As time presses on and memories of the May 1945 victory over Nazi Germany that ended World War II in Europe fade away, the annual May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Russia are becoming increasingly intertwined with official propaganda professing Russian greatness and military might. Throughout the Soviet period, from 1945 to 1991, the authorities organized only four Victory Day military parades on Red Square: the grand parade of victorious troops on June 24, 1945, and on May 9 in 1965, 1985, and 1990. From 1947 to 1965, May 9 was a regular working day and largely an unofficial occasion for millions of veterans to reunite and to remember. Instead, the main Soviet military parade, with a grand display of military might and new weaponry, happened annually on November 7, to commemorate the Great October Socialist Revolution. In 1995, amidst the bloody and unsuccessful Chechen War, the government of then-president Boris Yeltsin used the 50th anniversary of Victory Day in Europe as a grand PR occasion and resumed the commemorative parades, inviting lots of foreign dignitaries, including then–President of the United States Bill Clinton. Since that year, May 9 Victory Day parades have become a regular event on the Russian calendar, and under President Vladimir Putin, they have turned into a patriotic extravaganza.
On May 9, 2019, the Ministry of Defense announced that 57,452 service personnel, 1,517 pieces of heavy military equipment and 139 aircraft have been deployed for military reviews and fly-bys in 29 Russian cities. The most prominent parade was, as usual, planned in Moscow and was observed by Putin and Russia’s top military/political leadership on Red Square. Around 13,600 service members, some in battledress fatigues, others in glittering gold uniforms mimicking old Russian imperial or Stalinist postwar garments, marched through the capital. To commemorate the 74th anniversary of the war’s end, 74 military aircraft were deployed, but low cloud cover caused a last-minute cancelation of the grand fly-by. On the ground, spectators watched tanks, guns, other armor, and missiles of different sorts, including land-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM)—the best Russia has to show off, including prototypes of fancy weapons technically still under development (Interfax, April 30).
Smaller parades, military fly-bys and naval reviews are also occurring all over Russia, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok and Sakhalin, including three parades in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Additionally, Russian forces in Syria paraded at the Hmeimim airbase, together with local troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (Militarynews.ru, May 9). On May 7, 2015, during a final full-dress rehearsal of that year’s Victory Day parade, a new T-14 Armata main battle tank—the focus of a massive propaganda effort to present it as the symbol of Russia’s revitalized military superpower capabilities—lost power and became stranded in the middle of Red Square. On May 9, 2019, four T-14 tanks, produced by the Uralvagonzavod factory in Nizhny Tagil, rattled through Red Square. But apparently to avoid any further embarrassing hiccups, their drivers and crews were not genuine military personnel but specialists from Uralvagonzavod who have many years’ experience working with this tank (Militarynews.ru, May 8). The T-14 Armata is evidently too sophisticated to allow genuine soldiers to use without sufficient training. At the same time, the Russian defense ministry has been loath to invest too much money in buying significant numbers of the extremely expensive T-14. Instead, Russian elite army units are being rearmed with modernized Soviet-built T-72 tanks—the T-72B3 version, which was also on display on Red Square (Interfax, April 30).
Fewer than 76,000 World War II veterans, aged over 90 years old, are still alive in Russia. According to official data, their average monthly aggregated pension payouts amount to 43,500 rubles ($670). The authorities announced that, in 2019, each veteran will, from now on, receive an additional 10,000 rubles ($150) per month (Znak.com, May 8). But the state-sponsored Victory Day extravaganza was never really about the veterans. On Red Square, on May 9, Putin spoke about victory over Nazi Germany and about the veterans who made it happen—who now live in different countries (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) but cannot be ignored. The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, which, according to Putin was in fact, “The historical thousand-year-old Russia.” Such rhetoric seems to imply a claim on the territory of the other 14 now-independent republics that, together with the Russian Federation, comprised the Soviet Union until 1991. Putin promised to continue to expand and strengthen the Russian military, while declaring Russia a peace-loving nation ready to cooperate with other countries (Kremlin.ru, May 9). In an interview on state television, Putin rejected the notion that Russia’s Victory Day parades are militaristic in nature and designed to intimidate other countries: “They are to celebrate the veterans” (Militarynews.ru, May 9). Millions of Russians have been strongly encouraged to participate in this year’s Victory Day ceremonies, and school children younger than ten or even of kindergarten age have been recruited by their teachers and supervisors. Parents were ordered to purchase child-sized military uniforms resembling those of World War II soldiers as well as plastic replicas of assault rifles so children could march in their local Victory Day parades (Kommersant, May 7).
This massive propaganda effort has proven partially effective. About half of Russians said they would participate in Victory Day celebrations, according to Kremlin-sponsored pollster VTsIOM; although the other half are not interested (Gazeta.ru, May 7). According to the independent pollster Levada-Tsentr, over half see an imminent threat of war coming from foreign countries, but 88 percent of Russians believe their Armed Forces are ready to effectively defend the nation (Levada.ru, January 30). In a recent interview, academic Vladimir Fortov (73), a deputy prime minister and minister of science and technology in the 1990s, president of the Russian Academy of Science from 2013 to 2017, and a decorated physicist who worked on nuclear weapons–related research, said he is alarmed: The probability of US-Russian nuclear war has drastically increased, and “the situation is critical.” Fortov believes Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy managed to defuse the Cuban nuclear missile crisis in 1962 because both were World War II veterans, whereas present-day leaders do not fully understand the actual risks and may lead their respective countries into a deadly escalation (Kommersant, April 23). The World War II generation is almost gone, much to the detriment of both the East and West.