Recent photos show Russia’s Soviet past becoming mainstreamed as a rallying point for invading troops in Ukraine as the Kremlin’s objectives become increasingly vague.
The above image is the latest of several recent images showing overt leftist emblems used on the battlefield in Ukraine. The relief at top right shows Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin. The trio were frequently grouped together as godheads of the Soviet political system.
In the opening weeks of the invasion, a handful of Soviet flags flown from Russian tanks were documented in amateur footage. But a recent surge in professional photos of Soviet symbols released through Kremlin-funded media indicates a possible widespread embrace of the aesthetic among Russia’s military.
Ian Garner, a historian and expert of Russian war propaganda, says the adoption of Soviet imagery is largely the initiative of individual soldiers and units but it’s being implicitly encouraged through recent Kremlin-funded “propaganda events like concerts, television shows, and so forth.”
The military investigator above wears a patch featuring Josef Stalin and the words, “When I was in power this s*** didn’t happen.”
Garner believes Soviet symbols have been embraced partly as a rallying point for an invasion whose goals have become increasingly unclear.
“Even though individual soldiers may not identify with the state’s claimed goals for war or be able to describe the geopolitical aims or national security strategies that the [Putin] regime lays out,” Garner said.
“They bond around these sorts of aesthetics, the aesthetics of the past that reach towards the creation of a supposedly utopian future in which Russia will be a great power once again.”
The above banner references an incident in the opening days of the Russian invasion in 2022 in which an elderly Ukrainian women emerged from her village house welcoming what she thought were Russian soldiers. The fighters were in fact Ukrainians, who gave the woman food before trampling the flag.
The woman has been widely used by pro-war Russian media outlets as a symbol of what the Kremlin claims is support for the invasion within Ukraine.
Garner does not believe the Soviet imagery indicates a goal of literally resurrecting the Marxist political system that destroyed countless Russian lives through the 20th century. “I would say that very few people in Russia really want to restore the Soviet Union,” he said.
Recent polls have indicated more Russians identify with the long-dead Soviet Union than with independent Russia. But Garner points to the incongruous appearance of both Tsarist-era and communist symbols seen together on the battlefield in Ukraine as indication that Soviet imagery is nothing more than a symbol of a former era.
“None of it makes sense unless you understand that it is a politically incoherent expression of a desire to go back to a better time,” the historian says. “But of course, we’re talking about a better time that never really actually existed.”/Rferl/