MOSCOW: Russians celebrated Victory Day on Wednesday, the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War, as President Vladimir Putin sought to shed the political setbacks of the covid-19 pandemic and drum up national pride in preparation for a nationwide vote on constitutional changes that could let him stay in power until 2036.
For Russians, Victory Day is perhaps the nation’s most emotional holiday and evokes triumphant memories of wartime heroism darkened by the sacrifice of 27 million Soviet citizens who died in what is known here as the Great Patriotic War. Russian state television has been running a non-stop rolling banner on the right hand side of the screen listing the names of every known casualty.
After arriving at the parade, Putin shook hands with elderly veterans of the war, people in their 80s and 90s — one of the groups most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Neither Putin nor the veterans he greeted wore masks.
The last surviving of member of three Soviet female air force regiments, Galina Brok-Beltsova, 95, was seated at Putin’s right.
Putin said Europe owed its freedom to the Soviet soldiers who laid down their lives in the war. “They defended their land, freed the states of Europe from invaders, saved the people of Germany from Nazism and its ideology. It is impossible to imagine what would have happened to the world if the Red Army had not stood in the way of fascism,” he said in a speech opening the parade. After he spoke, soldiers wearing uniforms dating back to the war and units from several former Soviet nations marched through the square as martial music rang out.
In recent months, the Kremlin has attacked officials from Europe, in particular Poland and Ukraine, who attribute the war to Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, dividing up parts of Europe between them. Putin argued in a recent article in the National Interest, a foreign policy magazine, that Western powers including Britain, France and Italy were to blame for appeasing the Nazis by signing the 1938 Munich Agreement, which ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Germany. This, he argued, made war in Europe inevitable. He said Western leaders and Poland were eager to “sweep the Munich Betrayal under the carpet” because “it is kind of embarrassing to recall that during those dramatic days of 1938, the Soviet Union was the only one to stand up for Czechoslovakia.”
In addition to Russia’s latest military technology, the parade also featured a squadron of World War II-era T-34 tanks, once the mainstay of the Soviet armoured columns that swept across Germany. The parade had to be postponed from May 9 because of the coronavirus, but in recent weeks, health officials have insisted that the rate of infection is low enough to go ahead with the event — a patriotic set piece that symbolises Putin’s leadership. It precedes a weeklong national vote beginning Thursday on constitutional amendments, including one that entitles Putin to run in elections two more times after his term expires in 2024.
Infectious-disease expert Victoria Adonyeva, have warned that Russia’s rush to return to normality for the parade and the constitutional vote — even as official figures show cases are rising by more than 7,000 a day — is likely to lead to a new surge in infections in coming weeks.