The long-heralded celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Victory Day are finally over, and many Muscovites find themselves with an odd aftertaste. The event that was supposed to be both a patriotic rally and an international gala turned out to be neither. Most of the grandiose plans for public festivities were cancelled in early spring in favor of preparations for the impressive assemblage of presidents, prime ministers, and other VIPs. Instead of mass demonstrations and street concerts, Moscow saw extra-tight security measures. For three days the sealed-off downtown appeared deserted even by its tough but sentimental inhabitants, not to mention tourists (Ezhednevny zhurnal, May 10).
The pomp and kitsch of the official ceremonies were hardly missed. Victory Day remains a very private holiday when families remember those who never returned home, while veterans and their already middle-aged grandchildren raise a glass for peace (Ekspert, April 29). On this hugely important and emotional day, Russians are very sensitive to any false gestures, so when several hundred veterans in trucks decked out as war-time ZIS models paraded through Red Square, it was seen not as a sign of respect but rather as a lack of thereof (Gazeta.ru, May 6). In defiance of official red-banner symbolism, many cars in Moscow sported the yellow and black ribbons of the Order of Glory (the same as the traditional colors of the rank-and-file Order of St. George). The tasteless boosting of national pride left a hangover of irritation about the Brezhnev-style self-glorification and shame for the cheap exploitation of a rich heritage left by the neglected war generation.
It had been clear long before the carefully drilled parade that the main guests at the party would be not the veterans, but the foreign dignitaries who needed to be convinced that Russia’s heroic past comes hand-in-hand with its present-day dynamism. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the ultimate moment of glory was meticulously prepared with grand geopolitical thinking going into the proper seating of world leaders in the main VIP section (Novaya gazeta, May 12).
The planned PR-triumph, however, was spoiled by uncooperative weather, minor mistakes by speechwriters, and perhaps by Stalin’s ghost hanging over Red Square (Moskovsky komsomolets, May 13; Ezhednevny zhurnal, May 12). This shadow was palpable enough to cause a serious international scandal: the Baltic states asked for a condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and for a recognition of the subsequent occupation — and Putin angrily dismissed these “idiotic claims” (Vremya novostei, May 11; Grani.ru, May 12). It was technically possible to camouflage the Mausoleum from which Stalin used to greet the marching troops, but it proved to be politically impossible to draw curtains over his calculated crimes (Moskovsky komsomolets, May 13). The Kremlin wants to take credit for past sacrifices, but accepting responsibility for atrocities that are on the same page of history is definitely out of the question. This selective memory about the Soviet legacy has found so little understanding that Putin wisely decided to skip the forthcoming Council of Europe summit in Warsaw, where he was certain to face a barrage of unpleasant comments (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 12).
Russia has shown little in terms of its democratic credentials, but politics here is not that different in the sense that it also remains basically local. Putin now has to turn back to Moscow and take stock of his “patriotic-unity-building” activities. Whatever his advisers would whisper, the PR-exploitation of the Victory has hardly earned him any points here. Muscovites are accustomed to ignoring noisy propaganda, but the inconveniences were irritating and residents’ security was not augmented by the armed patrols downtown. Locals can now enjoy their own holidays, on May 14, for instance, students celebrated the Day of Europe in Gorky Park. Moscow also has its own guests, and Mayor Yuri Luzhkov recently announced with pride that in 2004 the volume of foreign tourism increased by 17% (Rosbalt, May 12). The hot topic in the capital now is the political initiative in the city council on preserving the right to elect the mayor — against Putin’s plan (already approved by parliament) for the president to appoint the heads of the regions (Izvestiya, May 13).
For the last ten years, Moscow has remained firmly behind its hands-on mayor, giving him 75% of the vote in the last elections in December 2003. Putin, on the other hand, has never been really popular here, infuriating drivers with the traffic jams caused by the never-ending roadblocks to secure his movements and antagonizing the elites by importing a loyal cadre from St. Petersburg. His court used to ignore these feelings and make a sport of taunting Luzhkov, but now there are uneasy reflections on the fact that the outcome of every revolution is decided in the capital.
As the smoke rises from Uzbekistan (the response from the Russian Foreign Ministry was firmly supportive to the “friendly” regime of Islam Karimov), the pre-revolutionary panic in the Kremlin has reached a new high (Newsru.com, Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 13).
Moscow has a high concentration of two potentially explosive social groups: pensioners, angered by the “reform” of their life-support (the term “social security” is not really applicable) system; and students, worried about plans to increase the draft. Neither group was placated by the pompous World War II celebrations, but at least Putin can count on one lucky break: the summer season of dachas and holidays is just around the corner.