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Why this soldier is karate chopping a flaming cinderblock to celebrate the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union may have collapsed in 1991, but watching the celebrations that take place every year on February 23 in Russia and several other former Soviet republics, you'd be forgiven for thinking the old empire was still around.

This Tuesday is Defenders of the Fatherland Day, a major Soviet-era holiday honoring the armed forces and military veterans. The holiday's traditions are pretty colorful — as you'll see in the photos below — and its history is an interesting lens into the tremendous changes that Russia has undergone, and hasn't, over the past century.

The holiday was created in 1918, to commemorate the founding of the Red Army, and at first it was known, rather prosaically, as "Red Army Day." It was later changed to "Soviet Army and Navy Day."

For decades, huge parades of people would fill the streets of cities across the Soviet Union to celebrate the glory and might of the Soviet military. Soldiers engaged in public feats of strength such as log throwing, wrestling, and karate chopping a flaming cinderblock suspended on another soldier's shirtless torso. It could be quite the party.

A Belarus Interior Ministry special forces soldier demonstrates his ability to sustain a blow during a competition to mark the Defenders of the Fatherland Day at their training center outside Minsk, on February 23, 2014.
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
A Belarus Interior Ministry service member throws a beam as he takes part in a competition to mark the Defenders of Fatherland Day at their training center near the village of Okolitsa some 30 km outside Minsk, on February 23, 2013.
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
A Belarus Interior Ministry special forces officer encourages his soldier during a competition to mark the Defenders of the Fatherland Day at their training center outside Minsk, on February 23, 2014.
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the holiday became problematic. After all, it had been a big celebration of Soviet might, and now the Soviet Union didn't exist.

This was particularly tricky for former Soviet republics that were not Russia. Writer Evan Ostryzniuk explains that for the new leaders of former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Belarus, a dilemma arose: Celebrating the military power of Soviet Union wasn't exactly appropriate anymore, but people love their traditions, and this was a popular holiday. Some tried to co-opt the holiday to promote nationalism — for example, in Tajikistan it was renamed "Tajik National Army Day."

Then in 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to rename the holiday "Defenders of the Fatherland Day." A number of other former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan, followed suit. It was a friendly, generic name with vague references to a glorious past but without any of that pesky Soviet baggage.

Problem solved, right? Well, not exactly.

The legacy and traditions of the Soviet era run a lot deeper than just the name of the parade. There's a real nostalgia for the days of being a globally respected superpower. So although the name of the holiday may have changed, the celebrations still have a distinctly Soviet feel to them.

Military officers carry the flags of the Russian air force, army, and navy during a march to mark Defenders of the Fatherland Day on February 23, 2001, in Moscow.
Oleg Nikishin/Newsmakers
An activist from the Avant Guard communist youth movement wears a gas mask during a rally devoted to Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23, 2008.
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Communist Party supporters, holding the flag of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, and portrait of former Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin (L) and Vladimir Lenin, take part in a rally to mark Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, on February 23, 2015.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

But it's not just a penchant for large pictures of impressively mustachioed deceased Soviet leaders or giant red banners that makes today's Defenders of the Fatherland Day celebrations feel like a throwback to the Soviet era — though they certainly help. It's also the political context in which these celebrations are taking place — and that context is a Soviet throwback but also something distinctly more modern.

Kyrgyz soldiers take part in a show during a parade devoted to Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Bishkek on February 23, 2012.
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
Kyrgyz honor guards take part in a wreath-laying ceremony marking the upcoming Defenders of the Fatherland Day celebration at the World War II memorial on February 22, 2011, in Bishkek.
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
Kyrgyz soldiers take part in a show during a parade devoted to Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Bishkek on February 23, 2012.
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

Recollections of Soviet leaders, particularly Josef Stalin, have softened a bit in recent years, with even Vladimir Putin now gently praising the dictator whose purges devastated many Soviet families. It's not really a return to Soviet-style communism, but rather part of a longing for a return to greatness.

Vladimir Putin's recent adventurism — annexing Crimea, invading Ukraine, and intervening in Syria — has been popular at home. A 2015 poll showed 83 percent of Russians polled supported the annexation of Crimea, and another poll found that 85 percent were either "very proud" or "somewhat proud" of the Russian military. This, like the Soviet-themed parades, shows a certain nostalgia for the feeling of being a big, proud, militarily powerful country.

Of course, it's not unusual for people to hold parades celebrating their militaries. What is unusual is that these celebrations don't just glorify the current militaries in all these countries; they also clearly hark back to the earlier glory and might of an old military — that of the superpower Soviets.

Russian acting leader of Crimea Sergei Aksyonov holds a model of an AK-47 automatic rifle during the celebration of Defenders of the Fatherland Day in the Crimean city of Simferopol on February 23, 2015.
MAX VETROV/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-Russian separatists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) attend a rally to mark Defenders of the Fatherland Day at Lenin Square in Donetsk on February 23, 2015.
VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-Russian Donetsk residents pose with weaponry as people celebrate Defenders of the Fatherland Day on February 23, 2015, in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin's words at a gala reception a few days ago marking the upcoming Defenders of the Fatherland Day spoke to this.

Addressing the audience as "comrades," Putin extolled the Russian military's long history of serving as "a reliable stronghold of the state, a guarantor of the country’s stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity, a symbol of its national dignity and power." He continued:

We have always tried to resolve all arguments only by political and diplomatic means and on many occasions have helped to stabilise the situation in various countries and regions of the world and to settle violent conflicts. We will strive for this now as well.

A strong Russia using its military to intervene in conflicts around the world in an effort to play a stabilizing force in the world sounds pretty familiar.

But perhaps I'm reading too much into all this. After all, does this look like someone with dreams of power and glory?

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a concert to mark the upcoming Defenders of the Fatherland Day holiday in the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 20, 2014.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

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