View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

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]

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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.

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]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Topics in this article : ,
Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU