Victory Day Celebrations in Armenia Showcase Russia's Reach
By John Arterbury
The ninth of May is a sacred day across the former Soviet Union. Celebrating Nazi Germany’s signing of its second surrender document in Berlin in 1945, the event has become memorialized as Victory Day in Russia. This is equally true in Armenia and the wider post-Soviet landscape, where Victory Day celebrations honor those who paid the ultimate price in defeating fascism along a frontline that dwarfed that of the Western Allies in France and Italy by an order of magnitude.
Yet an emergent social campaign is seeking to shape these commemorations into its own mold. Amid routine festivities in the Armenian capital of Yerevan this year were participants in the Immortal Regiment, a multinational movement that began in Russia with the goal of commemorating the war in a slightly reimagined, more nationalist light. The Immortal Regiment’s relative popularity illustrates how Russia-adjacent values still find resonance within Armenian society. With the country now sitting at an inflection point following the 2018 Velvet Revolution that displaced the former, notionally more Russia-friendly regime, the movement also showcases the tactics Russia-friendly groups are using to foster a continued shared identity and maintain relevance within Armenia’s social fabric.
Amid celebrations, a new way of remembering war
Commemorations of the war were relatively muted for most of Armenia’s time as a Soviet republic. The USSR only held four Victory Day Parades in its existence, with annual celebrations in Russia beginning in 1995 under then-President Boris Yeltsin. Victory Day parades have since blossomed in size and importance, spreading across the Soviet Union’s former constituent republics. A band of Siberian journalists in Tomsk launched the Immortal Regiment movement in 2012, which now occurs alongside Victory Day commemorations in dozens of countries. Attendees carry portraits of family members who fell in what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War, the stretch of WWII from the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 until the Nazi defeat.
The Immortal Regiment’s appeal is easy to understand, as Armenia’s wartime losses were profound. Precise numbers are uncertain, but one historian estimates that of the approximately 600,000 Armenians who served in the Soviet armed forces, about 200,000 perished. Ethnic Armenians played key roles at some of the Eastern Front’s most pivotal battles, including Stalingrad and Kursk, and Armenian soldiers danced the traditional kochari at the Reichstag’s scorched ruins in Berlin.
Those seeking to trumpet the Russian version of history have found an ally in the movement. Its narrative accords closely with the Russian state’s sanctified memory of WWII, ignoring the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that made Nazi Germany and the USSR one-time collaborators, and glossing over the unsavory gulags and mass deportations that accompanied Soviet war efforts. As Russia contends with what it means to be a post-Soviet state and the distance grows between it and the Soviet Union, the Russian state under President Vladimir Putin has glommed on to the Immortal Regiment, blending it into a new Russian identity in a bid to cultivate state loyalty across generations.
Further heralding this restructured identity, the ribbon of Saint George is often found adorning Immortal Regiment marchers, and Saint George ceremonies have become commonplace in patriotic events. Originally an imperial military symbol showcasing Russian patriotism, the orange-and-black band has in recent years become synonymous with support for Russian foreign policy, including military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Its presence at Immortal Regiment marches has made some Russia-weary neighbors nervous. In 2017, Ukraine banned the ribbon's display as part of a wider campaign to preclude symbols of Russian or former Soviet influence.
Russophile organizations and Russian state media play important roles in perpetuating these tropes and symbols. The Russian-Armenian Youth Union and the Russian Center for Science and Culture handed out St. George ribbons across Yerevan on Victory Day, and Sputnik Armenia devoted coverage to the ribbon-distribution campaign, as well as the Immortal Regiment festivities. Such a template has also played out elsewhere. In neighboring Georgia, the Anti-Fascist Coalition of Multinational Georgia, an umbrella group consisting partly of Russophile organizations, spearheaded the first Immortal Regiment march in Tbilisi.
Lending a uniquely local wrinkle to the festivities in Yerevan, some Immortal Regiment participants also paid tribute to those who have fallen on the frontlines of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, an unrecognized breakaway region of Azerbaijan inhabited by ethnic Armenians. Russian media was also keen to highlight the Immortal Regiment’s range across Armenia, advertising marches in Vanadzor, Kapan, Ijevan, Dilijan, and Armenia’s second city of Gyumri. Given that the Immortal Regiment started in Armenia in 2016, the geographic spread suggests a top-down concerted organizational effort, as well as a bottom-up interest in participating in these commemorations.
The celebrations came during a particularly delicate period in Armenian politics. The collapse of the old-guard authoritarian regime amid popular protests in 2018 gave way to a new system, steered by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, that must balance relations with Russia and the West while charting new territory as a democratically elected coalition government. Doing so requires both appeasing Russia – a key security and economic partner – while also remaining open to further collaboration with the European Union and the United States, which together represent a path forward for many young and educated Armenians. Highlighting this delicate balancing act, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian and Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan headed this year’s Immortal Regiment march.
By propagating the Immortal Regiment and Saint George ribbon ceremonies, Russia-friendly actors hope to solidify social ties between Armenians and Russia. Such celebrations offer a way for Russia-aligned organizations to make inroads into Armenia and other post-Soviet states. By associating WWII’s legacy with the Immortal Regiment, activists likely hope to reinforce ties in the public consciousness between the Russian government and Armenians. With the two inextricably linked, the celebrations honor not only the Armenian dead, but also serve to cement Moscow’s historical canon and legitimize the modern Russian state.
This is especially important for Russia as a new generation of young Armenian leadership emerges. Young people in Armenia may have no direct memory of the Soviet past, and instead have come of age in an era of civil protest – spanning from the Electric Yerevan protests against utility price hikes in 2015 to the Velvet Revolution that overthrew the previous government in 2018 – and increased global exchange. While Russia takes for granted its stature in Armenia on account of military and financial ties, playing up a shared social legacy is potentially a low-effort, high-reward method of guaranteeing continued social influence and shaping the national discourse. How the new government will respond to this complex interplay between Russia and the West could be crucial in charting the country’s future.
John Arterbury is an analyst at the Navanti Group, and former Thailand-based freelance journalist focused on Myanmar security issues. He’s on Twitter at @JohnArterbury.