McColgan on Hicks, 'Victory Banner Over the Reichstag: Film, Document and Ritual in Russia's Contested Memory of World War II'

Jeremy Hicks
Patrick McColgan

Jeremy Hicks. Victory Banner Over the Reichstag: Film, Document and Ritual in Russia's Contested Memory of World War II. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020. 296 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4650-2.

Reviewed by Patrick McColgan (San Diego State University) Published on H-War (January, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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What do iconic images represent? Do they commemorate and preserve major events, or do they establish narratives? Moreover, how do these narratives come about, what is their function in society, and how do they impact a society’s interpretation of itself? These are questions the developing field of memory studies attempts to answer; and Jeremy Hicks, professor of Russian culture and film at Queen University of London, has examined those questions in regard to World War II memories in the Soviet Union and Russia.

Hicks’s book, The Victory Banner over the Reichstag, explores how Soviet and Russian leaders used an iconic image of Red Army soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Berlin Reichstag to influence memories of World War II. Known as the “Victory Banner,” that flag and the image of its raising came from the Soviet government’s search for an emotionally powerful image that could symbolically and positively represent victory in World War II. Through repeated media depictions, Soviet and Russian leaders created a “Victory Cult” that gave the Victory Banner powerful emotional resonance and restricted public memories of World War II for political needs. Hicks’s book aims to “show the mechanics of how the Victory Cult was constructed” (p. 221) by “understanding how the symbol functions, how it has evolved, how it acquired the power it now wields, and what effects this particular ‘memory construct’ has in contemporary Russia” (p. 9).

By examining the Victory Banner’s history and its use in film, Hicks argues that Soviet and Russian war memory was never stagnant, but evolved in times of crisis and change to fulfill the government’s political needs. Depictions of the Victory Banner reflected that evolution. Under Joseph Stalin, Soviet leaders attributed victory to Stalin directly. Thus early Soviet war memory and depictions of the Victory Banner served the Stalin cult by legitimizing his rule. Nikita Khrushchev tried to de-Stalinize Soviet war memory by attributing victory to the Soviet people, but the Communist Party appropriated the Victory Banner’s symbolism. Under Leonid Brezhnev the banner represented a “Victory Cult” that used victory to legitimize Communist Party rule. During Glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to demythologize the banner and Boris Yeltsin tried to abandon it entirely in the 1990s, but a lack of new unifying symbols or traditions hampered these efforts. In modern Russia, the Victory Banner’s emotional dominance endures thanks to Vladimir Putin’s promotion of a mythologized national history that restores national pride.

Hicks makes his argument with a concise and well-organized methodology that utilizes history, memory studies, cultural studies, media studies, and political science. He examines the Victory Banner’s raising to establish the facts and nuances behind the event and its political implications. He also analyzes successive Soviet and Russian regimes’ contemporary histories to reveal their ideological and political needs. This provides context for the bulk of Hicks’s research, which can best be described as a historiography of Soviet and Russian war films. He largely relies on film as that was where the banner’s symbolic construction played out and because ordinary Russians were unlikely to see that construct due to “the success of the symbol and the narrative of the war it conveys” (p. 15). He uses unpublished studio debates and decisions to reveal the construction of the symbol and narrative, as well as film reviews to illustrate how effectively those symbols and narratives were received. Discarded footage, which indicated what the filmmakers deemed unimportant, was valuable for providing possible alternative narratives.

Hicks is not the first historian to examine Soviet and Russian war memories or symbols, but he is the first to examine the Victory Banner and the narrative it represents. This work not only helps advance the field of memory studies, but also provides context for current events. In Putin’s plan to restore national pride through a mythologized national history, World War II functions as “the holy of holies” (p. 5). Therefore, understanding modern Russia requires an understanding of how Russians perceive themselves and their history, and Hicks’s book helps fulfill that need by examining part of the ideological rhetoric Putin has used to justify his authoritarianism, his defiance of the West, and the war in Ukraine. The history of the Victory Banner and the Victory Cult also reveals the importance of objective, fact-based history; it challenges authoritarians and preserves democracy by facilitating discussion, public debate, and dissenting views.

Ultimately, Hicks succeeds in his stated purpose. His comprehensive examination of sources on the Victory Banner’s symbolic and memory construct, and the historical contexts they came from, leaves no doubt as to how the symbol functioned and evolved. Furthermore, utilizing multiple fields of study enables him to analyze numerous aspects of the symbol from multiple perspectives, making for a more concise analysis. While Hicks’s analysis of Soviet films, filming techniques, and the regimes’ political needs sometimes dominates the narrative and distracts from the Victory Banner, he links everything together in the end. The Victory Banner Over the Reichstag is sure to be a boon to the field of memory studies and an insightful read for students and scholars of multiple fields.

Citation: Patrick McColgan. Review of Hicks, Jeremy, Victory Banner Over the Reichstag: Film, Document and Ritual in Russia's Contested Memory of World War II. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

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