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Russia's Victory Day parade bolsters nationalism

In a country with no unifying ideology beyond its World War II victory, parade honors history while overlooking tensions of today.

Last month, Vasily Smirnov, head of the military’s mobilization directorate, even suggested raising the draft age to 30 in a bid to make more men eligible.

Victory Day is the one day the problems of modern Russia can be swept aside, reaching for glory in a past of which every Russian can be proud.

“The Great Patriotic War will never be reduced to a mere calendar date from the past for our nation — a date printed on postcards and showing up occasionally in battle scenes in films,” Medvedev said in a video posted on his official blog on the eve of the anniversary.

For some, it’s still a past that is fraught with tension.

The government, eager to play down a scandal over celebrating the role of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, rolled out the big guns ahead of the parade, with Medvedev giving an interview to Russian newspaper Izvestiya in which he called the Soviet Union “totalitarian” and insisted that “it cannot be said that Stalinism is returning to our daily life.”

“Despite the fact that he worked a lot, and despite the fact that under his leadership the country recorded many successes, what was done to his own people cannot be forgiven,” Medvedev said.

Yet Russia has still to undertake a true national dialogue about Stalin’s role — this year’s conflict came down to whether the Moscow government would hang posters of the dictator on city streets. (A city bus in St Petersburg was adorned with Stalin’s image, but was reportedly financed by a local blogger, who rented the bus’s advertising space.) School textbooks used throughout Russia, and endorsed by Putin, praise Stalin’s role both as a war strategist and efficient leader, downplaying the mass crimes he committed against his people.

This year, Russian leaders went to great lengths to hype the role of the Allies, which are known here as the “anti-Hitler coalition.” For the first time ever, U.S. troops, as well as French, Polish and British troops, marched on Red Square. Medvedev issued a call for unity at the parade, and President Barack Obama, in an interview with Russian state-run TV, praised the move.

It was criticized by Russia’s Communist and nationalist parties, with the Communist Party distributing fliers that read “NATO is a drug! It has no place in the Victory Parade!”

Russia’s role in the war is still presented as paramount. Whereas schoolchildren in the West learn about the “western and eastern fronts,” Russian children learn about “the front” (where Russia fought) and the “second front” (where everyone else fought). Considering the symbolic importance the government places on the May 9 holiday, it will likely remain that way for years to come.