More than twenty million Russians lost their lives in the fight against Hitler’s forces in the Second World War, more than any other country involved in the conflict. Given that, it’s understandable that their nation’s victory would be a source of pride and the memory of those who fell would be an important part of their national identity. Thus, a tradition called Victory Day evolved over the years in which Russians remembered the ninth of May—the day that the Soviet Union defeated their German foes in 1945—as a chance to honor those who died for the motherland.
Recently, however, Victory Day has taken on a bit of a different feel. As the Washington Post‘s David Filipov describes, the Russian government has transformed what was once a relatively solemn affair into a nationwide celebration in an “effort to portray his [Putin’s] regime as the logical outcome of the country’s history.” It now comes complete with military parades, tanks, and ballistic missiles traveling across Red Square to massive cheers from the surrounding crowds. Essentially, Putin wants those crowds to see him as the heir to everything that made Russia strong and important in their heyday.
As Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at Carnegie Moscow Center, described, “War is one of the things that legitimize the Putin regime: it names itself the inheritor of the victory that is sacred for all Russians, and therefore, the government is above all criticism. If you criticize the government, you are criticizing Russia.” Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinksy, helped to verify Kolesnikov’s assessment when he stated that “The facts themselves don’t mean too much . . . If you love your motherland, your people, history, what you will be writing will always be positive.” That’s how you can get a president with a national approval rating consistently over eighty percent whose goal is essentially to take Russia back to the height of its Cold War prominence—a height often achieved at the expense of its people’s rights and lives.
While it would be easy, and justified, to criticize such an approach, it’s important to remember that all countries are guilty of that from time to time. We tend to glorify the past without remembering that events were hardly ever as unequivocally praiseworthy as they seem. After all, it’s natural that we prefer to think of our country—and thus, to some extent, ourselves—as the heroes of history’s biggest moments.
When we gloss over the messy details in the pursuit of a more appealing narrative, however, we run the very real risk of repeating or, worse, justifying the mistakes of the past. The fact that sometimes those messy details were required to achieve a greater good doesn’t mean they are to be celebrated. Necessary evils do exist, but we must never forget that they remain evil.
War is among the greatest examples of that truth. As John Stuart Mill once wrote, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.” So we should celebrate and honor the bravery of those who were willing to fight and die in defense of something greater than themselves, but we must never do so without also remembering the inherent tragedy behind the fact that such a sacrifice was necessary in the first place.
When violence becomes anything but a last resort, we have crossed a line from which it can be difficult to return. Scripture is clear that God loves all people and longs to have a saving relationship with each of us—the kind of relationship that would make war far less common (Romans 5:8, John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9).
Killing is always tragic, even when it’s necessary. The day we forget that will bode ill for our country and for our witness. We have been called to love others as God loves them, whether they are our enemies, our friends, or anywhere in between (John 13:34–35, Matthew 5:44–45). How will you live that out today?