SMOLENSK, Russia — Young troops dressed in their finest military garb marched through the streets of this sleepy city in western Russia over the weekend, leading the way for a handful of thundering tanks and trucks loaded with missiles.
The crowd — seemingly every one of Smolensk’s 300,000 residents — cheered loudly. Children ran to snatch bullet casings lying on the ground. Old men with canes, their chests gleaming with dozens of medals, wiped tears from their eyes.
For Russia, Victory Day, celebrated every May 9, is more than an acknowledgment of World War II’s end. It is the very basis of the country’s national identity and government-imposed nationalism, as well as a stark reminder of its failure to acknowledge the complexities of its troubled past.
“It’s our country’s best holiday,” said Ivan Maksakov, 69, who was a child when the war broke out. “If this holiday didn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist on this earth.”
Throughout Russia, it’s as if the war’s end came yesterday. Veterans, a term that includes those who lived through the war as children, don uniforms and medals, then accept flowers and words of thanks from well wishers. World War II-era films show on state-run television, and performers line city squares singing military anthems.
In recent years, Russia’s leadership has taken the opportunity to build upon the swell of nationalism to issue threats to the neighbors, with whom its relations are increasingly tense.
“Russia’s defense is our holy duty,” President Dmitry Medvedev said this year at the annual parade on Red Square, in front of the mausoleum housing the body of the Soviet Union's first leader, Vladimir Lenin. “Any aggression against our citizens will be rightfully repelled.”
Coming as it did amid a spiraling war of words with Georgia — with whom Russia fought a five-day war last summer — the statement was taken as a clear threat.
Average Russians have picked up on the trend.
“I didn’t think we had so many troops,” Alexei Nikolaev, 83, said after the parade in Smolensk on Saturday to mark what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War. “It shows that Russia is strong, shows the Americans that we beat them and will beat them if they test us.”
“They’re encircling us,” Nikolaev said, echoing official rhetoric blaming U.S. influence for Russia’s loss of neighboring Ukraine and Georgia. “Nothing good will come of this. People attacked Russia many times … and all were beaten.”
Smolensk, a hilly city near Russia’s border with Belarus, saw some of the harshest fighting at the beginning of the war. By the end of it, 25 million Soviet citizens — troops and civilians alike — were dead.
The official narrative says Russia fearlessly repelled the Nazi invaders before liberating Berlin, glossing over the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, which decimated the Soviet army leadership; Joseph Stalin’s failure to acknowledge that a German attack was imminent despite numerous signals; and the atrocities committed against Soviet citizens and enemies alike.
A school textbook approved last year argues that the purges were “rational” and Stalin was an “efficient manager.”
The state, which has proven itself loath to accept any criticism, may soon take it one step further.
Sergei Shoigu, the emergency situations minister who consistently ranks near the top of popularity polls, has proposed a law, based on German Holocaust denial legislation, making it a criminal offense to question Soviet actions and suggest that it did not win the war. According to polling agency VTSIOM, 60 percent of Russians agree with the proposal.
The legislation appears largely aimed at ex-Soviet states like Estonia, which have sought to balance Russia’s behavior as liberator with the fact of its post-war occupation.
Yet it could also work to silence criticism at home.
“With every year, Victory Day acquires new meaning. And, unfortunately, not always a holiday meaning,” Medvedev said in a blog post on the eve of the holiday. “We have begun to encounter more often what are called historical falsehoods. And such attempts are becoming tougher, more malicious and aggressive.”
Yet what the furor appears to speak to is Russia’s inability to deal with its own past.
The street names of Smolensk mirror those found in nearly all towns and cities in Russia outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. On balmy Sundays, people stroll down Communist Prospect and Dzerzhinsky Street, or sit around Lenin Square in the shadow of a massive monument to the father of Bolshevism. It’s a symbolic fact but an important one — that’s why the Communists changed all street names in the first place.
Just 12 miles outside of Smolensk lies the Katyn Forest, the site of the gruesome massacre of thousands of Polish officers by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, at the start of the war — an event the Soviet Union denied until 1990, putting the blame on Nazi Germany.
A solemn series of monuments, built in cooperation with the Polish government, now marks the massacre, as well as victims of Stalin’s purges in the region. It is a rare testimonial to Soviet atrocities, and a deeply moving one.
A woman named Svetlana led her aged father along the path to the forest on Victory Day. He hobbled along on a cane, and had no desire to speak.
“He made it all the way to Poland during the war,” she said. Would he stop by the monuments marking the mass graves of the Polish officers? “God only knows why he wanted to come here,” she said.
More on Russia: