The politics of Russia’s armed forces day

On the symbolism of Defender of the Fatherland Day, a celebration of Russia’s armed forces and de-facto Men’s Day. Русский

Mischa Gabowitsch Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
23 February 2017

23 February 2013: Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu at Armed Forces Day, Moscow. (c) Alexey Nikolsky / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Every year, on 23 February, Russia celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day. The holiday was initially known as Soviet Army and Navy Day, and became to all intents and purposes a celebration of the USSR’s armed forces. But it’s long since lost this historical meaning. In fact, it’s become a de-facto "Men’s Day" in Russia, a counterpart to International Women’s Day on 8 March. 

oDR spoke to sociologist and author of the “Monument and Celebration: the ethnography of Victory Day” research project Mischa Gabowitsch about how this holiday has been transformed in the public mind and what role the army has played in this.

Mikhail, your research group has carried out a huge project focusing on 9 May (when victory over Nazi Germany and its allies in 1945 is celebrated). You have shown that this celebration is surrounded by a vast spectrum of what you refer to as “commemorative practices” – ceremonies, rituals, collective emotions. But what happens on 23 February? What kind of commemoration is it? What meaning does it have for people today?

There are hardly any specifically commemorative practices associated with this day, at least beyond the army itself. Nobody recalls the Red Army’s mythical “victory over the Kaiser’s troops” that the law requires us to celebrate on this date. At most, people will sporadically replicate practices usually associated with 9 May or 22 June, such as burying recently discovered remains of World War II soldiers or honouring “all those who defended the fatherland throughout history”.

9 May refers to a concrete date, despite the fact that it increasingly resembles a cyclical ritual such as Easter. But 23 February has become a thematic celebration disconnected from any specific events. It’s interesting to follow its evolution: its name was formally changed from Soviet Army and Navy Day to Defender of the Fatherland Day, but in fact it has become a de facto “Men’s Day” – the male equivalent of 8 March for women. Even when I worked at the liberal New Literary Review publishing house in Moscow, all the male staff were presented with vodka and perfume on that day. So any connection, with not just the Civil War but with any historical event, has simply been lost.

The Army has been rewarded with enormous symbolic significance – but at the price of total subservience to the political leadership

In this sense 23 February illustrates the dissemination of militarism throughout Russian society. Much of what has become part of the shared social repertoire, including the commemoration of 23 February and 9 May, initially grew out of internal army practice. Many of the practices that formed the basis of Brezhnev’s Victory cult in the 1960s and 70s were initially of interest mostly to active service members. Immediately after World War II the army often built war memorials itself, and often for itself. In Russia many of the first memorials glorified generals or marshals, and even monuments to specific army corps were placed in front of Officers‘ Clubs. None of this had much significance for conscripts and volunteers who returned from the war and melted back into civilian life: it was done for the Soviet army, for professional soldiers. Much the same goes for 23 February and other commemorative dates and practices – they initially existed for active servicemen, but then, because of the Army’s important symbolic role, acquired a shared significance.

There’s another important point here, which has to do with the distribution of power. Liberal critics looking at Russia often claim that institutions such as the Army, and now the Orthodox Church as well, wield enormous power. But in fact they hardly have real political power at all. I’ve never heard, for example, of a regional governor being dismissed because of pressure from the Church. But of course the Church does have a great deal of symbolic power: you won’t find a single celebration, a single cemetery, a single new memorial inaugurated without Church involvement.

Military Cemetery_Church.jpg

Sergei Radonezhsky Church at the Federal Military Memorial Cemetery, Moscow. CC-BY-4.0: Mil.ru / Wikimedia Commons. Several rights reserved.The same goes for the Army. There has never been a single successful military coup in Russia’s entire history, unlike, say, in Turkey or Egypt. Nor, really, are there any examples of the Army leadership acting taking successful action on the political stage independently, rather than as allies of political leaders. In 1953-56, for example, Khrushchev used the recently disgraced Marshall Zhukov’s reputation for his own ends, to win an internal Party battle, and soon afterwards demoted him again. There was not the slightest indication here that the military might play an autonomous political role.

Yet at the same time, the Army’s symbolic role continues to grow. Celebrations connected with military victories become national holidays. We can see this now in the case of the new National Cemetery. It was built at the initiative of the Ministry of Defence and is administered by it; it is officially called the Federal Military Memorial Cemetery. This is the cemetery where, supposedly, the Russian president and other important figures will be buried – but a lot of people are not even aware of its existence. The Army initiated and supervised its construction and determined its symbolism. But the site has a very low public profile. In other words, the Army has been rewarded with enormous symbolic significance – but at the price of total subservience to the political leadership.

What role does the Army play in the commemorative practices that you are studying – processions, rituals, demonstrations?

Visually, it has a very strong presence. In many places where we conducted research, a real-time relay of the Moscow parade, for example, or local processions timed to coincide with it, were a very important part of the celebrations. And here, of course, troops, military hardware and so on play a big part.

But at the same time, the army plays no more than a supporting role in the organisation of celebrations, and this role is getting smaller year by year. Active servicemen are eclipsed by veterans; these days it’s those of the Afghan and Chechen wars. The veterans are often the principal organisers of celebrations, memorial construction and so on. Historical re-enactors are also increasingly prominent, as are various military paraphernalia – uniforms, military hats worn by children and, of course, St George’s Ribbons.

Since 2005, on the initiative of a Moscow journalist, the St George’s Ribbon has been turned into a symbol of everything that is worn by everyone, including cats, dogs and strippers

Those in the military were often very reticent to accept contemporary uses of that ribbon, because they know that the Guards‘ ribbon upon which it is based is a decoration, a specific award for acts of bravery. But since 2005, not on the military’s initiative but on that of a Moscow journalist, the St George’s Ribbon has been turned into a symbol of everything that is worn by everyone, including cats, dogs and strippers. If anyone had asked the generals to approve this symbol, they would have banned it. But the generals had no say in the matter.

Let’s look at another example, the “Immortal Regiment”. Although this movement, whose members annually commemorate relatives who fought in WW II, was created by liberal, critically minded Tomsk journalists, it is infused with militarism: the language used on its web site illustrates this, as does the very format of a commemorative parade or march. Of course this is rooted in the experience of a specific generation of Russian men who went through compulsory military service – but the symbols and language of these commemorative rituals has very little to do with the present-day army. To put it bluntly, while symbolic militarism are spreading across society, the real-life army’s impact on them is on the decline. 

But is the army itself – today’s combat forces – in any condition to come up with any new practices of its own? Has it created its own foundation myth?

Of course it does. But I think that it has relied, to an even greater extent than in the Second World War period, on dialogue with non-military ideologists to help create it. If you think about the Izborsk Club and other nationalist organisations that have sprung up in the past few years, there are always generals in the army who are sympathetic to their ideology. Or look at radical right-wing intellectual Aleksandr Dugin’s relations with the Academy of the General Staff in the late 1990s. Yet the army itself seems largely unable to generate anything like this on its own.


Poster for 23 February. Photograph: Ola Cichowlas.

At the same time, the army is constantly involved in combat operations. Why can’t it build all this into a narrative that would be attractive to the public?

There is a narrative being built, of course, but not by the people involved. Certainly not by the army leadership, who have adopted a rather passive stance on ideology.

Practices developed by former combatants usually reach the public with some delay. Nowadays veterans of the Afghan war are very active in all kinds of commemorations, but they had to fight for this over many years. We can all remember how in the 1980s and 90s their combat service went effectively unrecognised by the public, and they developed their practices and myths more or less in isolation from society at large. And there’s a parallel here with what happened after 1945.

Commemorative practices developed by ex-servicemen only began to influence the general public after the veterans themselves came to occupy influential positions in society. The same goes for Afghan veterans. They are now in their 40s and 50s, or older, and some of them are senior officials and businessmen, which allows them to put their ideas into practice - they have the resources for it.

But soldiers returning now from service in Syria can play no such role. They become, at best, passive objects of commemorative policies; and at worst, if we’re talking about the Donbas, their fate is simply hushed up, as was the case in 2014 in Pskov with the secret burials of paratroopers who died fighting in Ukraine. 

How does Fatherland Defender Day differ in principle from other popular “professional” celebrations – Teachers’ Day, for instance?

Well, 23 February has ceased to be a celebration of a specific professional group – the military – and become a general celebration of men. This probably has to do with the fact that the occupation “member of the armed forces” has dropped off the radar of a large part of the population. Almost everyone, after all, interacts with teachers, in one way or another. But, contrary to a certain public image, far from every adult male has been through military service. There’s a huge class divide – if you have been granted an exemption from mandatory service because you are in higher education or can buy your way out, then you may never come into contact with the army.

There’s a huge class divide in Russia – there are whole swathes of the population with no connection to the army and no idea of what it is like

There are whole swathes of the population with no connection to the army and no idea of what it is like. And even if someone has done his military service, it’s not the same as being a professional soldier. If he did his service and now works in an office, his professional “day” is office worker’s day. The standing army is made up of a professionalised minority, usually drawn from specific social milieus. So attitudes to 23 February in Moscow or St Petersburg will be very different from those in, say, Pskov, Artyom or other towns or regions where the army is a major employer. So you have both class differences and regional specialisation.

This is by no means a Russian peculiarity. In the US in the 1970s, protest against the Vietnam War was so massive, among other reasons, because nearly everybody, including campus youth, knew someone who was either in the army, was already serving in Vietnam or might be posted there. Attitudes to the Iraq War were different, following an initial upsurge of protest, because the educated classes no longer had much connection with the armed forces.

You have been studying how people in Russia remember events of the Second World War and commemorate 23 February, and 9 May as Victory over Fascism Day, while yourself living in Germany. How difficult is it to do this, outside Russia?

On the one hand, studying these topics in Germany is quite easy. More than anywhere else, there is a whole industry here that is devoted to the study of memory and public memory discourse. There is also an institutional infrastructure to support it. For example, I am very grateful to the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation for funding our German volume on the commemoration of 9 May and, no less importantly, the concluding meeting of our research network in Potsdam in November 2016. We’ve also had great support from the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst. This network of institutional support is very dense in Germany and goes far beyond purely academic institutions.

On the other hand, the very prominence of Germany’s memory discourse has caused me some very specific problems. Here the emphasis tends to be on memory, that is, people’s representations of the past. So when you are studying not memory, but commemoration – what people do rather than what they think about – you sometimes have difficulty making yourself understood. In recent years people here have started to talk a lot about memory culture, Erinnerungskultur in German, and use that concept as a general framework for this kind of research. But this approach isn’t always appropriate for what I’m doing: its focus is on what people think, not what they do. It’s a historian’s approach, focusing on representations rather than actions. What interests me is something else – not whether, and to what extent, people’s recollections differ from what professional historians know about the past, but what we can observe today in people’s practices.

The question I am interested in answering is: “what do people do when they express an attitude towards the past?” I am not trying to find out whether their way of expressing themselves is right or wrong. But it is sometimes difficult to get this across in Germany, where the concept of “memory culture” is all-powerful. My colleague Manfred Hettling has written that in Germany there are monuments, but no commemoration – monuments are built, then immediately handed over to conservationists. So when we study what happens to these monuments after they have been erected – what ceremonies and rituals take place around them, what emotions they awake in people, what happens on 23 February or 9 May or 3 December, recently proclaimed Day of the Unknown Soldier – people here sometimes fail to understand what is meant. In addition, since memory research in Germany is strongly rooted in attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past, it usually has a strong normative component.

Those who study commemoration are expected to make their own attitudes very clear. This can have an overly politicising effect on research designs. It is almost as if the presence of anything that is considered ethically unacceptable from the point of view of mainstream memory culture – the appearance of ultra-right wing activists in Berlin's Treptower Park on 9 May, for example – thereby disqualified the event as an object of study. And although as a citizen I largely share the ethical values underlying this attitude, as a researcher I sometimes feel constrained by it. Suppose someone came to a Victory Day event in uniform. Some of my German colleagues would be immediately alienated by it – it’s militarism, so it’s bad. But my task is not to judge the person, but to understand why they put on a uniform, what their motivation was and what they invested in this act.


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