The title of this essay may be misleading as regards what took place and what did not take place this morning during Moscow’s celebration of the 76th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.
I will begin my account with those elements which broke with the traditions of the past, some large, some small. Then I will turn to the way today’s Victory Parade highlighted facts about today’s Russia which hark back many years if not centuries. Indeed that last point may have been crystal clear in the West to knowledgeable observers from European television programming, about which I will write in the concluding section of this essay.
To begin with, what was new? First, I direct attention to who was the foreign guest of honor at the reviewing stand seated between President Putin and Defense Minister Shoigu: President Rakhmon of the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan.
In the pre-pandemic past, many world leaders accepted Moscow’s invitation to attend the military parade. In 2020, the event was postponed by more than a month due to the pandemic and almost no one aside from the leaders of former Soviet Republics came to what was the very important 75th anniversary. This year, out of health considerations, the invitation list was cut back to one sole president.
Why Tajikistan? That was clear from the news coverage of Putin’s meeting with Rakhmon in the Kremlin the day before, on Saturday. Secondarily, they met to discuss migration and labor questions of mutual interest given that more than 250,000 Tajiks are working in the Russian Federation as Gastarbeiter. In what was surely a remark to preempt any criticism of this situation from Russian nationalists, Putin emphasized that these Tajiks were an important contribution to alleviate Russia’s labor shortage. Primarily, however, Rakhmon was given special welcome status because of the geopolitical and military importance of his country as a bulwark against Islamic extremists from neighboring Afghanistan now that U.S. and NATO forces are leaving.
Another new element (second year) directly related to the ongoing pandemic was the elimination of the till recently very important public dimension of Victory Day celebrations, the March of the Immortal Regiment, in which Russian families have carried aloft placards with photos of their parents and grandparents who were participants in the WWII war effort either on the home front or on battlefields. These afternoon marches gathered a million or more participants in each of the two capitals and also large numbers in cities across the country. This year the Immortal Regiment was made into a “virtual event,” meaning posting of those relatives’ photos online. This was a very sad reminder of the extraordinary times Russia and the world are passing through. And so, the authorities were compelled to remove the “human” dimension that had become so important to everyday Russians as they mark the most important date in the civil calendar.
Otherwise, the military parade celebrating Victory went according to the traditional script, hence, as I say, déjà vu. Some of the latest military hardware from among tanks, tactical and strategic rockets, as well as fighter jets and helicopters was shown with remarkable precision. We were reminded most powerfully that notwithstanding all the shocks of the post-Soviet period to its economy and most importantly to its manufacturing industry, Russia today stands unique as developer and manufacturer of cutting edge military equipment on this Continent, enjoying a status that no, I repeat NO, European state can begin to rival. Were it not for U.S. equipment sold to NATO members through application of overwhelming political pressure from Washington, the Continent would be no match for the Russian military industrial complex.
At the same time, as a pure layman I dare to share one observation regarding the ground vehicles put on display by the Russians. They are purely functional; they declare loudly their military as opposed to civilian allure: clunky in design terms and in many respects a throw-back to Soviet aesthetics. Perhaps Washington pays too much attention to the Hummer look and overspends accordingly. Meanwhile, the latest Russian tank, the Armata, breaks with this design tradition and looks sleek enough. And the Russian aircraft in their fly-over at the conclusion of the parade, whether large or small, are outstanding exemplars of elegance in flight, none more so than the strategic bomber TU-160, nicknamed the ”White Swan.”
The May 9th celebrations fall this year just one week after the celebration of Orthodox Easter in Russia, and for some reason the German-French classical music television channel Mezzo has used this week to broadcast Russian opera and ballet performances. It all began on Sunday, 2nd May with a traditional staging of Boris Godunov performed by the Bolshoi Theater which touched off the train of thought expressed in the title of this essay, namely déjà vu.
Two scenes from Boris bear on today’s international events and draw into high relief the continuity of national contradictions in Eastern Europe. Lest the reader think I am overdoing the argument of continuity, I refer to another set of circumstances in real life, not on the opera stage: Britain’s dispatch of naval vessels to the waters of the Channel Islands to protect these British possessions from French militants protesting fishing regulations they see as discriminatory. This naval stand-off reminds us of the near millennium of British-French military conflict.
The first of the two scenes in Boris that I have in mind takes place in a tavern near the Russian-Lithuanian border, where the renegade monk Grigory Otrepiev, the “False Dimitry,” is on his way to recruit Polish-Lithuanian backers for his claims to the Russian throne as the surviving son of Ivan the Terrible. The following scene takes us across that border to the noble estate of Marina Mniszek, who agrees to be his bride and return with him to Moscow on the strength of Polish arms and in the company of a contingent of Polish Catholic clergy intent on converting the heathen (Orthodox) Russians. One would have to be totally blind to miss the updating of these events today in the person of one Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fulfills the tradition of Russian runaways seeking and finding support for their claims to the Russian (Belarussian) “throne.” One would have to be blind to miss the continuity in Polish aspirations to dominate the Central European space between Berlin and Moscow from North to South, “od morza do morza.”
And then there is a third scene in Boris which never fails to inspire me: the monologue of the monk chronicler Pimen in his cell, speaking to himself and then to Grigory Otrepiev before the latter’s flight in pursuit of fame and riches. Pimen tells us that he records the terrible times that Russia is living through in the vague expectation that some day hundreds of years later his chronicles deemed to have been written by an “anonymous monk” will be read and will open the eyes of future generations to the catastrophes of Pimen’s times. It is in this spirit that I pursue my own scribblings in the fairly bleak present day.
©Gilbert Doctorow 2021