the deputy mayor of Moscow. But it was only a year later that three journalists from the Siberian city of Tomsk finally gave him visibility by baptizing this march “the immortal regiment”. For them, the heroes who fought for the freedom of their country during the Second World War deserve to participate in the celebration of victory.
As Galia Ackerman analyzes, “this parade was first a purely civil and informal ceremony of people who remember their ancestors who gave their lives for the fatherland during the Second World War”. But very quickly, this popular gathering supported by various local authorities does not fail to interest the Russian executive. “He was quickly taken over by Putin’s regime. As early as 2015, the Russian president marched to Moscow at the head of the country’s main immortal regiment,” recalls the historian.
Over the years, the walk has been transformed. While she initially paid tribute to the more than 26 million dead in the “Great Patriotic War”, the name given to the Second World War in Russia, she now venerates the memory of all those who participated in the conflict. “It has become a kind of pagan cult now. There is an ideology behind this cult. The dead who are totally sacred come down on this day from heaven and unite with the living. Together they form the eternal, victorious and immortal people”, explains Galia Ackerman.
The parade is now part of the official program of commemorations in Russia and benefits from state subsidies. According to Galia Ackerman, the spontaneity of the beginnings gave way to a “millimetric organization, worthy of the Soviet era”. “This parade is organized by companies, administrations or even by schools. Local organizations which coordinate these marches have a stock of ready-made portraits attached to sticks. do with family history,” explains the Russia specialist.
“We erase Soviet crimes”
This event is part of a more global policy, that of a rewriting of this period of history that has become “immaculate”. In 2014, a memorial law criminalizing “the dissemination of false information concerning the actions of the USSR during the Second World War” was thus voted. Since 2020, Russia has also amended its Constitution by introducing the celebration of “the memory of the defenders of the fatherland” and the ban on “minimizing the significance of [leur] heroism”.
Officially, the Second World War therefore began on June 22, 1941 during the German invasion of the USSR. Exit from national memory the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn in 1940 by the Soviet political police or the rape of hundreds of thousands of German women by the Red Army. “We erase Soviet crimes. The logic is very simple. The Russians defeated the Nazis who represented absolute evil. If the Russians were able to win, it is because they represent absolute good. It is a moral superiority that give today’s Russia the right to defend its interests and to continue the same sacred fight ad vitam aeternam,” said Galia Ackerman.
This rhetoric is now taken up to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine. Since the beginning of the conflict, Moscow has justified “its special military operation” by its desire to denazify the country. For the historian, “Putin’s war against Ukraine is a kind of replica of the Second World War. They want to defeat the Nazis, even if they are imaginary. Wherever the Russian troops manage to establish their control, the first thing they do is raise the flag of the Russian Federation, but also the red flag.”
Preparing children for war
For several years, the propaganda, of which the immortal regiment is one of the highlights, has finally “paid off”, because more than “80% of Russians support Putin’s war against Ukraine”. This type of gathering also prepares the Russia of tomorrow. During the parade of the immortal regiment, it is thus common to see young children wearing the uniform of the Red Army. A way for the Russian specialist, “to prepare them for war”. “There is also the ‘young army’, a paramilitary organization which brings together children from the age of eight. They are taught how to handle weapons and they are sponsored by real combat units of the Russian army. Seven hundred thousand children are recruited there,” she says. “It starts as a game, but when we send them to the front like in Ukraine, it’s much less joyful.”
The conflict with the neighboring country will undoubtedly be very present on Monday during the parade of the immortal regiment. Traditionally, the Russians wear on May 9 on the lapel of their jackets, the ribbon of Saint George, orange and black, which was originally a Tsarist decoration. A patriotic badge par excellence, this piece of fabric could take on a slightly different shape this year. According to Galia Ackerman, the parade of immortals should thus “take place under the sign of the letter Z” which in a few weeks has become the symbol of support for Russian forces in Ukraine.