Modern times, fancy anniversaries — it’s as if we wouldn’t trust ourselves with remembering a person or an event unless we had a specific date in the calendar reserved for that.

Anniversaries arrive with a predetermined mood: grief, gratitude, sadness, anger, or a combination of all of the above and more. The mood: we choose it instinctively, responding to how we feel, and when our gut feeling clashes with the opinions of others, we get upset. This is why controversy always clouds national holidays — what is it that we are celebrating and what is the right way to mark the day.

But there are controversies and controversies. Historic dates have been on the calendar long enough for most communities to get tired of arguing about their meaning, and as often as not we agree to disagree in an amiable fashion. (“What are you doing for XYZ Day?” “XYZ Day? Nothing.” “Hmm. Strange. We always have a picnic.”).

This spring in Russia, however, the debate surrounding the celebrations of the 71st anniversary of the 1945 Victory Day in Europe (known as V-Day) developed into a storm. Russian Main Street closed ranks behind President Vladimir Putin and his interpretation of the holiday; the opposition angrily disagreed.

In the course of World War II, 30 million Soviets died; two-thirds of them civilians; many at the hands of Joseph Stalin’s political police, or because Stalin’s government chose to let them starve to death, when it fit the government’s plans. Virtually every family in the country got mauled or uprooted.

One would think that a catastrophe of that magnitude should be remembered with sorrow or anger, and that if it is to be collectively celebrated at all, it should be a minute of silence, a private “horror, horror; never again” moment. But that was not what the leaders of the Soviet Union wanted.

The remembrance ceremony they chose was a military parade in Red Square. The choice was not unexpected: dictatorships see triumphs where their citizens live a tragedy. Listen to the Soviet propaganda and the victory in WWII had justified every crime of the Stalinist regime.

After the Soviet Union fell apart and Russia had a new start, for several years there were no military parades. But the humanism of the early 1990s proved as short-lived as flowers in May. As the creeping authoritarian counterrevolution claimed Russia, the show returned.

Still, for some years parades remained a formality, a regular sounding of patriotic bells and whistles that didn’t necessarily reverberate with the people. This spring, the show became popular and frightening.

This time, the Kremlin propaganda resonated with millions of Russians already high on the imperialist surge with Crimea annexed, Ukraine messed up and Syria penetrated.

The new synergy between the regime and the people brought about jingoist hysteria, the 2016 V-Day venerated religiously, as if the very survival of the Russian state depended on choosing the right way to commemorate it. Again, this was not a jubilee, just an anniversary with an uninspiring number, so the hullabaloo was not about WWII per se, but about Russia and its exceptional place in the world.

The least unpredictable component of the campaign has been the de facto rehabilitation of Stalin and Stalinism. Hundreds of Stalin’s portraits in the streets of Moscow mixed with images of Putin, and in the republic of Chechnya in the Caucasus with the portraits of its trigger-happy warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov (one almost wondered what had happened to Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader).

Almost every person in the celebrating crowds wore a black-and-orange ribbon, the colors of the czarist St. George’s Medal. Inexplicably, the ribbon had come to symbolize support for Putin and Russian military allover.

Not just inexplicable, choosing a czarist symbol to honor the Red Army of 1941-1945 was perverse. As many commentators noted with unbelief, any Red Army soldier who might have fancied putting the St. George’s ribbon on his chest would’ve been immediately arrested as an enemy of the people (if not shot on the spot). Yet, on the eve of the 2016 V-Day, some government agencies had warned their employees that if they didn’t come to work wearing a St. George, they would lose their jobs.

As a Russian saying goes, “Make a fool bow to the Lord, and he will bruise his forehead.” There will always be overzealous administrators issuing silly decrees, and instances of that sort do not necessarily tell us anything interesting about Russian politics. But the grass-roots’ role in the jingoist campaign of this spring certainly does.

Russian Main Street welcomed V-Day with the enthusiasm reminiscent of the worst nationalistic movements in the history of Eurasia: patriotism indistinguishable from aggressiveness, pride bearing malice, state deified, the leader of the country worshipped.

The mass hysteria surrounding the holiday this time was more fitting for an eschatological cult than anything else, and the kind of hate speech the new patriots used was scandalous. Banners, stickers and T-shirts with anything xenophobic sold like hot cakes. You entered the social media — hatred was there too.

One meme leers: “Let’s go get German chicks!” (the reference point here is a vile crime — the Red Army’s rape of Europe in 1945). Another vouches an attack on the United States and then a party on the ruins of the American capital (yes, a party). But what epitomizes the May madness is the slogan of the new patriots: “1941-1945: We did it then, we can do it now.”

But who are those “we,” and what do they promise to do?

The jingoists choose to ignore the fact that the 1941-1945 tragedy (OK, by their lights, triumph) belonged not to Russia, but to the Soviet Union, and that every nation that happened to be part of the USSR at the time had been part of the war effort. Take the Central Asian republics — the five “stans” of today: extremely remote from the war zone, in 1941-1945 they still bled white. Not only were their men dying on the front; the republics were also forced to share their depleted resources with the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

As for the “we can do it again” part, no one is going to invade Russia, so the pledge is not about national defense. But if you take out resistance to foreign invasion from the Soviet WWII story, the rest of the legacy is plain appalling: blindly obeying a whimsical dictator despite all his blunders and follies, exterminating your own people who dare voice dissent and annexing neighboring countries, or chunks of their territory.

Ironically, the people who put the “did it then — can do it now” sticker on their cars — mostly foreign-made cars, it must be said — are poor soldier material. The new patriot grew up in the culture of conspicuous consumerism; he is a spoiled brat who is unlikely to volunteer for war. So far, his sacrifice has been limited to bullying minorities, singing Red Army songs and wearing a ribbon stolen from a different narrative.

It’s going to be instructive to see how Putin will now handle the overexcited masses. He is their inspiration and their guide, but he always keeps his distance. Unlike most authoritarians, Putin is not a leader of a movement, but a lone wolf, and he distrusts crowds.

Up till now, the new patriot has been a highly valuable citizen of Putin’s regime: he votes, he approves, he adores. Yet all this can change. Yesterday the battle cry of the mob was “Let’s go get German chicks,” tomorrow it may become “Shoot the thieves in the government.” Dr. Frankenstein, please meet your monster.

Russian-American writer Constantine Pleshakov’s books include “The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima” and “Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front.”

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