The Sacred Victory. A Post-Soviet Civil Religion
The idea of civil religion isn’t new. It’s origins go back to the 18 century France when it was first used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his theory of social contract. He coined this term to describe the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any modern society. According to Rousseau, civil religion was supposed to serve as a glue to keep the unity of the state and the increasingly secularising society by providing them with a common set of values.
The role and importance of civil religion increased massively during the 19th and 20th centuries, along with the emergence of nation-states and mass society. In some countries, it complemented traditional religions, while in others completely replaced them.
The most common form of civil religion we know today is patriotism. The pantheon of national heroes, the veneration of national symbols and the celebration of important historical dates. It’s not something that has been around forever. All these elements were invented or, rather, borrowed from traditional religions by the emerging nation-states only in the past two hundred years.
The tomb of the unknown soldier, the anniversary of storming of the Bastille, the Thanksgiving, and the Veterans Days are all elements of civil religions. So is the commemoration of the Holocaust which serves as a civil religion not only for Israel but for the entire Western civilization. In short, civil religion is not a remote and abstract notion, it is something that surrounds us everyday from the day we are born, providing us with a moral ground for our actions and giving us the sense of belonging.
A radical example of civil religion was the Soviet ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Interestingly enough, just like early Christianity absorbed various forms of pre-Christian Greco-Roman and Middle Eastern beliefs, the USSR, while completely renouncing religion and declaring itself an atheist state, nonetheless adopted many crucial elements of the Christian tradition.
A Professor of Ecclesiology, Cyril Hovorun, lists some of the elements of Marxism-Leninism that had their origins in Christianity: “the doctrine was articulated at councils: the Communist Party congresses. The Communist Party as the magisterium of the Soviet religion, showed no mercy to the heresies: Trotskyism, Maoism, Titoism, and so forth. Vladimir Lenin as the founder of the new religion was praised as an immortal deity. A cult of veneration developed around this deity including veneration of his relics in the mausoleum. His writings were considered a Holy Scripture. Any treatise in the field of humanities published in the Soviet Union was supposed to quote from it, just as the theological treatises are supposed to contain references to the Bible. The revelations of Lenin were preceded by the old testament prophecies by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
There were complex initiations to the hierarchies of the discipleship of Lenin. First, seven-year-old Oktiabriata (October kids), called thus after the 1917 October revolution, were baptised to the new religion. Then at the age of ten, Oktiabriata were chrismated to the rank of pioneers, and then at the age of fifteen the most worthy youth were ordained to Komsomol (the communist union of youth) and thus became deacons of the Soviet regime. The members of the Communist Party constituted a caste of the priests of the Soviet religion”.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, in the vast majority of the former Eastern Bloc countries the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism was immediately rejected and replaced with a much more familiar and, perhaps, natural ethnic nationalism. In the case of Poland or the former Yugoslavia, it was further reinforced with traditional religions. A similar mix of religion and nationalism was also developed in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
However, for some people the rejection of the Soviet past was not that easy. First of all, it refers to Russia, but not only. The same is true for some other parts of the former USSR like Belarus, Eastern Ukraine, Moldovan Transnistria, or the Slavic parts of Kazakhstan. For various reasons, people there had much stronger emotional attachment to the Soviet Union than elsewhere.
In the case of Russia, it was mostly the reluctance to give up on the status of a superpower. In some regions, the crucial factor was the mass migration resulted in a mixed population that considered itself Soviet (similar to what’s been happening to migrants in the US). In other regions, like in Polesie on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, the main cause was the fact that before 1917 people there led extremely primitive lives. They had no developed national identity simply referring to themselves as ‘locals’. Being Soviet citizens was their first and only national identity which was hard to give up.
Initially, in the early 90s, the authorities in these most sovietized regions were doing exactly the same thing as their counterparts in other post-socialist states – reviving religions and ethnic nationalism. However, the only result was rejection.
Despite numerous state efforts to support the Orthodox Church and the construction of hundreds of new temples, it never really became the peoples’ church. It doesn’t attract young or middle-aged people or men in general. Today’s post-Soviet Orthodox Church is largely an old ladies’ club.
The ethnic nationalism didn’t work out there either. In Russia, although Russians make up 80% of the population, the authorities’ attitude towards ethnic Russian nationalism has always been extremely cautious, if not to say hostile. The officials operate the term ‘Multiethnic Russian People’, emphasizing the country’s multiethnicity whenever possible. Only once did the Russian authorities try to play the card of nationalism – in 2014 – but have very quickly retreated.
In other most sovietized parts of the former USSR, the local governments’ attempts to impose ethnic nationalisms as the countries’ spiritual foundation have also backfired. In some cases the backlash was so huge it led to civil war and de-facto secession of part of the country like what happened in Transnistria in 1992.
Thus, in the early 1990s, this part of the world found itself in the ideological void. Religion and nationalism didn’t work. What people actually wanted was the return to the Soviet Union but it was no longer an option. And there was no other idea how to bring the state and society together. People were largely left to their own devices. But not for long.
On the 9th of May 1995, on the 50th anniversary of VE Day, Russia held the first victory parade in its sovereign history. Now it may seem strange, but in the Soviet Union there was no tradition of annual victory parades. The first such parade was held only in 1965, during the Brezhnev’s stagnation. The second parade wasn’t held for another twenty years – it took place only in 1985 to celebrate the victory’s 40th anniversary. The third and last Soviet parade was held in 1990.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, there were no 9th of May military parades on Red Square until the victory’s 50th anniversary in 1995. Amidst the post-Soviet chaos and the collapse of all the ideals of a Soviet man, the victory in the Great Patriotic War was arguably the only thing that still made people proud of their country. All other common grounds – the conquest of space, building communism, the faith in the brighter future – were all gone. The victory remained the post-Soviet people’s only moral ground.
The state did not fail to take advantage of that. Starting from 1995, the parades on Red Square have been held annually. It was also when the guard of honour was moved from the Lenin’s Mausoleum to the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the walls of the Kremlin. This all symbolized the final break with the Soviet tradition and the beginning of a new post-Soviet one.
With time, the celebrations of the Great Victory were getting more and more popular. While in the early 90s only 60-65% of Russians wanted to celebrate it, by 2010s this figure rose to over 90%. The questions common in the late 80s – early 90s about who caused the war and the price of victory were increasingly tabooed.
By the mid-2000s, the Victory Day has gone beyond official state events and became a truly peoples’ celebration. It was when the victory got its own symbol – the St. George’s Ribbon. The ribbon gave the holiday a new grassroots dimension, it allowed people to show their pride for the victory and to feel their belonging. People pinned it on their clothes, attached it to the car aerials. Gradually, the ribbon has acquired a nearly sacral meaning. Today you can’t attach it, say, to a dog collar or display it when it’s dirty, it is seen as a profanity.
With the little help of the state propaganda, the cult of the victory has been increasingly merging with the support of the current policies of the authorities. The slogans like ‘I remember, I am proud’ and ‘Thank you, Grandpa, for the Victory!’ were joined by the likes of ‘We can do this again!’
In 2012, the Immortal Regiment campaign was launched in Russia. Just like the St. George’s Ribbon it was another grassroots initiative picked up by the state. The idea was very simple – people go out to the streets carrying photos of their grandparents who fought in the war. The Immortal Regiment proved to be a tremendous success. It effectively became a grand-scale civil liturgy, allowing people to feel deeply connected to one another. On May 9, 2015, in Moscow alone, 750 thousand people took part in it, including Vladimir Putin carrying a photo of his granddad.
The victory became so important, that in their annual New Year addresses, the Presidents of Russia and Belarus – Putin and Lukashenko – the only recognized states where the Victory has a quasi-religious status, speak of it as the biggest day of the year. There are more and more new grassroots initiatives. Earlier this year, the Russian Minister of Education Olga Vasilyeva supported the idea of a schoolboy from Tver to write the word ‘veteran’ with a capital letter. The victory’s celebrations are also borrowing increasingly more elements from Christianity. The religious paintings with Stalin appear. The new main temple of the Russian Armed Forces is decorated with a sickle and hammer. A few years back in a bizarre social campaign video a nurse from the Immortal Regiment called on women to give up abortion. Parades are held in kindergartens, people turn their kids’ pushchairs into tanks and multiple rocket launchers.
In a recent poll about the reaction of Russians to a bad joke when someone uploaded photos of Nazi leaders to a website with the veterans’ stories, only 7% viewed it as a joke. More than 90% think that whoever is behind it has to be punished. Furthermore, the most popular punishment is “to deprive them of Russian citizenship” – 29%, followed by a criminal prosecution with 26%. This reaction is in stark contrast with the Pussy Riot case, when the vast majority of Russians remained indifferent to the scandal and it had to be almost artificially inflated by Russian officials.
In just over a decade a new civil religion has taken shape right before our eyes. It now has its own mythology, its own special rituals, its own taboos, great martyrs, and holy places. In the name of the Victory foreign policy is being implemented, history is being rewritten, and enemies of the state are being attacked. The main annual ritual – the victory parade – became so important that in Belarus it was held on May 9 even despite the pandemic while in Russia it was not cancelled but rescheduled for June 24. Regardless of the casualties the parade has to be held. Today a post-Soviet man can dislike communism, talk bad about Stalin or criticize Russia’s policies and its leadership, but there’s one thing that is off-limits. It is the Victory. The Victory is sacred.Show lyrics
Arise, vast country,
Arise for a fight to the death
Against the dark fascist force,
Against the cursed horde.
Let noble wrath
Boil over like a wave!
This is the people’s war,
a Sacred war!
We shall repulse the oppressors
Of all ardent ideas.
The rapists and the plunderers,
The torturers of people.
The black wings shall not dare
Fly over the Motherland,
On her spacious fields
The enemy shall not dare tread!
We shall drive a bullet into the forehead
Of the rotten fascist filth,
For the scum of humanity
We shall build a solid coffin!
*Like any religion, the religion of Victory has its own anthems. This one is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful of them. Along with the lyrics it can give goosebumps even to a complete non-believer.