Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, thousands of images showing Russian soldiers and vehicles have emerged online. Some of these images shocked viewers when they saw the flag of the Soviet Union waving on some Russian military equipment. For residents of Ukraine, a former part of the Soviet Union, the flag may represent “an expression of a desire to repress them”, according to a post-Soviet politics specialist who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team.
A red flag emblazoned with a gold hammer and sickle in the top left – the symbol of the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during its existence from 1922 to 1991. The Soviet union spanned Eurasia, made up of republics including current-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as well as other Eastern European and Central Asian countries.
Today, the flag is still used to represent communism and socialism. Most recently, it has appeared on at least four separate Russian military vehicles in videos of taken in Ukraine since the invasion began on February 24.
A T-72B3 tank with a roof screen, a “Z” marker, and a Soviet flag driving along the Dnieper.https://t.co/0j1961OoEw pic.twitter.com/rx26hsOX5l
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) February 25, 2022
A video posted on Twitter on February 25, 2022 shows a line of Russian military vehicles in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, identified by the white Z’s which are painted on Russian vehicles to distinguish them from Ukrainian equipment. One of them is brandishing a Soviet flag.
‘Soviet flags on vehicles should not be taken as an expression of a Russian policy of re-establishing Soviet power, but of re-establishing Russian domination over Ukraine’Dr. Mark Beissinger, professor of politics at Princeton University, specialises in Soviet and post-Soviet studies. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team why these flags may be appearing alongside Russian troops.
These scattered instances of Soviet flags on vehicles should not be taken as an expression of a Russian policy of re-establishing Soviet power, but of re-establishing Russian domination over Ukraine.
These [videos] look like examples of individual Russian soldiers attaching these flags to their tanks and vehicles. There may even be some communists among the rank-and-file of the army (The Communist Party of Russia received 19% of the vote in the last elections). There certainly were communists among the rebels in eastern Ukraine […] After all, the Donbas republics are called “people’s republics” – the same terminology that the Soviets used in controlling foreign states within their empire.
Footage from a Russian perspective of Rosgvardia’s BTR-80 APC targeting the Ukrainian positions with 14.5mm KPVT & 7.62mm PKT machine guns. Reportedly near Kharkiv.https://t.co/DxEOPXsKDg pic.twitter.com/z4Yj3ScAEr
— Status-6 (@Archer83Able) March 7, 2022
A video posted on Twitter on March 7, 2022 shows a Soviet flag (visible from 0:30) on a Russian armoured personnel carrier, reportedly in the region of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.
Yet, these republics [of Donbas] are tightly controlled from Moscow, and Putin has consistently tried to distance himself from the Soviet past, other than regretting the collapse of the empire and the loss of Russian control over it. [Editor’s note: Putin, in 2005, called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”.]
In a speech on February 21, when Putin recognised the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Donbas in southeastern Ukraine, the Russian president described Ukraine as an integral part of his country’s history.
[Putin] strongly criticizes the Soviet Union for having created a separate Ukrainian federal unit in the first place. He called instead for going back to a pre-Soviet Russian imperial past in which Ukraine was simply a part of Russia.
“Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia,” Putin said in his speech on February 21.
Calling its actions in Ukraine a “special operation”, the Kremlin has denied that the invasion is an attempt to occupy the former Soviet territory.
A Soviet flag was even spotted on an armoured vehicle in a video from the Russian Ministry of Defence and broadcast on their television channel Zvezda, identified by the red star logo in the top right of the video.
Video from the Russian MoD’s Zvezda allegedly showing Russian troops in Ukraine. Note the prominent Soviet flag on the BMP-2.https://t.co/fEgYZ6tlvj pic.twitter.com/DUPYakjAv9
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) March 9, 2022
Video published on March 9, 2022 by the TV channel of the Russian Ministry of Defence, showing a Soviet flag on a Russian tank.
‘For older Ukrainians in particular, Soviet symbols remind them of the violence and famine of the 1930s, when millions of Ukrainians died’Beissinger explained how some people living in post-Soviet states may interpret this flag.
With the exception of Belarus (where Soviet symbols have been incorporated by the Lukashenko regime), the reception of the Soviet flag and Soviet symbols in most post-Soviet states would be seen as strongly provocative – in some ways, a denial of the post-Soviet state system in its current form. For older Ukrainians in particular, Soviet symbols remind them of the violence and famine of the 1930s, when millions of Ukrainians died, the guerrilla struggles against Soviet rule in Western Ukraine after World War II, and the extensive attempts by the Soviet regime to assimilate Ukrainians by denying them access to Ukrainian language schooling.
Most Ukrainians today never experienced Soviet power. But they certainly know about it well from school, the media, and their parents and relatives. And for most of them, what they know about that history would make them view Soviet symbols as an expression of a desire to repress them.