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Vladimir Putin is afraid of his own people

The most significant absence from this year’s Victory Day parade was not the tanks, it was the people.

By Katie Stallard

In 2011 three friends in the Siberian city of Tomsk came up with the idea of holding their own parade on Victory Day, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. The bombastic military processions that had become an annual tradition in Moscow had gone too far, they decided, and the memory of the real soldiers who fought and died during the war was being lost. They planned to walk quietly holding portraits of their grandfathers on 9 May and encourage others to do the same. They called it the Immortal Regiment.

The movement was hugely popular. So much so that within a few years the Immortal Regiment had been co-opted by the authorities and transformed into a nationwide, Kremlin-controlled event – the opposite of what its founders wanted. By 2015 Vladimir Putin, the president, was marching at the front of the Moscow procession carrying a picture of his father, who fought in the war. More than a million people took part in the Immortal Regiment parade in Moscow in 2022, if you believe the Russian Interior Ministry.

But this year there was no Immortal Regiment. Instead of marching in the street, people were urged to post photos of their relatives on the Immortal Regiment website or to display them on their cars or social media profiles. (The same thing happened in 2020 and 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic.) Officially, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the marches had been cancelled because of the risk of an attack by Ukraine. “When we are dealing with a state which de facto sponsors terrorism,” he said, “it is better to take precautions.” But the more likely explanation is this: the regime is afraid of the people. 

It is true that Victory Day celebrations had been cancelled in at least six Russian regions following a series of drone strikes in recent months, including, most recently, on the Kremlin on 3 May. Moscow blames Kyiv, though the Ukrainian government has denied that it is responsible. The danger that large groups of people gathering in city centres could be seen as a target surely played into the decision to cancel these events, but they went ahead in 2022, when Russia was also at war with Ukraine, and none of the drone attacks so far have targeted civilians.    

[See also: Vladimir Putin under pressure]

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Instead, the greater concern for the Kremlin was almost certainly that large numbers of people taking to the streets would bring the risk of protests and revelations of unwelcome truths about the war. At least 125 people were detained during last year’s Victory Day events, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info, the majority for displaying anti-war slogans or symbols. If thousands of people marched in Immortal Regiment processions holding photographs of the soldiers who have died over the last 14 months it would risk revealing the extent of Russian casualties, which the US estimates to be approaching 200,000 dead and wounded. “The regiment will not turn out to be immortal at all, but all too mortal,” the political activist Elvira Vikhareva explained on Facebook in April. “The scale would be evident.”  

If Putin and his senior advisers believed that their propaganda campaign had been effective and that most of the population had bought into their lies about the war, then perhaps they would have been prepared to take the risk. The casualties could be attributed to the “real war [that] is being waged against our country”, as the Russian president insisted in his Victory Day speech, and the patriotic masses would still rally behind his leadership. But Putin’s actions show that he knows that this is not true; that the country is not prepared to send its sons, brothers and husbands to die in ever greater numbers in this war, and that the domestic politics of the conflict are complicated.

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Much has been made of the absence of modern tanks from this year’s Victory Day parade, but it was the absence of ordinary people that was the most striking feature. Far from the image that he has sought to cultivate of a strong leader who is in total control, Putin looks increasingly like a paranoid despot who does not trust his citizens to gather en masse, even – perhaps especially – to commemorate the wartime past.

[See also: The world according to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin]

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