A colleague from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics told me a few months ago that, since he was a child-and he is over fifty now-there were only two big holidays in Russia, Victory Day, or Den Pobedy, in Russian, and New Year. He, who is now more often seen in anti-Putin demonstrations than in any other political rally, was trying to describe the magic, the solemnity of that celebration since he can remember, the happiness brought about by the unattainable feeling of pride of being Russian, or Soviet back then. And I guess he was trying to claim that Russia’s national holiday belonged to the Russians, not to President Putin.
It might be difficult to have a national day that does not commemorate some deed or feat that may offend others. Apparently that is why Putin, when he was president for the first time, tried to establish a new holiday back in 2005, the Day of National Unity on November 4th, to avoid, first of all, having to celebrate the October Revolution on November 7th and, maybe, in an attempt of trying not to upset his good friend, the then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, by putting too much emphasis on celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany. The date was chosen because it marked the ascension of the Romanov Dynasty to power after the Russian people, united despite being tsar-less, expelled the Poles from Russia, thus putting an end to the so-called Times of Troubles. Why President Putin chose this precise date only one year after Poland had joined the EU and not, for example, the date of the victory over the Mongols might be something worth investigating, as well as why commemorating, as if in passing, the ascension of the last Imperial Dynasty to the Russian throne. Much Freudian analysis could be done on the latter.
The fact of the matter is that long gone are the days in which Mr. Putin made jokes with his German counterparts and practiced his fluent East German with Chancellor Merkel. When Putin inherited a broken country at the beginning of this century, he had so many fronts to fight he had to do it, whether he liked it or not. Nothing was quiet in none of the fronts. Oligarchs were constantly trying to checkmate the economy, Chechnya was still in the front page of the news, terrorism was acting in the very heart of Moscow, and a deep feeling of desperation was gripping all those who, unable to make fabulous fortunes in 24 hours, had to remain in the country. It seemed, more blatantly evident than ever, that the Prince of Salina was right: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”. However, things have changed in a decade or so, and if anyone is surprised by the display of military might that President Putin made last Saturday in Moscow, maybe other facts should be taken into account, such as that Crimea is probably going to be Russian for ever, that Putin has signed more trade agreements with India and China in the last few months than in a whole decade (in order to purchase from them, by the way, what he used to purchase from Europe, and at a much better price), that Europe is still energetically dependent from Russia to a considerable extent, and that the Russian economy is undergoing a hard time now probably rather due to the price of oil than to foreign economic sanctions.
When President Putin spoke last at the IMF, back in December, he used the old rhetoric of the Russian bear, a metaphor as old as the Crimean War, to describe the relations between Russia and the West. Some analysts, and some politicians, interpreted his words as a not-so-veiled threat, but in fact it was a much more effective slogan in terms of national politics. As the display of power he made in Moscow evidenced–a corollary of his annexation of the Crimea–he continues to feed into this intangible feeling of making Russians proud of being Russians, proud of celebrating Victory Day. Opinion polls show that in that area he is certainly going in the right direction. Time will tell if Europe is strong enough to de-claw the bear.