Passing the torch.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Russia Is Losing World War II

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and his propaganda machine are often accused of exploiting the memory of the Soviet Union's victory over the Nazis -- even more than Soviet governments did. I'm more inclined to think Russia has simply buckled under the enormous weight of that 70-year-old victory. It's turned out to be at least as tough a trial for the winners as defeat has been for the losers.

Perhaps the strongest symbol of Putin's effort is the Georgievskaya lentochka, or St. George ribbon. The black and orange band is ubiquitous in Russia these days, tied around vodka bottles and lollipops, plastered across billboards and public toilets. When it appears in one of these inappropriate places, charges of sacrilege invariably appear on the Internet. It's OK, though, to wear the colors on your clothes (sometimes even as clothes) or tie the band to your rearview mirror. Lots of people do. "The situation borders on mass psychosis," cartoonist Andrei Bilzho, a psychiatrist by training, said in a recent interview.

The black and orange ribbon was part of the Order of St. George, established by Catherine the Great in 1769 as a military decoration. Stalin revived it in 1942 to distinguish the elite "guards" units of his army and navy. In 2005, Natalia Loseva, a manager at the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, came up with the idea of distributing the ribbons as widely as possible to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis. Pro-Putin youth organizations were charged with carrying this out, and the ribbons became commonplace.

Nobody was surprised when pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine wore this quasi-official badge of Russian patriotism on their uniforms. Ukrainians now call them Colorado ribbons after the orange and black Colorado potato beetle, a hated pest. Russians wearing the bands have gotten in trouble in Georgia, Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet countries, where the colors are seen as a symbol of aggression. 

Even Loseva appears unhappy with the way her idea has developed. In response to numerous media inquiries, she posted on Facebook: "No, I've had nothing to do with this for several years. Yes, it could have been predicted. No, I always believe in intellect and taste. Yes, time will tell. No, I'm not sorry. Yes, the manure will dry and fall off. Sooner or later."

There will be lots and lots of St. George ribbons at Saturday's parade in Moscow celebrating the end of World War II -- as well as Russia's newest military machinery (including the much-hyped Armata tank, a prototype that, in rehearsal, wouldn't start and couldn't be dragged away). Putin is trying to turn the celebration into a show of indomitable Russian power and patriotism, which is why no Western leaders are coming to stand next to him on Red Square. To the outside world, the combination looks like naked aggression. After all, it wasn't Putin who fought the Nazis, and he's the one now destroying Ukraine.

It's easy to blame Putin for turning Russia's greatest 20th-century victory inside out by making it a propaganda tool. As journalist Oleg Kashin wrote mockingly: 

In 1945 Vladimir Putin  defeated everyone. he defeated Obama, Angela Merkel, the opposition inside Russia, including Boris Nemtsov, the global LGBT movement, Pussy Riot, Ukraine, Georgia, thee three Baltic nations, and Poland, too, and everyone else in the whole wide world, because everyone in the whole wide world is an enemy of Russia. Russia has only one friend, Vladimir Putin himself. And he alone is capable of defeating all the enemies.

Yet Putin doesn't force Russians to wear those ribbons or watch the parade, as millions will. Propaganda goes only so far. Long before Putin, my Soviet schoolteachers told me that the Soviet Union would have won the Great Patriotic War without the help of insincere Western allies. And until the Iron Curtain fell and more data became available, I believed it. I had, after all, heard about the war directly from the people who'd won it. 

Because the Soviet Union was so heavily involved in the fighting -- it lost about 28 million people -- every family had someone who had fought. The veterans told us, the Soviet Union's Generation X, that they had come back from the war with a sense of not just relief but also foreboding: They'd beat Hitler but returned to the land of the great Stalin purges. They also came back with a sense that they were indomitable. They'd done the impossible, and no one else could have. And they passed that sense on to our parents, and to us.

Putin recently published a column recalling what his parents had told him of the war. One of his father's stories was about hiding from German pursuit in a swamp, breathing though a reed as dogs barked just steps away. I've heard such stories, too. They couldn't but fill me with pride.

We were born victors. We couldn't lose, and so we never saw the Soviet Union's collapse as a defeat. It was we who defeated communism. Yet we wouldn't persecute those who had foisted it on us, because they were victors like us. They had won the great war and, as Stalin liked to say, victors are not judged. 

That stigma of superiority, it turns out, is harder to lose than the stigma of defeat. This I know from living in Berlin, a city ravaged more by shame than by Allied bombs.

As Gustav Heinemann, who was president of Germany from 1969 to 1974, once said: "There are difficult fatherlands. Germany is one of them."

Russia, which defeated Germany 70 years ago, is a difficult Motherland. Out of shame for its crimes, past and present, I don't wear an orange and black ribbon. Yet I still feel unbeaten and unbeatable. Putin's clumsy propaganda speaks to that feeling. And, for better and for worse, it will last after Putin's gone. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net