Every year on May 9th, nostalgic people from the post-Soviet republics can feel like Soviet citizens again. The slogans and posters from the Second World War inspire them just like “make America great again” has inspired Donald Trump’s voters.
In 2014 rhetoric from the Second World War was successfully used to portray the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Ukrainian soldiers who were trying to defend their own bases in Crimea were called “fascists”. Today, Donbas separatists associate themselves with the Red Army soldiers who were fighting against Nazi Germany. During the so called Immortal Regiment March in Donetsk, people were carrying portraits of killed separatists as well as the portraits of real participants of the Second World War. This concept is a powerful message, it helps to gather Russian people around the state and its “strong leader”, and even go to war against “fascist regimes” in neighbouring countries. The Second World War’s history can be a good example for the construction of a new reality. Facts as well as borders become flexible in times of hybrid war in the Intermarium region.
Modern Russian propaganda and facts
“Disinformation” is the first word that comes to mind when we hear about modern Russian propaganda. However, propaganda does sometimes contain facts. And these facts matter. It was Adolf Hitler who said on September 1st 1939 that there are no minority persecutions in Germany: “No Frenchman can stand up and say that any Frenchman living in the Saar territory is oppressed, tortured or deprived of his rights. Nobody can say this.” So there are facts in propaganda messages, however, not all of them. This concerns geography as well. Where are the borders of a country, when a war is over? Are the borders approved by a peace treaty the same as the imaginary ones?
During the Putin-Medvedev-Putin presidency, Russia’s relations with western countries as well as with some Intermarium states underwent a transformation. In order to discover these changes in relations between Russia and these states, I examined the speeches of the Russian presidents on Red Square during May 9th celebrations between 2004 and 2017.
Country-participants of the victory celebration in the speeches of Russian presidents
It is interesting that year after year different countries are mentioned in the speeches as the participants of victory celebrations. In the table below, one can see the list of countries mentioned during the victory celebrations and how they differ year by year.
Between 2004 and 2011, with a few exceptions (in 2006 and 2010) there was a regular mention of the contribution of the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS. Russian presidents referred to CIS member-states in order to show solidarity and common historical as well as cultural background. It was first in 2015 when several CIS states were listed separately, not under the common brand. This celebration and the country-participants of the parade were compared in the mass media and to the parade in 2010, when militaries from the US, the UK, Poland and France also marched on Red Square. Of course, listing the CIS states separately can be interpreted in terms of the deterioration of relations with western countries and Russia’s growing isolation.
Generally speaking, between 2004 and 2012 the countries of the anti-Hitler coalition were regularly listed in the speeches. However, in 2008 and 2009/2011 these countries were branded as “far abroad”, “other countries”; in 2006 – “the European countries”. It was in 2015, when having mentioned countries of the anti-Hitler coalition again, Putin added that new borders arose between former allies: “However, in the last decade the basic principles of international co-operation have been ignored more often… We saw attempts to create a unipolar world.”
There are also eloquent mentions in 2013-2014 and 2016-2017 of only Russia and the USSR being the only exterminators of fascism. The tonality of these speeches is also different. In 2014, for instance, Putin reminded that it was the Soviet Union that had rescued the other nations: “It was Soviet people’s iron will, fearlessness and perseverance that rescued Europe from slavery. It was our country that drove Nazis to their lair…”
Speaking about Russia’s typical interpretation of the Second World War, the key role of Russia or the USSR on the battlefields should be specifically highlighted. The Soviet campaigns are referred to in the first place in the presidents’ speeches. In the 13 years of the Putin-Medvedev-Putin presidency, Japan has been mentioned only once, in 2015 (because China participated in the parade). The African campaign as well as the Pacific one were mentioned in 2005 only and indirectly in 2015 (“80% of world’s population were drawn into the war”).
Up to now Russian Presidents have constantly stressed that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were the major battlefields. The importance of the USSR has been interpreted as the “territory where the critical events happened” (Putin 2005). Almost every speech contains reflections about the main key role the Soviet Union or Russia played in the war. The battles that were mentioned are: Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Kursk (almost every time), Dnipro battle (in 2005, 2013-2015), Sevastopol (of course, in 2014), Berlin (in 2005), and the battles for Europe (2008, 2010).
Who will defend peace on the planet?
The analysis of the speeches by the Russian presidents leads to a conclusion that the Second World War has not ended for Russia. Moreover, the images of the war are used not only for the domestic audience. These speeches always include paragraphs with warnings that there are people or even countries who still want to go to war, or that everywhere outside Russia extremism and intolerance flourishes. Russia is portrayed as a power always-ready to defend peace on the planet. Specifically, Putin reiterates the mantra about Russian readiness to defend Russian citizens, as well as non-Russian ones, who are sympathetic to Russia all over the globe.
In their speeches, the Russian presidents argue that an imaginary geography of Europe is being constructed. The Intermarium countries, depending on the geopolitical situation, are portrayed as either allies or rivals in this process. At the beginning of Putin’s presidency, Russia was presented as the country ready to build constructive relations with its neighbours, whereas after 2008 – and especially after 2013 – the expressive and even aggressive rhetoric began to dominate.
As one may recall, Russia’s national security was used as a justification for Georgian-Russian War, Crimean annexation, Donbas war and Russian campaign in Syria. A message about unstable and even dangerous situation in Europe is repeated in almost every speech. These warnings have become more expressive during the last years. In a way, the presidents draw and reiterate a desirable picture of European geography in their speeches, which should make the internal as well as external audiences ready for Russian “legitimate” use of “soft” and “hard” power. As the war is seemingly not over, Europe is yet to be conquered.
Nataliia Steblyna is an assistant professor at I.I. Mechnikov National University in Odesa, Ukraine. She is a media researcher specialising in new media and professional journalistic standards. The field of her academic interest includes news agenda of modern local Ukrainian mass media as well as the interconnectedness of local and global media in the reality of digital culture.
This text is part of the series titled: “Intermarium in the 21st century” based on the conference held on July 6-7 2017, Lazarski University in Warsaw.