Connect to share and comment

Russia's Victory Day parade bolsters nationalism

In a country with no unifying ideology beyond its World War II victory, parade honors history while overlooking tensions of today.

Russian military jets fly in formation over St. Basil's Cathedral during a military parade in Red Square in Moscow, May 9, 2010. NATO troops marched across Red Square on Sunday as Russia marked the 65th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany. (Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters)

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.