MOSCOW - If you call history student Nikolai Podchasov on his cell phone these days, you will hear the popular wartime tune “Katyusha” while waiting for an answer.
“I just like the song,” explains the 22-year-old Podchasov, who got it for free by dialing 1945 as part of a promotion tied to the Victory Day holiday.
Symbols of the Soviet triumph in World War II are impossible to escape in Russia in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of Victory Day on Saturday. There are the black-and-orange St. George's ribbons tied to women's hand bags, wartime TV bulletins from the front line played after the evening news and “To Berlin!” stickers seen on car rear windows.
May 9 has long been the most revered holiday in Russia, bringing together people of all generations and political views. But the holiday has become an increasingly pompous celebration as the Kremlin exploits the memory of the victory to reassert Russia's place in the world and justify its foreign policy. President Vladimir Putin also uses patriotism to rally the nation as the economy suffers under Western sanctions and to help stifle potential pockets of discontent.
The Victory Day celebrations are a perfect vehicle for uniting Russians around a sense of national purpose.
“It's the only opportunity for the nation to assert itself. There are no other foundations for national pride left,” said sociologist Lev Gudkov, director of the independent pollster Levada Center. “This is the triumph of the Soviet Union over Hitler's Germany and at the same time a triumph over the West. It's a declaration of might, the transformation into a superpower.”
Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin has stoked patriotism by evoking World War II imagery to condemn the pro-Western government in Ukraine that took over last year after the ouster of the Russia-friendly president. On state television, the new Ukrainian leaders have been derided as “fascists” and the spiritual heirs of a wartime Ukrainian independence militant whom Moscow considers a Nazi collaborator.
Most Russians have eagerly adopted the Kremlin-sponsored trappings to show their patriotism, including proudly wearing the St. George's ribbon, long associated with victory in World War II. And patriotism has helped to keep Putin's approval ratings sky-high, over 80 percent despite rampant inflation and Russia's increasing isolation from the West.
Some, however, have been turned off by the lavish celebrations for Victory Day.
Alexander Mikhailov, a 62-year-old engineer who spent years working at military rocket launch sites, said he sees the official celebrations as superficial, although he understands why they may be necessary “in light of the political moment and the need to consolidate the nation” in the face of Western pressure.
The bigger disappointment for him is that the celebrations, and in particular the military parade on Red Square, are a bitter reminder of the loss of empire.
“I'm proud of the victory of the Soviet people and the Soviet Union, but neither of them exists any more. Russia looks on the map the way it did in the 17th century,” Mikhailov said. “The victory should be celebrated as long as the country is using the fruits of this victory.”
Olga Gref, a 37-year-old history teacher, recalled that for her grandmother, who died last year, watching the parade was a tradition as well as an occasion to shed a tear. For younger Russians like herself, the parade is “more about entertainment.”
What touches her on Victory Day is when she and her family and friends reminisce about those who died and those who survived. “There's always this aching feeling, a lump in the throat and tears on the way,” Gref said.
Russians' understanding of World War II evolved in the late 1980s when people began to talk openly about Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's repressions ahead of the Nazi invasion in June 1941 and the brutal treatment of Soviet soldiers during the war. But the portrayal of the war has reverted to the old propaganda, as exemplified by the portraits of beaming soldiers and pilots looking down from billboards along Moscow's streets.
For Gref, the best way to keep alive the memory of the wartime suffering and sacrifices is to delve into family history.
In her eighth-grade class on a recent afternoon, students brought memorabilia from home and told family stories of the war, which gave a picture far more complex than the official narrative.
One student told the class about a great-grandfather who was a commander in the 1943 Battle of Kursk, while another spoke of a great-grandfather who wasn't able to go to war because he had been sent to a Gulag prison camp. A student also told the class about a man who had deserted and was caught and tortured by the Soviet security services.
“This is what makes the circumstances of the war easy for them [the children] to relate to,” the teacher said. “We need to talk about the contradictory nature of this event, the complexity of the war, about the fact that along with the victories, there was a lot of personal grief and a lot of dubious achievements.”
The family histories also can counter attempts to portray the victory as exclusively the achievement of the Soviet Union and the Soviet leadership, Gref said.
The share of Russians who think the Soviet Union would have won the war on its own increased to 69 percent last year from 57 percent in 2010, according to Levada's polls.
Gref said her teenage students were enthusiastic about St. George's ribbons 10 years ago because wearing one seemed that it “came from the heart and was not ubiquitous.” Now, she said, her students won't wear the ribbons because this has “turned into a state-sponsored movement that's difficult to follow with sincerity.”
Podchasov, the history student, who is due to graduate from Moscow State University this month, said he enjoys all aspects of the Victory Day celebrations, even the “To Berlin!” stickers that are a nod to war-time messages on Soviet tanks. “It's not anti-German, just something funny,” he said.
But aside from the patriotic trappings, he said Victory Day was ultimately about the sacrifice people made for their country.
“Those people didn't think it beneath them to sacrifice their lives,” Podchasov said.