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A banner with the image of the “grandmother with the Soviet flag.” Shebekino, Belgorod region.

‘It’s a reference to the USSR — to its return’ Why is the Kremlin incorporating Soviet symbols into its war propaganda?

Source: Meduza
A banner with the image of the “grandmother with the Soviet flag.” Shebekino, Belgorod region.
A banner with the image of the “grandmother with the Soviet flag.” Shebekino, Belgorod region.
Evgeny Silantyev / TASS

Russia’s war propaganda has begun co-opting Soviet symbols with increasing frequency. Monuments to the “grandmother with the Soviet flag,” for example, have popped up across the country. And both Kremlin officials and propaganda narratives continue to frame Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as an extension of the “Great Patriotic War.” Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev looked into the Kremlin’s “Soviet” agitprop and learned how it’s connected to Moscow’s drive to annex new territories.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Russian authorities have begun actively using Soviet symbols in their propaganda. Indeed, the traditional May 9th Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square is set to include military vehicles flying red flags (instead of the flags of the different military formations). 

In cities across Russia, monuments, billboards, and graffiti have appeared, all dedicated to the “grandmother with the Soviet flag” — an elderly Ukrainian woman who, as seen in a viral video, greeted Ukrainian soldiers with a Soviet flag, after mistaking them for Russian troops. (Ukrainian media later reported that the elderly woman and her husband had fled to Kharkiv after their home came under Russian shelling.) 

Putin’s domestic policy czar Sergey Kiriyenko and senior United Russia member Andrey Turchak attended the unveiling of another (plastic) monument to the “grandmother with the Soviet flag” in Mariupol on May 4. 

“DNR and LNR servicemen, [and] Russian servicemen, are finishing the battle that our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers waged against Nazism […] For Russia, this is the country’s mission — to ensure a world free from Nazism. Now another symbol has been added — Grandma Anya. She has become a living symbol of the continuity of generations, of the continuity of the battle against Nazism and fascism. She has become a grandmother for all of the Donbas, for all of Russia,” Kiriyenko said. 

In addition, Soviet banners have been spotted in Ukrainian cities occupied by Russian troops on multiple occasions. On April 7, for example, United Russia’s Andrey Turchak and the leader of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” Denis Pushilin hung a Soviet Victory Banner from the local administration building in occupied Rozivka (a small town in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region). In other occupied cities, Russian forces have also put statues of Vladimir Lenin back up (Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Lenin created modern-day Ukraine). 

A DNR military vehicle in Mariupol
Petr Kovalev / TASS
A mural in Moscow dedicated to the 77th anniversary of victory in World War II
Sergey Bobylev / TASS

Meduza’s sources close to Putin’s administration emphasize that Russia’s use of Soviet symbols is no accident. As one of them explained, this is a logical continuation of the authorities’ rhetoric about fighting “Nazis” in Ukraine.

“The term ‘Nazism’ automatically evokes a whole series of associations. Including designs and symbols: ‘Let’s repeat the feat of our grandfathers.’ This is a role-playing game between ‘our people’ and the ‘Germans’,” the source explained. 

Restoring monuments to Lenin follows the same logic, but comes with an “additional symbolic weight.” “Ukraine, the Western world, is like Mordor. The first thing Mordor did was destroy monuments to Ilyich [Vladimir Lenin], drive out [all things] Soviet. And their restoration is a symbol that Mordor has been driven out. Lenin is a symbol of victory over Mordor,” said a Meduza source close to Putin’s administration. 

“There are no other [symbols],” another source emphasized. In his opinion, a Soviet symbol is the “only unifying framework” for Russian citizens over 45–50, who make up the “core support” for both the authorities and the war. “It’s not that this core support is crumbling, but that there’s nothing else that unites it,” he asserted. 

That said, Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin had diverging opinions on the effectiveness of this “Soviet” propaganda campaign. For example, one source said that “after looking at red flags, stars, [and] grandmothers with flags, [Russians] will simply head to their country homes to relax.” “People don’t have the kind of problems right now for them to be seriously inspired by the Soviet past or the battle against Nazism,” he added. 

Nevertheless, according to Meduza’s sources, one of the options on the table for the Victory Day parade in Moscow would include a broadcast from Mariupol, during which the puppet authorities would once again raise the issue of the Donbas “people’s republics” becoming part of Russia. Sources also said the issue of Russia annexing the occupied Kherson region could also be raised in the same broadcast. 

As Meduza reported previously, Kremlin officials are hashing out plans to stage sham referendums on annexing these regions as early as in mid-May. The Washington Post later corroborated this information, citing U.S. intelligence findings.

At the same time, a Meduza source close to United Russia’s leadership said the “referendums” could be postponed until the fall, when they could be timed to coincide with Russia’s regional elections scheduled for September 11. 

Meduza’s sources also said that another “referendum” on Russia annexing South Ossetia could also be staged in the same time period. (This comes after authorities in the unrecognized breakaway state announced impending “legal steps” towards joining Russia.) Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and United Russia’s press office did not respond to Meduza’s questions prior to publication. 

According to Meduza’s sources, these official actions fit perfectly into the overall strategy Russia launched on February 24. As one source succinctly stated: “It’s a reference to the USSR — to its return.” 

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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