Russia's Victory Day parade bolsters nationalism

MOSCOW, Russia — The 9-year-old boy craned his neck and shot a finger into the sky. “Here they come, here they come!” he shouted, as four supersonic Blackjack bombers shot through the skies above.

“Yes, my golden one,” his grandmother replied. “Now you’ll never forget.”

That, arguably, is the mission of Russia’s annual Victory Day parade, held with increasing fanfare each May 9 to mark the end of World War II.

It’s hard to overstate the holiday’s importance on Russia’s national calendar. Weeks of build-up, ubiquitous posters lining shop and bank windows, military band concerts, special TV programming — all of it works to create the impression that the war ended yesterday, not 65 years ago.

On Sunday, 10,500 Russian soldiers marched through Red Square, under the approving eyes of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. They were followed by dozens of tanks and military hardware, including the Iskander-M and Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, which then continued their tour through the streets of Moscow, urged on by roaring applause from a crowd that numbered in the tens of thousands.

Rhetorically, Russian officials present the holiday as a chance to mark the somber close of a war that saw at least 27 million Russians killed, as cannon fodder, as victims of starvation and of Nazi German brutality.

Yet, in reality, the parade and the atmosphere of the holiday come off as celebratory and militaristic, aiming to build up nationalist pride in an army that serves a country with no unifying ideology beyond that of its World War II victory.

“It’s a holiday all over the world,” said Eduard Dorofeyev, a 47-year-old banker watching the parade on Sunday. “We have to remember our history so as never to repeat it.”

Dorofeyev served 15 years in the Russian armed forces, with tours in Afghanistan and Russia’s troubled south. Both his grandfathers served in World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, and he said he joined the army because it’s a family tradition.

Yet when asked whether he would want his teenage son, entranced by the passing missiles, to join when he reached the call-up age of 18, Dorofeyev hesitated. “It’s everyone’s personal choice.” He refused to answer further.

Russia’s army, infamous for its violent hazing and shoddy living conditions, is — every day except Victory Day — more a force to avoid than to praise. Reforms designed to reshape the army into a professional force have been dragged out due to resistance from Soviet-era generals. Every year, thousands of men between the ages of 18 and 27 are called up for one year of service. Thousands more dodge the draft by bribing draft officials or doctors who draw up notes detailing false medical excuses.

Last month, Vasily Smirnov, head of the military’s mobilization directorate, even suggested raising the draft age to 30 in a bid to make more men eligible.

Victory Day is the one day the problems of modern Russia can be swept aside, reaching for glory in a past of which every Russian can be proud.

“The Great Patriotic War will never be reduced to a mere calendar date from the past for our nation — a date printed on postcards and showing up occasionally in battle scenes in films,” Medvedev said in a video posted on his official blog on the eve of the anniversary.

For some, it’s still a past that is fraught with tension.

The government, eager to play down a scandal over celebrating the role of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, rolled out the big guns ahead of the parade, with Medvedev giving an interview to Russian newspaper Izvestiya in which he called the Soviet Union “totalitarian” and insisted that “it cannot be said that Stalinism is returning to our daily life.”

“Despite the fact that he worked a lot, and despite the fact that under his leadership the country recorded many successes, what was done to his own people cannot be forgiven,” Medvedev said.

Yet Russia has still to undertake a true national dialogue about Stalin’s role — this year’s conflict came down to whether the Moscow government would hang posters of the dictator on city streets. (A city bus in St Petersburg was adorned with Stalin’s image, but was reportedly financed by a local blogger, who rented the bus’s advertising space.) School textbooks used throughout Russia, and endorsed by Putin, praise Stalin’s role both as a war strategist and efficient leader, downplaying the mass crimes he committed against his people.

This year, Russian leaders went to great lengths to hype the role of the Allies, which are known here as the “anti-Hitler coalition.” For the first time ever, U.S. troops, as well as French, Polish and British troops, marched on Red Square. Medvedev issued a call for unity at the parade, and President Barack Obama, in an interview with Russian state-run TV, praised the move.

It was criticized by Russia’s Communist and nationalist parties, with the Communist Party distributing fliers that read “NATO is a drug! It has no place in the Victory Parade!”

Russia’s role in the war is still presented as paramount. Whereas schoolchildren in the West learn about the “western and eastern fronts,” Russian children learn about “the front” (where Russia fought) and the “second front” (where everyone else fought). Considering the symbolic importance the government places on the May 9 holiday, it will likely remain that way for years to come.