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Why the military parade on May 9th matters to Russia’s president

Summary:
ON MAY 8TH 1945 in Berlin, the Wehrmacht’s remaining generals surrendered unconditionally to Marshal Georgy Zhukov, commander of the Red Army, and to representatives of the Allied powers in Europe, ordering their forces to lay down arms just before midnight. Because that fell in the early hours of the next day according to Moscow time, Russians ever since have celebrated May 9th as Den Pobedy (Victory Day), marking the final defeat of Nazi Germany. (Western countries generally mark the event on May 8th.) On the morning of May 9th 1945, Muscovites poured joyfully into the streets. Many congregated around the embassy of their American allies, embracing the soldiers stationed there as guards; one was reportedly tossed playfully in the air.This spontaneous outburst of popular feeling worried

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ON MAY 8TH 1945 in Berlin, the Wehrmacht’s remaining generals surrendered unconditionally to Marshal Georgy Zhukov, commander of the Red Army, and to representatives of the Allied powers in Europe, ordering their forces to lay down arms just before midnight. Because that fell in the early hours of the next day according to Moscow time, Russians ever since have celebrated May 9th as Den Pobedy (Victory Day), marking the final defeat of Nazi Germany. (Western countries generally mark the event on May 8th.) On the morning of May 9th 1945, Muscovites poured joyfully into the streets. Many congregated around the embassy of their American allies, embracing the soldiers stationed there as guards; one was reportedly tossed playfully in the air.

This spontaneous outburst of popular feeling worried Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader–particularly the affection towards foreign allies. Under totalitarian communism, all autonomous expressions of political sentiment were suspect and had to be suppressed or co-opted. With that in mind, Stalin made plans for an official state event to regain control over the celebrations. On June 24th in Moscow’s Red Square, Soviet forces staged an enormous military parade. For two hours, some 35,000 troops filed past Lenin’s tomb under the eyes of Stalin. The captured standards of Nazi regiments were lowered as tributes, a gesture straight out of imperial Rome. Marshal Zhukov rode a white horse.

When Russia celebrates Victory Day this May 9th, it will be Vladimir Putin reviewing the long stream of Russian troops and military materiel passing through Red Square. Anyone watching might assume that the tradition has been unbroken since 1945. It has not. In Soviet times the main military parade on Red Square was held on November 7th, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Stalin downgraded Victory Day, wary of the authentic national sentiment that had been expressed at the war’s end. (Some suggest he was also wary of Zhukov’s popularity.) The parade was revived only under Leonid Brezhnev for the 20th anniversary of the war’s end in 1965, and repeated in 1985, 1990 and (after the Soviet collapse) annually beginning in 1995. But these were mournful affairs dedicated to the nation’s suffering in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, when it lost at least 20m citizens.

Since 2000 Mr Putin has turned the Victory Day parades into a triumphant celebration of armed might, part of his campaign to twist the memory of the war in order to grant his autocratic government legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. In Mr Putin’s early years the May 9th parade featured only marching troops rather than hardware, in deference to the Western leaders who sometimes attended. But that changed in 2008, the year Russia invaded Georgia. Since then the parade has shown off the latest Russian weapons, including nuclear-capable ICBMs and flyovers by Sukhoi fighters trailing the red, white and blue colours of the Russian flag. The highlight is a speech by Mr Putin, and the intimidating spectacle of his soft-spoken ura (hurrah) being echoed by an array of thousands of soldiers.

Much as Stalin feared the spontaneity of the first popular celebration on May 9th 1945, Mr Putin fears grassroots commemorations of Victory Day. In 2012 a group of citizens in Tomsk, a city in Siberia, started an event they called the “Immortal Regiment”, marching on Victory Day with photos of family members who had fought and died in the war. The practice soon spread across the country. Russia’s government quickly co-opted the movement. By 2015 the Immortal Regiment processions were broadcast on state television and promotional materials were branded with the logo of Mr Putin’s United Russia party. Afterwards the liberal press photographed piles of discarded photos, suggesting the government had hired marchers and given them portraits to hold at random.

By militarising the parade and taking control of popular celebrations, Mr Putin has in effect turned Victory Day on May 9th into the sort of state-controlled spectacle Stalin created on June 24th 1945. The connection became explicit on June 24th 2020 when, amidst the covid crisis, the government staged a re-enactment of Stalin’s parade. The commemoration of the end of the Great Patriotic War had become a commemoration of the Soviet commemoration of the Great Patriotic War–a simulacrum of historical memory.

Many countries are fond of military pomp, but Russia is unusually so. In an autocratic country where succession has always been an issue, victories in battle and displays of armed power substitute for other forms of legitimacy. Tsar Paul I, son of Catherine the Great, was murdered in part because he did little but march his troops in complicated formations around St Petersburg’s drilling grounds. Nicholas I, a conservative 19th-century ruler much admired by Mr Putin, was never seen without his military uniform on, and Nicholas II prepared for what he was sure would be Russia’s defeat of Germany in the first world war by ordering new uniforms for his victory parade in Berlin. (By the time Germany surrendered, the Russian Empire no longer existed.)

Yet at least under Stalin, the troops that marched past the Kremlin’s walls were returning from victory on the battlefield. Under Mr Putin, the love of military display risks creating a parade army. Russia’s latest tank, the T-14 Armata, has been shown off in Victory Day celebrations since 2015 but has yet to enter service. (In its first appearance it mysteriously stopped moving for 15 minutes.) Crisply efficient on Red Square, the Russian army has performed dismally in Ukraine. As a result, this year’s parade will be 35% smaller than usual with far fewer vehicles and less equipment. Russia needs its remaining tanks and troops for more pressing business.

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