“Subject to execution by firing squad!”
The words rang out this weekend in a Siberian field near the border with Kazakhstan.
“The decision is final and cannot be appealed.”
Three men with Kalashnikovs and military uniforms seized a third man wearing peasant clothing and shouting “I repent!” and “They forced me to do it!”
Two shots were fired. The man fell to the ground.
“Death to traitors!” a voice shouted through a microphone, as the crowd began to applaud.
The guns were fake, the man acting, and the WWII uniforms part of a family oriented history festival at which this mock execution was merely one element. But video of it quickly went viral, sparking mockery on Twitter and anger from critics who saw it as further proof of the militarization of Russian society.
“Savage entertainment in the presence of children. A sick country. A sick nation,” wrote a person with the Twitter name ZelloXoxma.
“They’re preparing the population for such scenes. Clearly new lunacy is on the horizon, a repeat of 1937,” wrote Twitter user Kristian Hofer, referring to the peak year of Stalin’s Great Terror.
Others defended the performance.
“What’s savage here? This is history. It’s what happened in our country,” wrote Twitter user Yourcommissar. “People should know so that this doesn’t happen again.”
The mock execution took place on August 24 outside the village of Shipunovo in the Altai region, as part of Dnieper Line, an annual festival of historical reenactments. Now in its second year, the festival features an open-air exhibition of military hardware, musical performances, and the destruction by fire of a makeshift Ukrainian village as part of a reconstruction of the August 1943 Battle of the Dnieper, one of the largest operations of World War II.
The battle reenactment was meant to honor the 14,000 residents of the Shipunovo area who took part in the Dnieper offensive, of whom more than half are estimated to have died fighting. It involved 130 people from historical clubs based in several cities, performing in front of a large audience of families and pensioners. Organizers estimated attendance at 9,000 people.
According to Aleksandr Georgiyev, one of the organizers, the battle reenactment and the mock execution were not meant to represent a specific historical event but rather to be a “collective visual image” from the Red Army counteroffensive against invading Nazi forces between 1941 and 1945.
“This could have happened in real life, or it could be a fictional event,” he told RFE/RL.
The actor whose execution was staged, Georgiyev explained, represented one of the thousands of Soviets who collaborated with the Nazis and were sentenced to death for their betrayal.
“There’s a great saying: ‘You can’t strip a song of its words,'” said Georgiyev, who has participated in historical reenactments since the 1990s. “Such incidents took place throughout [World War II], and after it, too. They executed war criminals and traitors. Those people served the enemy; they betrayed their people and their country.”
During the war, the Red Army executed an estimated 217,000 Soviet citizens, many of them soldiers.
There are hundreds of reenactment clubs in Russia and dozens of historical festivals are staged across the country each summer, with many attracting sizable crowds. In rural areas like Shipunovo, they are particularly popular, Georgiyev said.
Despite the controversy that this year’s festival caused, after it was over many participants posted words of thanks to the organizers on the festival’s page on the Russian social network VK.
“What can I say? We are all hugely impressed by what you do. We watched the battle with tears in our eyes,” wrote Aleksei Biryukov. “My son of 11 years saw with his own eyes, so to speak, how the war looked.”
The mock execution may have shocked many people, especially outside Russia, but such scenes are far from unusual in a country that goes to great lengths to commemorate key episodes of the Soviet campaign in World War II.
During celebrations of Victory Day over Nazi Germany in May, a man dressed in a Wehrmacht uniform was paraded through the center of Nizhny Tagil in a cage, representing a prisoner of war taken by Soviet forces during their counteroffensive on Berlin.
And in Chita last year, a crowd of families with children watched the reconstruction of a day at a German concentration camp, performed by a group of actors dressed as brutal Nazi guards and Jewish and Russian prisoners.
“Together we felt the fear of innocent people, and hatred toward the gleeful fascists,” a presenter said in a news report from the event.
For Georgiyev, such reenactments are a crucial part of Russia’s bid to promote commemoration of the past.
“My grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought in the Great Patriotic War,” he said, using the Russian term for the Eastern Front of World War II. “And I need to safeguard the memory of them for my children and grandchildren.”