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11 May 2015

Victory Day in Russia: why use a huge military display to commemorate peace?

Cutting through the patriotism in Russia's Victory Day march.

By jana Bakunina

Every country has a national holiday which defines it. For Russia, it is Victory Day, celebrating the end of the Great Patriotic War, as the World War II is referred to by the Russians. When the peace treaty had been signed late on 8 May, 1945 in Berlin, Moscow (being in a different time zone) received the news in the early hours of 9 May. For the past 70 years, 9 May has been a public holiday in the Soviet Union and now in Russia, celebrating victory over Nazis and remembering all those who had died, defending their Motherland.

I grew up in the Soviet Union with stories of sacrifice, courage and patriotism, conveyed through books and films. War games were popular among children, collecting toy soldiers and tanks and fighting each other with snow balls in winter. Every year my parents took me to the city centre to see the fireworks on 9 May. Later we met there with friends and drank beer getting tipsy under the bright, magical lights in the spring sky. With the passing years, the memories of the veterans of 1941-1945 are becoming more precious. Soviet Union lost some 27m people in the Great Patriotic War, and no family remained unaffected. Some people fought on the front lines, some worked three shifts a day to supply the army. As such, the scale of the 70-year anniversary of the Victory Day should come as no surprise.

By 3pm on Saturday, 9 May, a large crowd gathered at the Belorusskiy Vokzal in Moscow ready to march along the Tverskaya Street all the way to the Red Square. Unperturbed by the five kilometre distance and encouraged by the splendid weather, people brought their children, some barely months old. Older people appeared with walking sticks, determined to be part of the “Immortal Regiment”, as the march was named. Nearly everyone carried black-and-white photos of their grandparents neatly stuck on handheld poster frames, expediously supplied to Moscow stores. Ubiquitous festive St George’s ribbons, their black and orange stripes representing traditional military decorations awarded by Imperial, Soviet and modern Russia, reflected the sombre and at the same time elevated spirit of the crowd.

The march.

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The “Immortal Regiment” march attracted half a million participants in Moscow alone. It was not a march masterminded in Kremlin: the idea was born in the city of Tomsk a few years ago where a couple of journalists had come up with the plan to commemorate local veterans by carrying their photos on Victory Day. About 5,000 people walked in Tomsk in 2012. By 2015, 26 cities in Russia joined in. In Moscow the air was thick with gratitude, pride and contemplation, eagerly and regularly interrupted by joyous “Hurrah!”.

As an outsider, living in London, rather than in Moscow, I did not feel entirely at ease. Among hundreds of thousands of photographs and flags, I spotted one banner and one photograph, featuring portraits of Stalin. Statistically insignificant, their appearance still stunned me. Perhaps the origin of my discomfort stemmed from the grand military parade held earlier in the Red Square. Mere mortals weren’t allowed to watch it live, but we were glued to the TV screen from 10 o’clock. Some 16,500 of army and fleet personnel took part in the parade before a display of both the Forties and the latest military machinery, including ballistic missiles and nuclear carriers, filled the screen. More than 150 military aircraft thundered the air, whereas the giant helicopters were curiously silent.

Vladimir Putin addressed us as “comrades”, a term that has ostensibly become popular again, after a decade in exile in the Nineties. His was an impeccable speech, thanking World War II allies Britain, France and the US, and paying tribute to China, an important signal to convey respect to President Xi Jinping, sitting by Putin’s side. President Pranab Mukherjee of India and heads of 20 other “friendly” states were present as well, but the absence of Western leaders was reminiscent of a different era. The message of the bombastic military display was clear, but, apparently, I was the only one feeling unsettled.

A Stalin flag.

Valentina Kormorenko is turning 88 this year. She remembers carrying food (potatoes and sauerkraut) to Russian partisans hiding the forest of the Kurkinskiy district of the Tula region in western Russia as a young girl during bitter winter months. The Nazis were afraid of going into the forest and did not stop the children, who were pretending to be looking for firewood. Valentina brought the photograph of her brother, a scout, who died in the war, to Belorusskiy Vokzal. She was too frail to join the march but was grateful to Putin for organising the Victory Day celebrations with such splendour. 

Valentina.

Another pensioner I spoke to was even more effusive: “I am in awe of Putin. A man like him is  born once in a hundred years.” In her mind, “the military parade sent the right message to the damned America”. Neither of the women complained about small pensions or state benefits. “Putin looks after the old.” 

Three women, who travelled from Smolensk to Moscow to watch the Victory Day celebrations and the fireworks, said: “The military parade is our tradition.” They see nothing wrong with commemorating peace with a display of your latest weaponry. 

Young and hip female cyclists resting at a lake in the park reckoned that “peace can only be supported with military power”. I spoke to another family in the same park spending a hot day relaxing with a barbecue and a few beers. “The military parade was no doubt expensive, but it was worth it. Russia must be seen strong and powerful. The government makes our veterans proud. The country celebrates today. Tomorrow is another story…”

A family enjoying a picnic on Victory Day.

Some Muscovites shared a different opinion, very much aware that their views weren’t popular. “Victory Day has become a PR stunt of grotesque proportions. The government propaganda and commercial advertising pretend all is well when the economy is expected to deteriorate further. The war in Ukraine is ongoing. The West now shuns us.”

Indeed, mobile phone companies have been going out of their way to show their goodwill by offering free minutes to the veterans on 9 May. Some corporate slogans are pretty suggestive: “Remember, we are the country of winners!” The media rhetoric draws parallels between the hardship of the war years and the Western sanctions encouraging Russians to tighten their belts. Meanwhile, prices of consumer goods and unemployment are rising. (the consumer price index was up by 7.4 per cent – or 11.8 per cent for food only – in Q1 2015, according to the Federal State Statistics Service of the Russian Federation.) “For all its cheer, the Victory Day PR has somehow left me with a bad taste in my mouth.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko announced that henceforth Victory Day in Ukraine would be celebrated on 8 May, in line with the rest of Europe, rather than on 9 May, as was the case for the past 70 years. This is undoubtedly fuelling the feud between the Russians and the Ukrainians, where the previously friendly relations between the ordinary people are becoming increasingly tense and hostile. 

I am genuinely proud I have walked for five hours alongside half a million Russians commemorating the Victory Day and paying tribute to our ancestors, but I cannot help but feel uneasy. The Victory Day was about remembrance, gratitude, triumph and national pride, but was it a celebration of peace? 

Jana Bakunina (@ladieswhoimpres) writes for Ladies Who Impress and Life Tonic.