It happens again. I am sitting on a couch and watching the Victory Day parade on the television. May 9th is the day when Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War (or WWII) has been commemorated since 1945. Everything is almost similar to the last I watched it as a Soviet child. Only that this time I watched it in HD, holding a lap top in my hands, while outside is not “developed socialism”, but capitalism in the service of the government, or something. The new leaders of Russia have also changed. They are no longer obscure heavy rectangular shapes.
This year Russia celebrated 65th anniversary of its victory over the Nazi occupant. This is a semi-round date and therefore Moscow was decorated more than usual. Every second person on the street was wearing a military styled after the ones worn during the war (can be bought for a 100 rubles on every other corner), strings colored in black and brown – the colors of Georgii Cross – a pre-revolutionary military honor. The streets are adorned with the colors of the Russian flag as well as red and yellow (the Soviet flag is called today the “Victory Flag”). The words “the Great Victory”, “Hooray”, “Veterans” were springing on the people at every street corner.
So what has changed?
The big deal this year is not just the round date. This is the first time since 1991 that Russia held a full military parade on the Red Square. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the parade consisted mainly of veterans and a bit of infantry. This year, the march included many different units of the Russian military (including the mysterious unit for “Space Warfare) followed by a wide array of military technology from tanks to ten meters long rocket carriers. The parade was concluded by the Russian air force that passed by in the skies above the Red Square.
A couple of days before the parade I happened to pass Tverskaya street – one of the main streets of Moscow leading to the Red Square. This was the day of the general rehearsal for the parade and the first thing I saw were dozens of tanks, jeeps, and other rocket carriers happily parking on the main street. Upon receiving the order to move on, all these vehicles rushed down the street toward the Kremlin. Soon after, all sorts of airplanes appeared in the sky, flying very low above the street. Maybe the Russian bystanders felt proud and secure at the sight of this military might. But this immense noise and war machines in truly Russian quantities left a depressing a troubling impression on me. A few days later this grand war industry marched on the Red Square projecting its might to the rest of the world.
Once upon a time this display of military might troubled the NATO states and provided an endless source for analysis and speculations for the CIA. Today, one wonders whether this heavy military technology would be of any use at all. In our time, when the military technology becomes increasingly digitalized and modern warfare tools grow smaller and smaller, you ask yourself what would be the use of something like “Tiger – an armored vehicle with an auto-pilot” (a massive cast of metal and iron on wheels).
What else is new?
This is the first year in the history of the parade that units from armies of “anti-Hitler coalition” marched on the Red Square alongside the Russian units. The representatives included England, France, the United States, Poland, and… Afghanistan. One must admit that the Buckingham Palace guards marching by the Kremlin walls is an interesting and slightly strange sight. The presence of units from “anti-Hitler coalition” on the Red Square must be a sign of a new era.
But while Josef Stalin and Joseph McCarthy are rolling in their graves at the sight of American soldiers marching at the heart of the former “evil empire” the grand reunion was not devoid of diplomatic incidents. The Guardian reported that Putin had personally vetoed the arrival of Prince Charles and Vice President Joe Biden to the parade. According to the Guardian, Gordon Brown, then the PM was invited to attend, but cancelled because of the elections held in the UK a few days earlier. The Downing Street offered Prince Charles as a replacement but the offer was declined, and so was the offer to send Joe Biden as a replacement for President Obama who couldn’t make it. Putin, like the Parade’s founder – Stalin, has his own way for diplomatic paybacks. The Guardian thinks that Prince Charles was rejected to signify Putin’s displeasure with England for granting an asylum for Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch in exile. Biden was rejected because of his close relationship with Mikhail Saakashvili, the president of Georgia.
Another interesting sign of the new era was the presence of units from independent countries that formerly comprised the republics of the Soviet Union. Soldiers from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan marched holding the new flags of their countries. Semi-dictators from Central Asia adorned the tribunes near the Kremlin following the parade. Conspicuous in their absence of course, were the units from Georgia and the Baltic states.
Victory Day narratives
Like any interesting part of history, the story of the second World War was written and re-written in Russia multiple times. Victory day parades and celebrations played an important role in the creation of the public narrative of the war. A few months after the war broke, on the anniversary day of the October Revolution, Stalin addressed the nation from the Red Square. In the speech he described the war as a popular struggle of the Russian people and the peoples comprising the Soviet Union.
Toward the end of the war, the narrative changed. The victory over the Germans was now the story of the Great Russian people, their great military achievements and their great generals. The role of other nationalities was reduced almost to none. Immediately after the war, the story changed again, now attributing the victory solely to Stalin’s genius.
After Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization the public narrative rejected Stalin’s role from the story and emphasized the leadership of the party that led the Soviet citizens toward to victory. For more than twenty years, up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Victory Day parade projected a standard narrative: Soviet nuclear and military might (expressed in doomsday arsenal) and the leadership of the party (expressed in the increasingly aging leaders lining up on the top of Lenin’s mausoleum, itself a symbol of revolutionary heritage).
A new narrative of the war?
There is no doubt that the parade this year is an important turning point in shaping the historical memory of WWII in Russia. By including units from the former Allies Russia ritually admits, for the first time in its history, that the Allies played an important role in the war effort. This inclusion also suggests Russia’s readiness to engage in a dialogue with the NATO nations. Units from former Soviet republics symbolize the returned recognition of the role of non-Russian people in the victory as well as recognition of the independent status of these countries. By displaying the variety of its war machinery Russia demonstrates its military might and claims a renewed international recognition. At the same time, it communicates a desire to negotiate and enter a dialogue, not as a minor partner, but as a equal partner of international importance.
Who won the war with Hitler?
The parade’s answer to this question is another innovation in the narrative of the Victory Day. As mentioned above, previously the victory belonged to the party and the people. Today, when the party is insignificant, all the laurels are given to the real heroes of the day – the Veterans who fought on the front and contributed to the war effort behind the front lines.
When I arrived to Moscow I was surprised at the prominence of the word “Veteran” in Moscow’s public space. Poster saying “Happy Victory Day Dear Veterans” or “Thank you, Dear Veterans” decorated every shop and street and overwhelmed in their numbers the pictures of Marx and Lenin on the Soviet streets. In Medved’ev’s speeches commemorating the Victory Day, the main message was of gratitude to the veterans for the victory.
Another indication that the heroes of the day were the veterans was the parade’s audience on the Red Square tribunes. The Russian leaders didn’t review the parade from the top of the Lenin mausoleum as they have done in the past. Instead, the mausoleum was entirely covered by a sitting tribune in the colors of Russian flag. Next to it, another sitting tribune was built stretching to the end of the square. Except a small group of political personalities that Russia invited to the event (including Angela Merkel and Shimon Peres) all these tribunes were occupied by the veterans and their family members who watched the parade in 27 degrees. Medved’ev and Putin sat in the main tribune, amongst the leaders, almost as ordinary people, further strengthening the impression that the victory belonged to the people who have actually participated in the war.
A Russian friend told me a new joke: Medved’ev promised that all the veterans would be provided with housing by 2030. This bit of a black humor indicates the critique of the state’s priorities. Many feel that instead of spending millions on the parade and public celebrations, the state should have spent the money on improving the living conditions of the veterans. Many veterans were given new uniforms for the event, in order to wear it for the parade and the public celebrations that followed. 80 years old people, clad in these brand new uniforms, adorned with war medals and honors were indeed an impressive and dignified sight. But one must wonder whether they would prefer subsidies for housing, meds or food – which might have been more handy in a city like Moscow, the second most expensive in the world.
That way or the other, it was their day. Some looked proud and happy – strolling the park in their new uniforms, medals and honors, singing, dancing to the sounds of old waltz or having lunch with front comrades and family members and happy to receive the thanks and the flowers given to them by the people in the park. (In Gorky Park, the central celebration locale, almost everyone had flowers. People with children approached the veterans, gave them flowers and thanked them. Almost every veteran had a companion who carried the flowers for him or her). Others looked as living expo in an interactive museum showing life in the olden days: a bit lost, embarrassed, wondering at all these people surrounding them and insisting to take a picture.
Children in the park approaching the veterans and giving them flowers – powerful manifestation of how collective memory of the war is passed on to the new generation. And despite all the critique, and although it’s only once a year, maybe all of it was worth it. Because on May 9th, the people who lived, fought, worked, dreamed, laughed and loved during this terrible war, received the honor and the gratitude that they deserve, for they ARE the real heroes of the day.