Doomed to repeat: how war became a national idea in Russia
Egor Sennikov
This essay is part of a collaborative project between the Russia Program and Perito, an online media platform on culture and territories. Through a series of translated interviews and essays, we introduce Perito's content on Russia and Russia's minorities to English-speaking audiences.

The Ukraine War seemed impossible to many, but on a symbolic level, the grounds for the conflict have been simmering for decades. In this Perito piece, Egor Sennikov explains how monuments, graves of unknown soldiers, and official statements by regime-backing ideologists have made Russia's aggressive foreign policy a logical result.
“Prince Alexander Nevsky and his Retinue” Memorial Complex, Pskov Oblast, built in 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
“Nevsky’s retinue crushed the Swedes on the Neva River, drove the invaders out of Koporye and won a victory on Lake Peipsi. This victory was decisive, stopped the enemy’s advance and showed everyone in the East and the West that Rus’ power is unbroken, and there are people on Russian land who are willing to sacrifice everything to fight for it.” Vladimir Putin spoke these words on September 11, 2021, during the unveiling of the memorial “Prince Alexander Nevsky and his Retinue” in the Pskov Oblast, on the shores of Lake Peipsi.

Some of Alexander Nevsky’s warriors immortalized in the complex received the faces of real people—Pskov paratroopers of the sixth company of the 104th Guards Parachute Regiment of the 76th Guards Airborne Division. During the Second Chechen War, they went into battle against Chechen militants, showing “a massive feat of heroism in our modern era,” as Putin noted. Less than six months after the opening ceremony, the soldiers of the 104th Guards Parachute Regiment once again proved their mettle as part of the occupying forces in Bucha.

The monument to Alexander Nevsky and the rhetoric of the opening ceremony revealed several trends in Russian memorial politics over the past few decades. Firstly, the historical significance of the figure of the prince was illustrated through the fight against an external enemy. Secondly, the idea of a strong, independent Russian state was touted as a supreme virtue. Thirdly, the war acted as a key element connecting history and modernity: the creators of the monument drew a direct parallel between the Battle on the Ice and the conflict in Chechnya, while Putin made a correlation between himself and Nevsky. None of these semantic elements were anything new. The president was building on ideas that had been present in many of his previous speeches during the unveiling of other moments. During the time that Putin has been in power, glorifying the wars of the past has become the key component of state memorial politics, and has gradually transformed into the glorification of the idea of war in general.

Monuments as a political statement

The decision to construct or not to construct a particular monument has always been a political act. “A tangible, static artwork endorsed by state actors freezes in time an authoritative statement of what ought to be remembered; such memorials interpret the past and attempt to inform future public opinion,” writes American researcher Kathleen Smith.
Saint Petersburg (Russia), Palace Square, Alexander Column. Source: Wiki Commons
In some cases, entire cities or sections thereof become symbols imbued with values uniting the past and future. Take, for example, Palace Square in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. In the center stands the Alexander Column, erected in memory of the victory over Napoleon in the Patriotic War of 1812, one of the most glorified battles in the history of imperial Russia. To the right of the imperial residence is the Guards Corps building, behind that is the General Headquarters, which, in addition to the military department, housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to the left is the Admiralty. Each element is not only intentional, it is also tied to the other parts of the architectural ensemble, ultimately serving to glorify the empire and reflect the interactions of its key actors: the emperor, courtiers, guards, military, diplomats and navy. This kind of intentionality is more common in younger cities that were originally founded to become important symbolic centers.
Washington Monument. Source: Wiki Commons
In this sense, a close “relative” of St. Petersburg is Washington DC, which was also conceived as the capital of a new state. In its center is the National Mall with a complex of buildings from the 19th century. From the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument to key history, art and science museums, this arrangement celebrates the republican and democratic ideals of the United States.

One of the founders of symbolic political analysis was American philosopher Murray Edelman, who proposed studying how authorities use symbols to proclaim their desires. In particular, he encouraged people to pay attention to how politicians use symbols to try to motivate citizens to do their bidding. According to Edelman, debates about certain monuments are not simply discussions about aesthetics or the relevance of a particular historical figure, but are rather a form of political expression.

The USSR: from Engels to the Unknown Soldier

Lenin, through massive installation of new sculptures and monuments, as well as the demolition of old ones, wanted to convey the ideas of the new Bolshevik government to the citizens. For example, the desire for justice and the denial of an imperial past, in which revolutionaries and leftist thinkers were banned, and workers and peasants were oppressed. Among the heroes to whom monuments were erected in the USSR between 1918–1920 are Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, poet Taras Shevchenko and publicist Alexander Herzen, terrorist Ivan Kalyaev and revolutionary V. Volodarsky. However, Lenin’s monument propaganda program proved short-lived: many monuments were made of plaster and were simply ill-equipped to survive the weather conditions.
Memorial to Yuri Dolgorukiy. Source: Wiki Commons
Further Soviet memorial policy evolved along with the party line. For example, following the outbreak of WWII, the authorities began to bring more attention to the figures whom the early Bolsheviks had “thrown from the steamship of modernity”: Alexander Nevsky, Alexander Suvorov, Yuri Dolgorukiy, Fyodor Ushakov, and others. Gradually, the victory in WWII itself became a symbolic focus point for the entire Soviet memorial policy. In mid-October 1964, during an internal party coup, Leonid Brezhnev became the leader of the Communist Party (CPSU) and head of the USSR. Many of his colleagues did not see him as a strong leader, so he needed to make both practical and symbolic gestures that would secure his position. One of these was fortifying the memory of WWII. Veterans were one community Brezhnev decided to rely on, so it was important for him to gain their support. Incidentally, the secretary general himself and many of his comrades were also WWII veterans.
Malinovsky takes the salute during the 1965 Moscow Victory Day Parade, 9 May 1965.
Source: Wiki Commons
On May 9, 1965, the newspaper Pravda published a huge piece titled “The Unfading Glory of the Motherland.” It was an eight-page reprint of a Brezhnev speech. In summation: the joint work of the army and the homefront under the leadership of the Communist Party ensured the Soviet Union’s victory in the war, proved the unconditional righteousness of the Bolsheviks and the success of the communist regime, and justified all the human, material and technical losses. This set the precedent for the official Soviet myth about WWII. On the same day, a Victory Day parade was held in the Red Square for the first time since May 9, 1945. With the exception of a few minor changes (the horses were replaced by GAZ Chaikas), the ceremony inherited all the components of the original Stalinist parade.
Tomb of the Unknown soldier, Moscow, Russia. Source: Wiki Commons
It’s worth noting that it was not Brezhnev who addressed the people, but the Minister of Defense, Marshal of the USSR Rodion Malinovsky, himself a veteran of WWI. From that moment on, memorialization of war and victory began to play a central role in Soviet memorial policy.

This new memorial policy was embodied by huge monuments like the Brest Fortress Complex in Belarus, opened in the early 1970s, or the grandiose complexes in Novorossiysk, perpetuating the memory of the events of the war on Malaya Zemlya (this is where Brezhnev spent most of the war). And on December 3, 1966, a “solemn, mournful” demonstration, as Pravda wrote, was held near the Kremlin. Among attendants were the mother of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, Marshal of the USSR Konstantin Rokossovsky, the head of the Moscow city committee of the CPSU Nikolai Yegorychev and “other officials.” The event was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of an important moment in WWII: in early December 1941, Soviet troops launched a counteroffensive and repelled the Germans from Moscow. The key event of the ceremony was the unveiling of a new memorial: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Adzhimushkay monument. Source: Wiki Commons
Sometimes monuments were constructed as a response to “grassroots demands” from activists and veterans who wanted to immortalize the lesser-known episodes of the war in bronze or granite. One example is the defense of the Adzhimushkay quarry. When Germany occupied Crimea, the quarries were the last holdout points of the Soviet troops as they tried to push back the Nazis. After the war, many veterans and local activists wrote to the national press about the importance of those events and drew attention to the battle site. In the end, the authorities conceded and opened a museum on the site in 1966, and then a monument in 1982.
Monument to Karl Marx in Moscow, built in 1961. Source: Wiki Commons
In general, the memory of WWII in the late USSR was built around the sacrifices people made and the later achievements resulting from their victory. These included literally all the successes of the USSR after 1945, from the liberation of colonized peoples from the oppression of colonial powers (the USSR supported Asian and African countries) to space flight and the spread of the communist idea throughout the world. At the same time, the war itself was described as a monstrous catastrophe. The victims sacrificed their lives for the people’s freedom, but nothing could justify the atrocity. This approach began to change shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Monument to Nicholas II. Source: Dzen
The 1990s: in search of new meaning

On the anniversary of the execution of the royal family, July 17, 1993, a monument to Nicholas II was unveiled in Pushkin, St. Petersburg. The memory of the last Russian emperor was actively revived in Russia starting in the early 1990s. At that time, many viewed the monarchy as an alternative, both historical and political, to the Soviet period. The monument was funded by Pushkin businessman Sergey Rogov.

Rogov traded liquefied gas and petroleum products and was friends with tennis coach and close associate of Boris Yeltsin, Shamil Tarpishchev. It is believed that this acquaintance helped Rogov gain ownership of the Tobolsk petrochemical plant. In Moscow, Dmitry Filippov, a former major Soviet nomenklatura and Komsomol leader, who in the early 1990s became the head of the St. Petersburg tax service, looked after Rogov and connected him to other important figures. In 1996, Rogov was shot dead in Pushkin. Two years later, Filippov was also killed — blown up in the entrance of his own home in St. Petersburg. The Tobolsk Petrochemical Plant soon became part of Gazprom. But the monument to the last Russian emperor still stands in Pushkin today, part of the legacy of a troubled and turbulent era.

This monument-based crime story is a good illustration of the situation that developed in the field of symbolic politics in Russia in the early 1990s. The collapse of communism led to the decentralization of the memorial narrative, and the monopoly of power on symbolic statements was challenged. The number of actors participating in memorial politics constantly increased. Among them were individual entrepreneurs, the Russian Orthodox Church, veterans’ associations, which since the late 1980s have been involved in memorializing the war in Afghanistan, political parties, and even interest clubs. Thus, in 1992, a group of Spartak fans banded together and a memorial was opened in the Luzhniki Stadium in honor of the fans who died in a stampede during a 1982 Moscow Spartak v. Dutch Haarlem match.
In 1990, on Lubyanka Square in Moscow, which until recently bore the name and a statue of Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, a new monument, the Solovetsky Stone, was unveiled. It was a monument to the memory of political repression in the USSR, constructed on the initiative of the Memorial Society, which helped organize many disparate regional associations involved in preserving the memory of the victims of Soviet repression. By that time, similar monuments had already appeared in many cities. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many memorial signs and crosses were erected at the Levashovsky Cemetery in St. Petersburg in honor of those killed in the 1930s. In Karelia, at the Sandarmokh tract, the site of mass executions during the years of Stalin’s terror, there has been a search for burial sites conducted since the late 1980s, which eventually culminated in the creation of a memorial. And in Pushkin, on the site of one of the German executions in 1941, a monument by Vadim Sidur appeared in memory of the Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Another feature of the new Russian memorial policy is the fight against the Soviet legacy. Cities and streets were once again given their pre-revolutionary names. Individual monuments were demolished or moved from the city center to the outskirts — this is actually what happened to the Dzerzhinsky monument on Lubyanka after being overturned in August 1991. However, the scale of this decommunization should not be overestimated: the vast majority of official Soviet memorials remained in place. Even discussions about what to do with Lenin’s body and the Mausoleum, although they sometimes became quite heated, never produced a nationwide consensus. The memory of WWII is still prevalent in the social consciousness, although its memorialization has become less large-scale: since 1995, only small monuments and memorial plaques have been created.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the federal government was desperately combing the history books for heroic figures and stories befitting the new era. They flirted with monarchism, spending a lot of energy searching for and burying the remains of the imperial family; tried to give new meaning to the anniversary of the October Revolution and renamed November 7th from the Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution to the Day of Harmony and Reconciliation; and collaborated with Memorial and the memory of Soviet repression. They also searched for new heroes in the regions. In Irkutsk, for example, they tried to revive the memory of White Army Admiral Kolchak, who was shot there. In the early 1990s, the director of Irkutskpischeprom, Vladimir Daev, even came up with the idea of ​​producing a new brand of beer called “Admiral Kolchak.”
Statue of Peter the Great in Moscow. Source: Wiki Commons
Other symbolic figures who tried on the “national hero” role for a while included poet Alexander Pushkin, Georgy Zhukov, Dmitry Donskoy, Kutuzov, and many Orthodox saints and martyrs. None of these attempts to revive their memories were particularly successful, except, perhaps, for Alexander Nevsky: in post-Soviet times, at least three dozen large monuments to him were erected throughout the country. The cult of Nevsky in post-Soviet Russia owes much to Lev Gumilyov’s book “Ancient Rus' and the Great Steppe” (1989), in which the prince was presented as the savior of Ancient Rus' and a fighter for the country’s independence. The author assigned him the symbolic features of Peter I. Incidentally, the first emperor of Russia became another important object of symbolic politics as his image was replicated and imbued with new meaning, echoes of the Stalinist cult of Peter I and discourse on the Western path of the “new” Russia. In 1997, the emperor was eventually immortalized by Zurab Tseriteli’s grandiose monument on the Moscow River.
Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton at the 1995 Victory Day Parade in Moscow. Source: quoracdn.net
Reviving the memory of WWII

May 9, 1995. US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister John Major stand in the area for honored guests at the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square. At the Mausoleum itself are President Boris Yeltsin and members of the military and political leadership of Russia. For the first time in post-Soviet history, the Victory Parade takes place. Yeltsin, standing literally on the grave of the founder of the Soviet state, recalls how “our fathers, grandfathers and brothers left Red Square to defend the freedom and independence of Russia,” and then adds: “The ashes of the villain have been scattered, and Moscow and Russia stand and will stand for centuries." Yeltsin presents a new form of victory. While in the USSR, victory symbolized the triumph of Lenin’s teachings, the first president of Russia proclaims that victory laid the foundation for Russia’s path to democracy and freedom, as well as to friendship and partnership with Western countries.

At the same time, a new tradition arose that did not exist in the Soviet Union: starting in 1995, the Victory Parade began to be held annually. Gradually it turned into the main memorial event of post-Soviet Russia. Feverish searches led the new government to return to the memory of WWII and, more broadly, a longing for the country’s former greatness and strength. At first, the parades took place only in the capital, but gradually moved to larger cities, from St. Petersburg and Grozny to Yakutsk and Vladivostok. In 2015, more than 60 parades were held across the country, and in 2022 — more than a hundred.

In 2000, Vladimir Putin, also speaking at the Lenin Mausoleum, said: “Dear soldiers of the frontlines, at your side we have become used to victory. This is in our blood now and is not only a guarantee of military victories but also comes to our aid in peacetime, helping our generation to build a strong and prosperous country and raise aloft the Russian banner of democracy and freedom. Our people have lived through many wars and we know the price of peace...” Through Putin, the new government speaks of victory as an event that granted Russia peace and independence, while the heroes of that war were glorified as martyrs who sacrificed themselves for the sake of democracy and freedom. But this interpretation also proved short-lived.
Military parade in Moscow, 2015. Source: Wiki Commons
The 2000s: War with a new ideological sheen

In 2005, Moscow celebrated the 60th anniversary of Victory in WWII. International leaders from US President George W. Bush to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gathered for the celebration. Troops from all former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, as well as regiments from allied countries in the anti-Hitler coalition (USA, France and Great Britain) marched across Red Square. According to Putin, the main lesson of the war is the necessity of developing friendships with neighbors and building strong relationships with the world’s nations: “In the face of the real threats of terrorism that exist today, we must remain faithful to the memory of our fathers, we must defend a world order based on security and justice, on a new culture of relationships that does not allow us to repeat the wars of the past, either ‘hot’ or ‘cold.’” At the same time, the state news agency RIA Novosti launched the quasi-public “St. George’s Ribbon” initiative, similar to the red poppies symbolizing the memory of the First World War in many Western countries. After using the ribbon in neutral memorial rhetoric, the authorities quickly turned it into a symbol of patriotism and loyalty to government initiatives.
A woman wearing St.George ribbon. Source: Wiki Commons
Further discourse surrounding the memory of the war only became more aggressive. In the mid-2000s, a popular slogan was born: “We can do it again!” The apparent meaning would be “repeat the victory,” but suddenly the war had transformed from an unambiguous evil and tragedy into almost an act of vengeance. This slogan intertwines imperial and Soviet resentment, public dissatisfaction with the reforms of the 1990s and the desire to “take revenge” on the abstract West and “enemies of Russia” for all the trouble.

At the turn of the 2000s–2010s, victory began to be described as an achievement that gives modern Russia the right to take foreign policy actions that, according to the president, should ensure the security and sovereignty of the state. Government speeches on the topic of WWII became more frequent after February 2014, the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas. In Putin’s speeches and texts, and in the speeches of state propagandists, direct comparisons of events in Ukraine with WWII are becoming more and more prevalent. At the same time, in 2022, a law was passed that prohibits comparing Stalinist USSR to Nazi Germany, accompanied by a ban on denying the decisive role of the Soviet people in the war.

The 2010s: A seamless heroic narrative

Back in the mid-2000s, the state began to declare a new idea of Russian history, which could be described by the term “benevolent past” (khoroshee proshloe). The “benevolent past” is an ideological and historical space devoid of internal conflict, in which various figures were good or bad depending on how loyal they were to the idea of a strong unified state. In this narrative, figures from different historical eras are lined up in a neat row, Stolypin and Stalin, Nicholas II and Alexander Nevsky. At the same time, Vladimir Putin gradually became the main actor in the field of symbolic politics. He was actively assisted in this by the Russian Military Historical Society (RMSH), created in 2012, as well as by Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky (2012–2020) and other less prominent ideologists. It is in Putin’s speeches that the idea of a seamless, conflict-free historical past with many different heroes is finally formulated.

It was the Russian Military Historical Society, in part, that began to coordinate memorial activities throughout the country and develop a new version of the memory of WWII. The emergence of RMHS seemed like the state’s response to the mass protests of 2011–2012. The authorities have returned to massive propaganda campaigns, much like in Soviet times. With the direct participation of the Russian Military Historical Society, monuments to the heroes of the First World War, General Mikhail Skobelev and Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky were erected in Moscow, a monument to Ivan III in Kaluga, a monument to Alexander Nevsky in Samolva, and many others.
Monument of Prince Vladimir. Source: Wiki Commons
In a speech given at the unveiling of the monument of Prince Vladimir at the Kremlin in November 2016, Putin said that Vladimir “went down in history as a collector and defender of Russian lands, as a far-sighted politician who created the foundations of a strong, united, centralized state.” While unveiling a monument to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in December 2018, the president emphasized that the writer “clearly distinguished between the genuine, real, people’s Russia and the features of the totalitarian system, which brought suffering and trials for millions of people.” A few years prior, at the opening of the Yeltsin Center, Putin portrayed Yeltsin as a man who adopted the country’s constitution “in conditions of severe political confrontation” (a euphemism referring to the White House shooting in 1993), asked to protect Russia and “wanted our country to become strong and prosperous.” At the same time, Yevgeny Primakov, the former head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister, who at one time opposed Yeltsin, was described as one who “[at] every stage of his long, eventful life put the interests of the Fatherland above all else.”

The official image of the past crafted over the past few decades was devoid of any shade or nuance. There were no real conflicts or clashes, and any negative phenomena or problems were erased from history unless they were associated with some external enemy. Figures and events that would be difficult to integrate into the historical narrative created by Putin and his advisers were also ignored. For instance, the 1917 Revolution, the 100th anniversary of which the authorities almost completely avoided, deciding to mark the occasion by releasing a documentary film by propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov. In it, Kiselyov condemned any revolutions as sabotage inspired by outside forces, threatening the strength of the state.

The authorities also began to ignore the “losers,” for example, Emperors Nicholas I and II, as well as Alexander II, who fought wars that ended badly for Russia. But Peter the Great is once again elevated as an ideal. In December 2022, Putin drew a direct parallel between Peter and himself, saying that one of the results of the war with Ukraine is that “the Sea of Azov has become an internal sea of Russia,” for which “ Peter I himself fought."

The 2020s: The Apotheosis of war

Putin’s speech before the parade on May 9, 2022 served as the apotheosis of the new approach to war not as a tragedy, but as a means by which Russia achieves all its goals, including global justice. There were rumors that the president would announce the beginning of the mobilization in this speech, but he limited himself to militant rhetoric with many historical references: “Today, Donbas militias, together with soldiers of the Russian army, are fighting on their own land, where the enemy was defeated by Svyatoslav’s warriors and Vladimir Monomakh, soldiers of Rumyantsev and Potemkin, Suvorov and Brusilov, where the heroes of the Second World War Nikolai Vatutin, Sidor Kovpak, Lyudmila Pavlichenko stood and faced their death. I am now addressing our Armed Forces and the Donbas militias: You are fighting for your Homeland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II.”
The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, opened in 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
Over the past 30 years, the memory of the war in Russia has turned into a state cult of military achievements. The launch of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine strengthened this line of thought, but did not spawn it. After announcing the first mobilization in Russia since 1941 on September 21, 2022, Vladimir Putin traveled to Veliky Novgorod to take part in the celebration of the 1160th anniversary of Russian statehood. Standing at the monument to the 1000th anniversary of Russia, he succinctly stated his position: “Being a patriot is the essence of the Russian nature and character. Now, during this special military operation, our heroes, soldiers, officers, and volunteers are displaying precisely these highest of human qualities, fighting bravely, shoulder to shoulder, like brothers, for the sake of saving the people of Donbas, for the sake of a peaceful sky for our children, for the sake of their native country, which will always be only free and independent.”

In this speech, Putin married two key ideas, two symbols that have proved so important for the Russian government in the last two decades — the idea of serving the state and the idea of ​​a righteous war that will write off all sins — exemplified this new narritive: war for the sake of the state and the state for the sake of war.
  • Egor Sennikov

    Independent researcher
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