https://www.rferl.org-By Steve Gutterman
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a commemoration ceremony in Moscow on May 9.
In his speeches at the annual Red Square military parade marking the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly emphasized the massive role the Soviet Union played, while often minimizing the contributions made by the Western Allies, including the United States.
This year, he seemed to take that approach a step further, even going off-script — possibly — to suggest that the Soviet Union essentially defeated Hitler on its own. The remark drew criticism from Russians who accuse Putin of using the people’s pride in the victory in the war, which killed an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens and left few families untouched, for his own political purposes.
In the initial Russian-language transcript of the May 9 address on the Kremlin website, Putin is quoted as saying that “at the most difficult moments in the war, during decisive battles that determined the result of the struggle against fascism, our people were united — united in the toilsome, heroic, and sacrificial path to victory.”
Those words are unremarkable: Amid ethnic tensions inside Russia today and disputes between Russia and other former Soviet republics, Putin has often used his Victory Day speech to advance the narrative of wartime unity among the Soviet people — though in some cases, such as with dictator Josef Stalin’s persecution of ethnic groups in the North Caucasus, this picture is inaccurate.
But in the speech itself, Putin replaced the word that means “united” with one that means “alone,” suggesting that the Soviet Union — at least at the most crucial junctures in the war — had no help.
“I didn’t even believe it at first — I looked at the text and it said ‘united,’ and I thought I had heard it wrong,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin adviser who is a critic of Putin, told the Russian news outlet Dozhd TV. “Then I listened to him again — no, he specifically said ‘alone.'”
Andrei Kolesnikov, who heads the Russian domestic politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, also said he did a double take when he heard Putin’s words.
“In the official text of Putin’s Victory Day speech [it says] ‘our people were united,'” Kolesnikov, who is also a critic of Putin, wrote on Twitter. “I clearly heard [that] he said twice: ‘our nation was one, one (in a sense of alone) on…the road to Victory.’ In any case, no allies in the Victory were mentioned.”
‘Denial Of Reality’
At some point after the address, the Russian-language transcript on the Kremlin website was altered to conform with Putin’s words, and it was unclear whether he had misspoken or said “alone” deliberately. Either way, it fit in with what analysts say is Putin’s use of the May 9 celebrations and the speech itself to seek to burnish his image and to send messages to the Russian people and foreign leaders.
Over Putin’s 17 years as president, the parade speech has been a kind of barometer of ties with the West. In years when relations have been better, Putin has mentioned the Western Allies’ contributions.
In 2005, with U.S. President George W. Bush among leaders from both former Allied and Axis powers in attendance, Putin said that “the most ruthless and decisive events — the events that determined the drama and the outcome of this inhuman war — unfolded on the territory of the Soviet Union.”
But he also paid tribute to the Western Allies, saying: “We never divided victory into ours and theirs. We will always remember our allies — the United States, Great Britain, France, and the other countries that fought in the anti-Nazi coalition, the German and Italian anti-fascists.”
This year, it came at a time when relations between Moscow and the West are at or near the lowest levels since the Cold War, and in some ways even below those levels. The only foreign leader on the podium on Red Square to watch the parade and hear Putin’s speech was Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.
But it was not the first time Putin he has neglected to mention the role of the Western allies in defeating Nazi Germany — an omission that seems in part a product of the frequent assertions by Russian officials that Western governments downplay the Soviet role, which was inarguably colossal and came at a massive cost that is still being felt in Russia and other former republics even as few veterans remain.
It was also not the first time, by any means, that his Victory Day speech has included veiled hints that the world now faces potential threats from Moscow’s wartime allies in Washington and the West.
Critics said that in describing the Soviet Union as “alone,” Putin took the Kremlin’s narrative of the war too far.
His language was “a denial of the reality of a world war,” opposition politician Leonid Gozman wrote on Facebook. “He managed not to say a word about those whom Stalin called ‘our valiant allies.'”
Putin’s message, he said, seemed to be that Russia is “alone against the world,” Gozman wrote, adding that he had also “essentially likened all the countries in conflict with the state he leads to Nazi Germany.”
Pavlovsky also contrasted Putin with Stalin, who he said mentioned allies in a in a speech on Red Square in November 1941, and suggested that Putin’s wording reflected his own feelings and fears. “It’s he who is alone. He feels abandoned, betrayed, surrounded by enemies,” Pavlovsky told Dozhd TV. “He has no allies.”
Another analyst, Abbas Gallyamov, said that ahead of September parliamentary elections in which the unpopular Kremlin-controlled United Russia party faces a test, Putin is trying to use the war and the Soviet victory as something voters will associate with him and his government.
“On practically all the issues on the current agenda — political, economic, and social — the Kremlin has already lost the sympathy of the majority,” Gallyamov told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
“But for the majority [Victory Day] really is a sacred holiday, and the patriotic rhetoric about how our grandfathers fought more or less answers to the mood of the majority, or at least does not sharply contradict it,” he said. “And so, Putin is hysterically trying to drag the historical agenda into the current political discourse.”
Imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny has not commented on Putin’s May 9 address. But at a court hearing late last month, he said the World War II victory was one of the pieces of the past that Putin had tried to “appropriate — to steal — and to use for his own personal purposes.”
“He has been doing this for many years with our people’s victory in the Great Patriotic War,” Navalny, who was convicted of defaming a World War II veteran in a trial he contends was politically motivated, said at an appeals hearing on April 29. “He is trying to appropriate it for himself.”
Vladimir Mikhailov of Current Time contributed to this report
Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.