A show of patriotism

Vladimir Isachenkov

MOSCOW (AP) – A massive Russian military parade postponed by the coronavirus pandemic will roll through Red Square this week to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, even though Russia is still registering a steady rise in infections.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on holding the parade reflects not only his desire to put the country’s power on display but also to bolster patriotic sentiments a week before a constitutional referendum that could allow him to remain in office until 2036.

The Victory Day parade normally is held on May 9, the nation’s most important secular holiday. Today coincides with the day in 1945 when the first parade was held on
Red Square.

The Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 million people in what it called the Great Patriotic War and the enormous suffering and sacrifice of that era has left a deep scar in Russia’s psyche.

Victory Day is a rare event in the nation’s divisive post-Soviet history that is revered by all political sides, and the Kremlin has used that sentiment to encourage patriotic pride and underline Russia’s role as a global power.

Russian military vehicles move towards the Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia. PHOTOS: AP
People watch as Russian military vehicles roll along Tverskaya street toward the Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade
ABOVE & BELOW: Russian sailors march toward Red Square to attend a dress rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade; and Russian President Vladimir Putin greets a WWII veteran as he arrives to take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Moscow, marking the 79th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union

The show is particularly important this year for Putin. The Kremlin hopes it will help secure public support a week before the July 1 nationwide vote on constitutional amendments that effectively reset the clock on his tenure in office and will allow him to seek two more six-year terms if he chooses.

“For Putin, the parade has a symbolic meaning, a symbol that the epidemic is over and so the vote can be held,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based independent political analyst. “And even more importantly, Victory Day serves as a positive symbol of people’s unification, economic mobilisation, strong leadership and consolidation — the things that Putin wants to claim credit for.”

The plebiscite was initially set for April 22 but, like the parade, was postponed by the coronavirus outbreak. When the first signs of a slowdown in the contagion appeared, Putin rescheduled the vote for July 1, eager to consolidate his power before the economic fallout from the pandemic further eroded his popularity. His approval rating plummeted to 59 per cent in April, its lowest level in more than two decades, according to the Levada Center, the nation’s top independent pollster.

“Three months later, the ratings will be lower as the economy is going downhill,” Oreshkin said. “It’s essential to hold the vote right now.”

While the pandemic has shattered the Kremlin’s hopes to get top world leaders to attend the parade, the heads of several ex-Soviet nations and Serbia’s president are still scheduled to show up today. The celebration will feature 14,000 troops, about 300 military vehicles and 75 warplanes in a display of the country’s military might.

Russian officials have insisted that all necessary precautions have been taken to protect the health of its troops, elderly veterans and foreign guests at the parade.

Russia has the world’s third-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases after the United States and Brazil and still reports about 8,000 new infections a day. Its reported virus death toll is nearly 8,200, a number that experts say is much too low for a country with over 590,000 confirmed cases.

With this in mind, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has cautioned the public against coming to see the show. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also advised Moscow residents, who usually converge on central avenues to see the tanks and missiles roll by, to watch it on TV
this time.

While the parade is politically important for the Kremlin, Putin’s persistence in holding it despite the risks of contagion also reflects his strong personal preoccupation with World War II.

The 67-year-old Russian leader views the war from a deeply emotional angle, often invoking dramatic memories of his parents, Vladimir and Maria, and his brother Viktor, nicknamed Vitya, when his hometown of Leningrad, now called St Petersburg, was besieged for nearly two-and-a-half years.

“For my parents, the war meant the terrible ordeals of the Siege of Leningrad where my two-year-old brother Vitya died,” Putin wrote in an article published in the United States (US) journal The National Interest. “It was the place where my mother miraculously managed to survive. My father, despite being exempt from active duty, volunteered to defend his hometown.”