You may think Russia’s religion is Orthodoxy. So it is, technically speaking. In the same sense in which Anglicanism is England’s creed.
Even less so, actually, if judged by church attendance, which in England is roughly twice that in Russia. But before we get smug about it, ours is still less than two per cent of the population, which hardly testifies to fervent piety.
Yet most Englishmen routinely write ‘C of E’ in the ‘religion’ rubric of various questionnaires. And most Russians write ‘Orthodox’ even if they’ve never seen the inside of a church.
That, however, doesn’t mean they have no religion – only that their cult has nothing to do with Christianity. The greatest cause for annual celebration is neither Easter nor Christmas. It’s 9 May, Victory Day.
The Russians celebrate victory over Nazi Germany a day later than the rest of the world because the Reims Protocol establishing Germany’s capitulation to the Allies, which went into effect on 8 May, wasn’t graced by Soviet signatories.
The real capitulation, Stalin declared, had occurred on 9 May in Berlin, when Field-Marshal Keitel had officially surrendered to Marshal Zhukov. Those dastardly Anglo-Americans, who for all intents and purposes hadn’t even fought the war, were scheming to preempt the triumph Russia had won single-handedly.
Then the strangest thing happened: Stalin refused to officiate the victory parade on 24 June. The honour of acting as parade inspector was bestowed on Zhukov, with Marshal Rokossovsky commanding the marching troops.
Since Stalin was Commander-in-Chief, such reticence was odd. Surely it wasn’t only his right but indeed his duty to inspect the 40,000 troops crowding Red Square. Instead he simply watched as soldiers were tossing Nazi flags on the wet cobbles at the foot of the Lenin Mausoleum.
Then another odd thing happened. Though declared a holiday, 9 May remained a regular workday until 1965, 12 years after Stalin’s death. If the Russians felt like celebrating in their own inimitable fashion, they had to do so in the afterhours.
The reason was simple: to Stalin, 9 May was only a half-victory. And half-victory spelled half-defeat – as in that half of Europe that didn’t fall into Stalin’s hands.
His whole life was devoted to a single goal: spreading his nightmarish empire over all of Europe, to begin with. It’s to that end that in the 1920s and especially 1930s he had sacrificed millions of lives to create an armament industry churning out more murderous kit than the rest of the world combined.
It’s to that end that he had helped Hitler to rearm Germany. It’s to that end that he had signed a criminal pact with the Nazis to redirect their juggernaut westwards. It’s to that end that he had attacked Poland from the East when the Nazi offensive from the west began to slow down. It’s to that end that he had amassed 15,000 tanks on his western border (with another 8,000 held in reserve), waiting for the Nazis to get bogged down in England before unleashing his own juggernaut.
By launching their suicidal preemptive strike on 22 June, 1941, the Nazis spoiled all the best-laid plans. They lost the war in the end, but, to Stalin’s mind, Russia didn’t quite win it either. Hence, as far as he was concerned, those 30 million Soviets had died half in vain. The best they rated was half a celebration.
To be sure, both he and his heirs used the half-victory as a self-legitimising factor. That’s why post-war Soviet children were so inundated with wartime propaganda that many thought the war was still going on. They were weaned on a steady diet of cinematic ‘Halt!’ and ‘Hende Hoch!’ lore, with angelic Soviet soldiers slaughtering satanic Germans or, failing that, dying with the heroic words ‘For Motherland! For Stalin!’ on their lips.
When Stalin’s immediate entourage either died out or, like Khrushchev in 1964, got the elbow, the flipside of the great victory was forgotten, and the propaganda became downright cultish, with 9 May finally gaining its non-labour status a year later. But those Russians who thought the hysteria had reached its peak were sorely mistaken.
After a roughly 10-year hiatus during the 1990s, the KGB junta fronted by Col. Putin began to steer a steady course back to Stalin, except that they had to go the monster one better. With militarisation à la 1970s back on the agenda, the so-called Great Patriotic War became an all-year-round pagan festival, with 9 May its Walpurgisnacht.
People born decades after the war wear guards’ ribbons in their lapels, cabbies fly them out of their cars, every newspaper screams militaristic propaganda, slogans ‘We can do it again!’ are everywhere. And Novosibirsk, a city of 1.5 million souls, is adorned with hoardings proudly displaying Stalin, the cannibal who killed twice as many Russians as Hitler managed.
The war has been fully sacralised because Stalin’s plans are back on the agenda. Thus the Russians have found a religion, one accompanied not by church bells but by bugles and drums.
Putin’s Church of Holy Chauvinism boasts the kind of attendance Christianity can only dream of. In due course all those parishioners wearing guards’ ribbons may go to their deaths in apocalyptic numbers – while high priest Putin enjoys his purloined billions.