One of my highest priorities in these writings is to record personal impressions of significant Russia-related events in which I have been a first-hand witness, i.e. to practice active journalism as opposed to sedentary commentary on what others have said or written. Over the course of two years beginning in the spring of 2020, visa and other restrictions imposed by nearly all countries including Russia to combat the Covid epidemic stood in the way. Then following the onset of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, getting to Russia became still more challenging when air and train networks were shut down. Nonetheless, when there is a will there is a way, and it is a rare pleasure to once again report ‘from the field’ on yesterday’s March of the Immortal Regiment in Russia’s Northern Capital.
This was the first parade celebrating Russia’s victory over fascist Germany in World War II per the Russian calendar after the two-year suspension due to Covid. Lest the skipping of a parade go underappreciated by readers, allow me to remind them that May 9th is the most important holiday of the year to Russians, trumping personal birthdays, because virtually every family in the country lost loved ones in World War II. Twenty-six million died in defense of the homeland, the greatest wartime loss of life in human history.
The March of the Immortal Regiment was added to the commemoration ceremonies several years ago as a ground-up movement that provides a personal and family oriented counterpoint in the afternoon to the formal military parades on the morning of the 9th in Moscow and in major cities across the country. Nearly all marchers hold aloft photographs of their fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers who fought on the front or who served the defense effort at home, both those who died in the conflict or who lived on as veterans.
I have written about the Immortal Regiment four times following my participation year after year, and so I can bring a certain comparative sense to what I am about to say.
Let me begin with numbers. Surely, the high point was in 2019, when it was estimated that one million people turned out for the March in St Petersburg alone, roughly one quarter of the city’s overall population. Though I have not seen official numbers, my guess is that this year’s edition attracted significantly fewer.
It would be risky to name any reason for reduced attendance. The weather was reasonably good: no rain or snow showers, as have occurred in the past, just a cold breeze recorded as 10 degrees C.
Perhaps lower attendance may be explained by a popular mood that is depressed by the military action now going on in the Donbas. It did seem to me that the joyfulness of families, of three generations from grandparents to toddlers participating in the same public event, was less in evidence than in years past. Perhaps there were fewer dating couples in the parade, no flirting policemen and women on the sidelines, though overall young people were very present.
I will not hazard conclusions from these several observations. It is very much to the point that among the thousands of people whom I saw around me only one person was carrying a placard on which was written: “Peace. No to War.” And that individual carrying a dissonant message was left alone by the good-humored crowd singing Katyusha; no scandal resulted.
After walking down the traditional route starting from the Alexander Nevsky Square by the riverside to the Uprising Square and continuing for several hundred meters along Nevsky Prospekt in the direction of the Palace Square, we left the parade and headed for our traditional May 9th dinner with friends or relatives. Same friends, same apartment.
The table was richly set with the appetizers that support vodka toasts so beloved by Russians of a certain age: marinated slivers of salmon, pickled herring with onions in sour cream, salted wild mushrooms and assorted herbs and greens. Only this time there were very few toasts.
Following the tradition of the household, our host read from his poems published in a volume dedicated to May 9th. He is a certified blokadnik, who spent his early childhood years living in a downtown apartment with family during the entire Siege of Leningrad.
This time he went off script and left his poems to tell us how he survived: with one or two other children, he would cross the street from his apartment house and would be given some sweets or table scraps by soldiers in the garrison building on the other side. But he also told us of his macabre experience witnessing partly eaten frozen corpses, the results of cannibalism by which some adult neighbors survived.
The atmosphere of our gathering was altered in other ways. For the first time ever, our camaraderie was interrupted for several minutes by a quarrel over the necessity and sense of the ‘special military operation.’
Our friends, our hostess, are all Russian patriots. But they are also flesh and blood people with personal and family concerns over how the war affects them and their loved ones. Will there be a general mobilization? Will men as old as 50 be called up? These questions weighed on the celebratory mood of May 9th and begged to be discussed. In this respect yesterday’s Victory Day was unlike any I have witnessed until now.
Before closing, I am obliged to remark on the morning’s televised spectacle from Moscow and its grand military parade that the whole country was watching. Perhaps the attention was all the more keen due to expectations, fears that some new escalation in the military operation would be announced from the tribune by President Putin during his brief speech.
As it turned out, Putin’s words were very restrained. There were no threats of nuclear attack on NATO nations posing an existential threat to Russia. The word “Ukraine” was not mentioned once. All talk was of the Donbas and of the historic Russian lands (meaning the Eastern territories of present day Ukraine) which were threatened by a Ukrainian punitive expedition in the run-up to Russia’s launch of its ‘special military operation.’ The operation, he said, was preemptive in nature from the get-go.
Western commentators found little to sink their teeth into other than the seeming admission that the operation is taking a toll on military personnel: this may be tweaked out of President Putin’s signing a decree providing for additional financial compensation to the families of wounded servicemen or those killed in action.
Meanwhile, Russian observers, such as the political scientist who offered his appreciation of the speech on Business FM radio St Petersburg this morning, explain that by tradition a presidential address during May 9th celebrations is not the format for announcing decisions with respect to military operations. In this respect, Western observers were simply naïve in their expectations.
As for the military parade itself, the expected symbolism was respected. The parade was opened by flagbearers carrying aloft the flag which was hoisted atop the Reichstag in Berlin following Germany’s capitulation to the Red Army and other Allied forces. At his entrance to Red Square in his open-top Aurus limousine for a review of the troops, Russia’s Buddhist Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu crossed himself in Orthodox fashion as required after passing under an icon mounted above the portal.
Otherwise, the parade was noteworthy only for its brevity. There were plenty of tanks and also of the Grad truck mounted multiple rocket launcher that is seeing a lot of action in the Donbas. But there was only one intercontinental missile on display, the Yars which is launched from a mobile carrier and which was deployed by the army more than ten years ago.
Most importantly, the air show or ‘parade’ was cancelled at the last minute due to unfavorable meteorological conditions. This deprived both the domestic audience and foreign observers of a view of the specially configured ‘White Swan’ heavy bomber known as the Judgment Day aircraft since it is intended to take on board the President at the start of a nuclear war.
Nonetheless, the fraught times in which we are living were brought to mind by one aspect of Putin’s appearance on the tribune and of his subsequent walk to the Eternal Flame at the walls of the Kremlin in the Alexander Garden: he was shadowed the whole time by a security guard carrying the briefcase with ‘the button,’ meaning the key to unleashing Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022