Victory Day, or a Holiday of Militarism?

Victory Day parade 2011. Source: Kirill Lebedev/Gazeta.ruMonday, May 9 marked Russia’s 66th annual celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Victory Day is Russia’s most widely celebrated national holiday, with people across the country flooding the streets to join in public gatherings, ceremonies and memorials. For a country that lost upwards of 20 million people in World War II, such a large celebration is only natural.

The main event during Victory Day celebrations, however, is an elaborate military parade in Moscow. While such parades are a longstanding tradition in the country, it was only in 2008 that Russia reintroduced an element of military hardware not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Along with thousands of soldiers, the parade now includes tanks, armored trucks, nuclear missiles, and a noisy aircraft flyover.

But why the sudden decision to showcase all this equipment, especially considering that nearly all of it is decades old? With that question in mind, journalist and military expert Aleksandr Golts remarks upon the social and political undertones of this year’s Victory Day parade.

Victory Day or a Holiday of Militarism?
May 6, 2011
Aleksandr Golts
Yezhednevny Zhurnal

All these past years, I have not ceased to be amazed at how ineptly our government has used the unique opportunities presented to them by Victory Day – the only real holiday in contemporary Russia. A holiday that can, at least for a day, unite Russia’s fragmented, isolated society. Only on Victory Day do thousands of the country’s people come out into the streets not by order from above but because they want to feel like part of a single whole – the people who in fact rescued modern civilization.

But instead of finding words, symbols or ideas to strengthen this extraordinarily positive feeling of unity, the Russian leaders rattle their rusty iron – the main part of the holiday is the military parade, which a larger number of soldiers take part in every year (this year it’s more than 20,000 soldiers and officers). It is assumed that citizens will get this feeling of unity by contemplating the parading files of soldiers striding the Prussian goose step. And citizens like the Odessan from the Soviet film Intervention are flooded with tears of emotion: “A standing army – now that’s something special.”

In practice, the exact opposite happens. The rehearsals for the parade, which bring about the collapse of transportation in the city, are a powerful tool to force Muscovites to leave the capital.

It’s doubtful that a contemporary Russian citizen is seriously inspired by seeing military equipment that was developed twenty years ago and is currently produced in paltry numbers. At least take the new, as the parade organizers assert, S-400 anti-aircraft system. There will be eight units in the parade. Which is to say exactly one fourth of all existing S-400 units, the production of which began way back in 2007. About the same can also be said of simpler models of military equipment proclaimed to be new – the Iskander ballistic missiles, the strategic Topol-M. And the chief commander of the army, Aleksandr Postnikov, recently correctly said that the T-90 tank was the result of the seventeenth upgrade of the old T-72. So the only real innovation in the parade is the demonstration of the new berets, which from now on will be worn not only by paratroopers and marines, but also by soldiers from other branches of the Armed Forces.

Why are the authorities so hung up on the parade? In privatizing Victory, like all other Russian values, the leaders approach the holiday in a strictly utilitarian manner: as an opportunity for self-promotion. In 2005, Moscow turned into a besieged fortress, essentially banning residents of the capital from reaching the center of the city. All only so that Vladimir Putin had the opportunity to strike a pose while receiving world leaders.

This time, the anniversary is not a key one, but an ordinary one, so to speak. There will be no foreign guests. And facing Putin and Medvedev’s political strategists is the question of what backdrop to use to show off the leaders. Old veterans who cannot speak well and are less than well-groomed are not well suited for this. For them, it’s enough to have perfunctory statements like “nobody is forgotten and nothing is forgotten,” wretched holiday food baskets, and routine promises to provide them with housing sixty-six years after Victory. And where is it nicer for the top Russian leaders to pose with rockets and dashing soldiers than next to veterans?

It was not by accident that everyone pretended that there hadn’t been an announcement last year by Presidential Affairs Office Chief Vladimir Kozhin that there wasn’t going to be a parade in 2011 because of proposed renovations to Red Square. Cancelling the parade in an election year would be impossible. As a result, the Victory holiday will become a holiday of militarism.

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