V-Day: The (De-) Construction of Nationhood on Russian TV (Film Section)

Woman carrying a portrait of Stalin at a 2005 Victory Day parade in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Image courtesy of Associated Press.Vladimir Putin’s election to the Russian presidency in 2000 effectively marked an end to the limited political license that Boris Yeltsin had granted television following the collapse of communism in 1991. Putin rapidly fell out with Yeltsin’s close ally, the oligarch, Boris Berezovskii, who along with other such oligarchs, and in a symbiotic relationship with the Russian state, had effectively owned and controlled national television in the 1990s. Berezovsky had been the largest stakeholder in ORT (Obshchestvennoe Russkoe Televidenie, or Russian Public Television), which, following Berezovsky’s exile to the UK, effectively became the state channel (it was renamed Channel 1, its old Soviet title). In 2001, the first of several clamp-downs on Russia’s only truly “free” channel, NTV (Nezavisimoe Televidenie, or Independent TV) occurred (its owner, Vladimir Gusinskii, too, had now fled to the West to avoid corruption charges). Independent-minded journalists left NTV to join TVS and TV6 which enjoyed the briefest periods of grace as the remaining islands of freedom, before they too were silenced. By 2003, the international press monitoring organisation Freedom House had downgraded Russia’s rating from “Free” to “Not free” (a judgement to which television conformed more readily than the printed press) and  has renewed this rating ever since.

Putin has seen his unchallenged authority over the media as an opportunity to use television as a propaganda tool with which to promote his agenda of rebuilding popular belief in a militarily strong, self-confident, stable and united Russia. In 2004, for example, he launched The Star (Zvezda) a channel devoted exclusively to the Russian army. The president never missed an opportunity to exploit the resources of television in his attempt to construct a “virtual” freedom in which the surface appearances of democratic culture are replicated in meticulous detail but without the substance and structures of democracy to sustain them. In 2005 Putin appeared on Vremia in open-necked, short-sleeved shirt giving an excruciating interview to members of Nashi (“Our people”), the supposedly spontaneous youth movement manufactured as a latter-day equivalent to the Komsomol, in which he fielded obsequious questions posed with an air of bold informality.

Thus, the celebration of the 60th anniversary of victory in World War II could not have come at a more opportune moment. It coincided with several trends: 1) Putin’s efforts to foster national pride in Russian military achievements, past and present;  2) Russia’s newfound confidence on the international stage; 3) the reassertion of Great Russian patriotism in the context of the rehabilitation of selected aspects of the Soviet imperial past(In the (now famous) opening statement to his post-Beslan address to the Russian nation , Putin claimed: “Today we are living in conditions formed after the disintegration of a huge, great country, a country which unfortunately turned out to be nonviable in the conditions of a rapidly changing world. However … we managed to preserve the nucleus of that giant, the Soviet Union. We called the new country the Russian Federation.” The rehabilitation has proceeded apace from that point.) 4) the attempt, by finding common cause with old war allies in the new global ‘war on terror’, to legitimate Russia’s actions in Chechnya; 5) the achievement of control over the media.

The advent of Putin in 2000 ended the limited political license that El’tsyn granted television. Putin rapidly fell out with El’tsyn’s ally, BorisBerezovskii, the largest stakeholder in ORT, which became the state channel. In 2001, the first of several clamp-downs on the remaining independent channel, NTV, occurred. Journalists left NTV to join TVS and TV6 which enjoyed the briefest periods of grace, before they too were silenced. Curiously, even after 2001, independent voices somehow made their way onto air in controversial talk shows, but they were terminated in a second wave of clampdowns in 2004. By 2003, the international press monitoring organisation Freedom House had downgraded Russia’s rating from “Free” to “Not free.”  Putin has seen his unchallenged authority as an opportunity to use television to rebuild popular belief in a strong, self-confident, united Russia.

Of course, the 60th anniversary celebrations which reflected this trend resonated right across Europe where viewers were also treated to an unparalleled feast of nostalgic memories and bombastic speech-making. Nor should the role of national television as “master of ceremonies” elsewhere be underestimated. Indeed, the celebrations corresponded to the notion of “media event” defined by Dayan and Katz as “holidays that spotlight some aspect of collective memory” in which “organizers and broadcasters resonate together” in the portrayal of “an idealized version of society.”(See D. Dayan and E. Katz, Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1992, ix, 14.)

The traditions celebrated during media events are, as Eric Hobsbaum has shown, often recent inventions intended to shore up nervous imperial regimes.(E. Hobsbaum, “Introduction,”  in  E. Hobsbaum and T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: CUP, 1983, 3-14 (4).) The role of the media in generating commemorative occasions seemingly grounded in tradition is characteristic of European countries facing the triple threat of mass immigration, post-imperial decline and globalisation. Whilst the end of World War II is not such an “invented tradition,” its particular significance for Russia has rendered it prone to myth-making inventions keyed carefully to Putin’s ideological purposes and this, along with the unusual challenges Russia faces in unifying its population in common cause, maximise its potential as a case study in post-imperial nation building. Thus, coverage of the 60th anniversary celebrations projected a quintessential Russianness to an imagined community dispersed across this still disparate nation.

But the country that overcame Hitler’s might is not the one now celebrating this victory. The nation which is the speaking subject of the ceremonial rituals has somehow to (re)constitute itself as the victorious object of the celebrations, but without overtly reinventing itself as the USSR, the ghost whose exorcism would cause the present that it haunts to collapse. Such a task requires both subject and object to be enacted anew in a perpetual re-staging of a supposedly stable identity. In this brief essay, I examine Russian television coverage of the celebrations in this context, arguing that, far from imposing a cynically re-Sovietised national myth upon an impassive media, the Putin regime struggles to control the ghost it has summoned.

The scale of the celebrations on 9 May 2005 was unprecedented and there is no space here to describe them in detail. Suffice it to say that the highlights were coverage of the Victory Parade itself, and then another grand media event on Red Square, now decorated with a huge screen onto which images were projected during an evening show dedicated to the re-enactment of World War II. The show opened with the song ‘The whole Soviet nation wakes at first light, portraying the pre-war scene in socialist realist style as a peaceful, lost paradise. Footage of Soviet gymnastic compositions was copied by “real” gymnasts simultaneously recreating the original patterns and figures. The myth of a prosperous, internationalist state was bolstered with pictures of growing wheat, and folk dances performed by dancers in national costumes of the former USSR.

Another clichéd Soviet symbol of happiness, children playing, then led to the scene of the Graduation Ball, a familiar representation of the peaceful flow of pre-war life. The grave war announcements were transmitted via the giant screen watched by the latter-day Red Square performers who mimicked precisely what they saw. The commencement of the war was represented by the iconic poster of the Motherland calling upon the whole country to volunteer. As the image appeared, a female figure dressed in brilliant red walked – as if from the poster – onto Red Square.

The narrative continued with the song Good bye, Boys!, with dancers in school uniforms enacting the departure for the front. Subsequently, the show followed the Soviet text-book narrative, depicting the defence of Moscow, the siege of Leningrad, the battles for Stalingrad and Sevastopol, and the liberation of Europe These familiar tropes were simultaneously depicted through footage and enacted in “real life.”

The performance of the liberation of Europe featured dancers in Ukrainian and Belorussian costumes greeting victorious Soviet soldiers. Next, images of the post-war world appeared on screen: the first man in space, the first moon landing and then, dramatically, the attacks on New York’s twin towers and the announcement of the war on terror. The show concluded with the famous Victory Day song, and the equally well-loved Dark Night (Temnaia noch’), as history was finally superceded by nostalgic memory intended as weaponry in the ideological battles of the present.

The Al Quaeda reference was not unique. Throughout, parallels linked the struggle against Hitler to the current “war on terror,” particularly in its Chechen variant. By both threading the terror theme through the celebrations, and referencing it at the end, Channel 1 performed a feat of ideological erasure that operated on the temporal and conceptual levels; World War 2 both resembled the current war on terror and, via a long chain of conflicts, culminated in it.

The effort to erase the distance between Soviet past and post-Soviet present extended beyond the terror link. The use of documentary footage to accompany the words of contemporary commentators was a recurrent feature of the coverage. Newsreaders referred consistently (and misleadingly) to “our country,” “our boys” (nashi) and “our people” (nash narod) when talking about the war. Throughout the broadcast, the single term “motherland” (rodina) was employed for both the war years and the present. This elision was partly compensated by the reports on Victory Day celebrations across the former Soviet Union. Thus, Channel 1 itself reunifies a nation, first ravaged by war and now fragmented following the collapse of the Soviet Union, contributing to the assertion of Putin’s new post-imperial Russian identity.(The myth of anostalgically reunified ex-Soviet space is also perpetuated in certain light-entertainment broadcasts, such as the KVN Quiz specials (featuring competing teams from many of the former Soviet republics), and the popular Wait for Me (Zhdi menia) show in which missing family members, lost from across Soviet space and from the depths of Soviet time, are dramatically reunited with their loved ones.)

Channel 1 waged its own “war on difference.” In addition to equating the Soviet Union and Russia, World War 2 and the War on Terror, Russia and the civilised world, it reconciled young with old, apocryphal with canonical, and popular with official. The pairing of two young newsreaders from the present with their Soviet predecessors bolstered this equivalence. The V-Day programme pointedly wove into its coverage interviews with children expressing gratitude towards their grandfathers and great grandfathers. Here, too, the unbroken generational chain and the patriotism of young and old alike operated in unison.

A distinctive feature of post-communist V-Day coverage is the shift away from the public and official towards the private and unofficial. Individual angles included the story of a soldier who fell in love with an Italian girl from whom he was separated following the war and had only now traced in a long process ending in a tearful reunion. At the end of one such tale, the narrator proclaims that “there are a million stories like this,” unifying, in a recapitulation of socialist realist aesthetics, the official rhetoric of national heroism and the individual exemplifications of that fortitude.

Similarly blurred were the lines between the canonical and the apocryphal, the superficial and the profound. The collapse of the Soviet Union created the possibility of penetrating beneath the surface of the official versions of events and exposing the underlying “truth.” The effects of this legacy were clearly on display, but in subtly different contexts. In some cases, the Victory programme indulged in apocryphal versions of official narratives, such as the stories of the re-recording of Stalin’s speech at the 1945 Parade. The narrator highlighted their non-canonical status, pointing out that “you won’t find stories of this sort in your school text books.” The very intricacy of the detail of these tales added a depth which fulfilled a legitimating function.

Apart from revitalising official war mythology, the erasure of difference de-ideologised the context of the war. The V-Day broadcasts ignored the clash of ideologies which furnished an important element of Stalinist war propaganda, nor to the long Cold War conflict which followed the post-war division of Europe. Putin’s Victory Day speech referred in universalist terms to the victory of ‘good over evil’.

But by-ideologising the context of World War II, space was surreptitiously created to accommodate the modern ideology of Russian statism with its assertive nationalist pride, its pseudo-imperialism and its newly authoritarian agenda. The media event’s inner logic was deployed in support of this agenda. One disturbing aspect of Channel 1’s coverage was its willingness subtly to rehabilitate Stalin. Whilst the re-legitimation of Stalin’s terror was out of bounds, and there were few images of him, several reports during the lead up to the parade drew on his aura, including one featuring newly released archival footage of his war-time bunker, a mysterious state secret to this day.  Among ordinary participants in the celebrations, by contrast, images of Stalin were almost, and disturbingly, banal in their ubiquity.

Russian television did not merely give voice to a pre-existent ideological agenda; it played a direct role in constructing the national identity that it served, offering one means of compensating for the universalising abstractions. Another was constituted by the individualisation strategy particularly evident when Soviet-style pomp and the focus on the monumental and the collective were balanced with meticulous, subjective detail. The adage “there are a million more stories like this” became the structuring principle of the entire coverage. Hosted by a single presenter, the fulcrum around which the pre-recorded stories and the parade coverage itself revolved was an endless series of interviews with veterans, participants in earlier parades, and celebrities who lived through the period. The tension at the heart of the individualisation strategy was evident from the way the interviews were conducted. On one hand, the encounters were ritualised; each guest was regaled with a celebratory bunch of flowers and effusive greetings. The questioning, too, was routinely predictable: “Tell us how you felt on the first Victory Day parade?”; “What would you like to say to the other veterans?”; the individual narrative accounts, by contrast, dwelt on the participants’ subjective experiences, deviating from the question into irrelevant detail, and rarely engaging with the interviewer. This tension can be traceable to a clash of systems pitting the ceremonial, Soviet approach when messages emanating from the public sphere were expressed in highly conventionalised formats, against the informal western approach characterised by an emphasis on conveying a sense of individuality and naturalness.

The clash is connected with a more fundamental problem. For the only way of proving that “there are million stories like this” is, literally, to reproduce them one by one in a sequence which, because it fails to cohere, must be extended indefinitely. The presenter is merely an impassive cipher for the anonymous state, compelled now, in the post-Soviet context, to link its mantras to a fragile chain of unconnected individual narratives within the ritualised artifice of the interview.

The problem has an exact parallel in the ideological contradiction with which the entire media event grapples: the fact that Russia must stand in for the Soviet Union, yet assert its difference from it. The contradiction reflects the fragility of post-Soviet Russian identity: in the accumulation of individual narratives of war heroism, television’s V-Day celebrations, dramatise the impossibility, or, to quote Judith Butler writing on the politics of identity in another context, ‘anxiously rehearse the unrealizability’ of the myth of a nation (Russia) that both is, and is not, the larger entity (the USSR) whose destruction in 1991 inaugurated its existence.(J. Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, London: Routledge, 1997, 68.) It is no accident that the culmination of the event comes in the form of a vivid, dream-like scene – the literal reanimation of a Stalinist myth.

The media apparatus by which the impossible scene is enacted is ultimately incorporated into the scene itself, as the emphasis shifts from commemoration of Victory, to a commemoration of commemoration. The celebratory broadcast opens with the introduction of the two Soviet newsreaders who lead the proceedings encouraging viewers to remember not just the victory year, but also subsequent celebrations. However, recurring media rituals require an original ‘master-event’ to sustain them. In this case, the conversion of the 1945 parade into the true object of nostalgic longing which subsequent variants can never quite recreate, was evident in the sensuousness of the detail with which, aided by televisual wizardry, it was recalled: the glistening of horses’ sweat and the gleaming of meticulously polished belts.

But, by highlighting “impossible” new camera angles, television draws attention to its own modes of representing reality.(This confirms Dayan and Katz’s notion that ‘’the power of [media] events lies in the rare realization of the full potential of electronic media technology’ (Dayan and Katz, Media Events, 15).) At the V-Day media event the resulting tension is foregrounded in the evening performance. Three points need to be made here. First, we should note the overt mimicry of past by present: the performers watch the screen to synchronise their movements with those they see before them in a modelling of the “performance” exhorted from the viewers: that of the new post-Soviet identity in which Stalinism is re-incorporated into the present, cleansed of its association with terror. But the mimicry also signals that this is not a commemoration. Rather it is presented as if to resemble a literal repetition of past in present. In the emergence of the dazzling red figure of the standard-bearing Motherland we witness the unwarranted incursion of ghostly past into present.

The second point is that the mimicry is staged. But staging itself is double-edged. A live re-enactment of screened events is on one hand a “making real”: the transformation of flickering monochrome shapes into the sharp contours of colourful, live bodies. On the other hand, it is a fictional rendering of a prior reality in which the screen functions as the site of the authentic footage of real events contrasting with a stylised stage performance. To the frames provided by the large external screen and the stage we must add that of the small TV screen in the viewers’ living rooms. This itself acquires a dual function: separating the viewers from the stage as contemplative audience from fictional representation, but also, through the link established with the first frame (that of the documentary images) and the contrast it strikes with the staged performance, associating them with the authenticity of the “real” Soviet sacrificial feat.

Audiences witness a dramatisation of the contradictions of post-Soviet Russian identity, as authenticity and performance, past and present, oscillate without resolution. Rather than a stable past integrated into a present, an imagined past represented as authentic bursts into an actual present screened as staged performance. However much the Putin regime suppresses the war’s domestic backdrop (that of Stalinist repressions), and however hard the viewer represses it, to be in possession of it is part of what it means to be post-Soviet. The inability to come to terms with the war’s full context means that its dream-like status remains only partially assimilated into the present and liable therefore to irrupt into it. The Stalinist past is ‘screened’ in both senses of that word: (1) it is projected on a screen onto which viewers superimpose imaginary constructions of that past; (2) it is veiled from viewers in its full manifestation. Paradoxically, in the Victory Day event, post-Soviet Russian identity fragments at the very moment that it is constituted and celebrated.

Blissfully unaware of the paradoxes and contradictions, however, the Putin (and “post-Putin”) Russian establishment have continued to accord May 9th a central place in the official calendar of national celebrations. The national television event surrounding it has, since 2005, intensified its partial rehabilitation of the image of Stalin (provincial variants now regularly feature shots of ordinary Russians in Victory Day parades bearing posters of Stalin). In the meantime, the organisers of the Moscow celebration have reincorporated a long-defunct feature of Soviet-period Victory Parades: the display on Red Square of Russia’s latest military hardware. It is no coincidence that the anti-western sentiment which is in part responsible for this move has also led to the virtual eradication of the 2005 theme of Russia’s War on Terror alliance with the West. It remains to be seen whether the replacement of Bush by Obama and Putin by Medvedev, or indeed the gradual overshadowing of television by new media forms, will substantially change  Russia’s relationship with the West, its sense of itself as a society, its resistance to western models of government, or the place allotted to television in its nation-building activities.


Stephen Hutchings. Image courtesy of the author.Stephen Hutchings is Professor of Russian Studies, Director of Research and Deputy Head of School at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures, University of Manchester. His research specialism is in Russian Cultural and Media Studies and he is currently Principal Investigator on a large 3-year grant project looking at European Television Representations of Islam as Security Threat in Russia, France and the UK.