Putin’s war of words, decoded

tags: Russia, Putin, WW II

Elizabeth Wood is the author of two books, "Performing Justice: Agitation Trials in Early Soviet Russia" (Cornell University Press, 2005) and "The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia" (Indiana University Press, 1997).  She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1991 in the field of Soviet History. Her current work centers on the performance of power under Vladimir Putin in Russia today.

On Feb. 20, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin handed out medals in a special ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II, the war Russians know as The Great Patriotic War. This would not be so remarkable – he has handed out literally dozens of such medals over his years in power – were it not for the visual montage on his kremlin.ru Web site. There he is pictured standing in front of guards bearing banners that read “First Ukrainian Front,” “Second Ukrainian Front,” “Third Ukrainian Front,” and “Fourth Ukrainian Front.” On the one hand, these are the banners of those receiving the medals. On the other hand, the message seems designed to signal that the Kremlin leadership still considers Ukraine an integral part of the nation.

Officially, he gave out the medals as part of the “run-up” to the Feb. 23 holiday, the Day of the Defense of the Motherland (the holiday known as Red Army Day in Soviet times). While this was probably planned many months in advance, it is also striking for the contrast to Ukrainian celebrations on the same day. In Kiev, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainians commemorated a completely different day, the moment the Maidan protests turned bloody. On this day, according to the BBC, over 50 people were killed last year after Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, now reputed to be in Crimea, gave the order for troops to use live ammunition on demonstrators.

Putin’s language at the ceremony was filled with archaic words and phrases (here is the Russian transcript). Of course, it was natural for him to speak of honoring those receiving medals, but his wording included ancient phrases for warriors [ratnaia sluzhba; voiny]; for honoring both individuals [chestvuem] and “the uniform” [berezhet chest’ mundira]; for not allowing the enemy to subdue Russia [pokorit’ Rossiiu]; and for defending every last inch [piad’] of our native land. (The word translated as “inch” – piad’ – comes from the 12th century and means the distance between the outstretched tip of the thumb and the tip of the forefinger.)

He spoke to the veterans of their “moral tempering” [moral’naia zakalka], a reference to the famous Stalin-era “tempering of the steel.” (In one famous Soviet “Song about Stalin,” Stalin is said to have “tempered the hearts of heroes.”) And he commended them for their work with youth, which he described as “active, patriotic, and educational,” so the youth would know the “truth” [pravdu] about the Great Patriotic War.

At a Gala reception the same evening, Putin equated defending the nation in the war with defending its history today: “These are not just historical facts. These are the memory that lives in every Russian family, and this is our Victory [Pobeda], our history, which we will defend [otstaivat’] from lies and from being forgotten.” Otstaivat’ can mean to defend in conversation, but in the context of Victory with a capital V [not even translated in the English version of kremlin.ru], it clearly means a military engagement, the defending of a nation from an aggressor, be it internal or external. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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