Letter from St. Petersburg: An eye-witness account of the Immortal Regiment march, 9 May 2017

Looking at the throngs around me on march in St Petersburg, I understood that you have to be utterly mad to want to pin all of our problems with Russia on one man.  This is not a nation to be trifled with whatever its many weaknesses and faults.


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Muscovites take pride in having had a still bigger turn-out at this year’s Immortal Regiment march within the framework of Victory Day celebrations on 9 May than was the case last year. This, despite the adverse weather conditions this year, so unlike spring. The media tell us this was the coldest VE Day in Moscow since 1945. Yet the official crowd numbers are given at 850,000.

In St Petersburg, we also were not pampered by the weather.  When my wife and I left the metro station at the top of Staronevsky Prospekt at 14.30 to join the parade, we were hit by a snow shower.  It quickly stopped and the remainder of the afternoon was mostly sunny, if very cold.  And in St Petersburg, too, the turnout for the parade was at a record, with official figures putting it at 750,000.  Considering that the Northern Capital has an overall population less than half that of the federal capital, the showing was more than respectable.


I have never delighted in mass actions, have always  been subject to claustrophobia in crowds.  But it was a very good-natured assembly in the Immortal Regiment march, and I felt at ease. It was multi-generational with a lot of toddlers carried on shoulders of parents and relatives, while their older siblings were kept in tow, subject to warnings that “you don’t want to get lost.”


If the mood of participants may have resembled the bonhomie of strollers in New York’s Central Park on a Sunday afternoon in spring, the event clearly had its specificity which set it apart from anything I have witnessed outside of Russia.


From my many visits there, I know that Poles are among the most devoted peoples to cemeteries, which they visit regularly on Sundays and not just on All Saints Day. Their gravestones, just as in Russia, very often bear photos of the deceased, often taken from the best days of their youth. 


What I saw on Staronevsky Prospect and then onward  from Uprising Square and along Nevsky Prospekt was a vast cemetery marching, with photo placards of family heroes from the front lines and from the home front defense of WWII held high.  My wife Larisa and I alone carried three – of her rear admiral father, her radiologist grandma who fought the whole war on two fronts and of a close family friend, an architect by profession and a poet by inclination, who was grievously wounded on his third day as a militia foot soldier on the Pulkovo Heights and now has no one to remember him but us. 


Having put aside the Central Park comparison, what else can I liken this to?  I think first of something readers may find odd:  19th century balls.  My wife loves balls and enlists me in at least one every winter.  For me, the greatest insight as a participant is that the balls were only partly a mating exercise in the scramble of noble debutantes to find their lifelong spouse and consolidate the family fortune. They were first and foremost an exercise in class solidarity.  When all of the dancers are aligned in processions, which are an important part of balls, the servants can only scatter before them.


So it was at the Immortal Regiment march:  a showing of national solidarity that is unthinkable in Western Europe or the United States, for example.  Non-belligerent, just national solidarity formed by the shared experience of every family’s wartime losses.  When I saw that, I instinctively thought of our hawks and loudmouths in the States. The impression made by the Immortal Regiment was fare more profound than the impression created by the new military hardware on display in the morning’s pass through of Red Square in Moscow. Looking at the throngs around me on march in St Petersburg, I understood that you have to be utterly mad to want to pin all of our problems with Russia on one man.  This is not a nation to be trifled with whatever its many weaknesses and faults.

Many  of the marchers went the whole way down Nevsky to Palace Square, where entertainments awaited them.  Others, like us, revived traditions of celebrating 9 May that go well back into Soviet times: we sat down to a festive dinner at the home of friends and raised our tumblers of vodka to toast a common victory over the enemies of mankind.  May that spirit now leap across the Atlantic and rekindle the human feelings and efforts at reconciliation between the USA and Russia that have been missing for so long.  The meeting yesterday between Donald Trump and Sergei Lavrov raises hopes once again that this will come to pass.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017


Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.