Victory Day, Moscow 2006

Can a Westerner understand the Russian people’s love of strong leaders?

MOSCOW—I live in a Stalin-era building built 64 years ago by German prisoners of war. This is one of the first things my real-estate broker, 23-year-old Elenora, told me about my building before it was actually my building. In Moscow real-estate circles, “Stalin” and “German” add value: They connote quality and sturdiness; they suggest an aesthetic missing from the flimsier, five-story Khrushchovki built after the war.

The apartment building is massive and beige. Square towers rise out of the concrete trunk like a medieval castle. On the ground floor, there is an overpriced, 24-hour grocery story and a Citibank. Crumbling balconies, some bearing miniature satellite dishes, peer down at the Garden Ring, the 15- to 18-lane monstrosity that encircles the city center. For no obvious reason, men in suits and turtlenecks often roam around outside. This is the same species of stiff you see in hotel lobbies, restaurant vestibules, and nightclubs everywhere in the city.

On Victory Day, May 9, the Garden Ring, usually clogged with traffic, was empty. Police officers and militia in sundry shades of camouflage—blue-gray, hunter green, green-puce—clustered, clot-like, outside the grocery store smoking cigarettes and harassing the cab drivers from the Caucasus. Red-orange flags with five-point stars and hammers and sickles festooned both sides of the street. I tried to convince several cab drivers parked outside to take me to work, but every artery between my apartment and the newspaper office, just north of the Garden Ring, had been closed for the parades.

Victory Day commemorates the victory over the fascists. Most of the Russians I know speak about it in personal terms. Victory Day is for remembering the sacrifices, miseries, and braveries of people in their own families: my grandfather who was killed in battle at Volgograd, my mother who suffered through the Leningrad siege, my father whose village was razed. Naturally, the government (first the Soviets, then the Russians) has always portrayed Victory Day as something more abstract. The personal accomplishments of tens of millions of Russians are melded into a great, collective accomplishment. Each loss is fused into a single mourning. A wartime solidarity is re-experienced. A powerful, even primal, emotion is summoned, and that emotion is channeled into a commemoration of a war that, like all nostalgias, almost certainly didn’t happen the way it is remembered.

Last year, Victory Day was big. The 60th anniversary of the 1945 Nazi defeat gave President Vladimir Putin a chance to host a grand celebration that included, for the first time, the German chancellor. Other world leaders, including President Bush, also attended the Red Square ceremonies. The Lithuanians and Estonians stayed home—they don’t believe the war really ended until the 1991 Soviet collapse—and the Latvians probably regretted that their president accepted the Kremlin’s invitation. But the general tenor of the festivities was positive, if somber, injecting some staying power into a holiday that has, inevitably, lost some of its currency with the passing of the years.

This year, Victory Day’s slide toward oblivion resumed. Thousands turned up for the parades, speeches, and demonstrations in central Moscow. Millions tuned in to the Soviet-era war movies that played on state-run TV stations. But there was less excitement than in 2005, and the distractions of the popular culture seemed to crowd out the state-sponsored mythologies that once shaped the public consciousness.

For 15 years, at least, a cultural-cognitive gap has been growing between the people and the state. That space is a manifestation of the public’s alienation from its government. Attempts to paper over that alienation, to foist a new solidarity on an old people, are absurd. The people, especially the young people who are impervious to the old dogma, know this.

So, too, does the president, who’s not a Soviet premier so much as a tsar, dispensing with ideology and reappropriating the powers of 19th-century imperialism. Whether it’s single-handedly rerouting massive oil pipelines or reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, Putin has not so much resurrected a dead superstate as responded to Russians’ long-festering desire for a “strong hand.”

And so the day after Victory Day, the president gave his State of the Nation address and told Russians that they need to have more babies. Noting that the population has been declining—from roughly 150 million in the early 1990s to 140 million today—he mapped out a series of financial incentives for women to have more children.

Whether more Russians women will become mothers for the sake of the motherland is unknown. There is, of course, something odd about a president telling his people to make more babies—procreation tends to be a personal matter. But this is not how tsars think. And the Russian people—most of them, at least—love their tsar.

I don’t understand this love. I don’t know why so many Russians I’ve met think their leaders are extensions of themselves, like arms or toes or earlobes. After all, they have less power to choose their leaders than we do in the United States.

This is what I thought when my real-estate broker told me that German prisoners of war had built my apartment building, when a dictator who killed tens of millions of his own people was vodzh—the great leaderand that this makes my apartment more valuable. She smiled at me when I asked if anyone thought it a bit eerie living in a place that smelled of a violent past. Did this make the building tainted perhaps? “You can’t do better for this price,” she said—a bit smugly, I should add.