On Saturday, President Vladimir Putin will take the salute at a grand military parade in Moscow’s Red Square. Victory Day – 9 May is when Russia commemorates its part in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany – is at once the most solemn and overtly patriotic occasion.
It is one of the few public holidays to have made the transition from the Soviet to the post-Soviet calendar intact.
Victory Day was a highlight of the year I spent as an exchange student in Voronezh – a city rarely mentioned without the accompanying phrase “the last front before Stalingrad”. Preparations took weeks: placards were painted; bunting and flags adorned the streets. It was a huge honour to bear the university standard. Food stocks in the shops miraculously improved.
Reporting from Moscow over a decade later, I recall the barriers piled up around Red Square, the overnight arrival of the tanks and, above all, the suffocating stench of their fuel, as the iron monsters waited to join the triumphal formation. The Victory Day parade was something to cling to, even as the Soviet Union neared collapse.
This year’s commemoration will be second to none. As the 70th, it is a round-number anniversary. As with the plethora of Second World War anniversaries being commemorated this year, this is probably the last time that there will be anything like a quorum of those who actually participated in or witnessed these events able to attend.
Then, of course, there is the trickier, most contemporary and specifically Russian, aspect. This year is an opportunity for the Kremlin to demonstrate that Russia, as a great power, is back. The advance of the decadent West has been halted in Ukraine and the sacred territory of Crimea has been returned to the motherland.
All this is why Western leaders – who went to Moscow en masse for Victory Day’s 60th anniversary – are staying away. They do not wish to associate with Putin – certainly not while Ukraine’s very existence as a sovereign state is under threat. They especially do not want to appear at a Russian military occasion, which could be seen as signalling acceptance of the events of the past 18 months.
Strictly speaking there is no Western boycott, and there are degrees of absence. The Czech president will go to Moscow, but not attend the parade. Angela Merkel will arrive a day later and lay a wreath – an act that might anyway seem more appropriate for a German Chancellor at a wartime anniversary. As for the UK, who knows who the prime minister will be by Saturday? Declining the invitation was excusable, regardless of Ukraine.
Some may see the attendance list, headed by the Chinese and Indian leaders – but not by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who has just cried off – followed by the autocrats of Central Asia, as evidence of where Russia’s foreign policy is now heading. Maybe. But the Kremlin’s response to the Western stay-away suggests otherwise. It has been peevish, but also shot through with incomprehension. For Russians, what is happening in Ukraine and Russia’s part in the victory of 1945 are qualitatively and quantitatively quite different things.
Each 9 May, Russia does not just celebrate victory over Nazi Germany; it mourns the loss of more than 20 million war dead, and it reconsecrates the idea of Russian suffering to save Europe. In conversation with Russians in recent weeks, I have had to field a stream of injured questions along the lines of “has the West ever understood Russia’s sacrifice?” and: “Will the West ever appreciate it?” The notion that Ukraine is a real stumbling block here is beyond comprehension; the stay-away is rather seen as further proof that Russia will never, ever, be considered “one of us”.
Countries keep memories alive, often unrealistically flattering ones, for many reasons. Last June, in a recognition of the wartime alliance, Putin was controversially invited to join the Allied commemoration of the Normandy landings, at a time when Russia’s seizure of Crimea was even fresher in the memory than it is now. But this offered an opportunity for Western leaders and for Putin to speak their minds, while preserving dignity on either side. One result was the first formal meeting between Putin and Ukraine’s newly elected president – without which Ukraine’s situation might be even worse than it is today.
To join Putin on the podium for Saturday’s parade would not be politic; but to dine in the Kremlin or take part in a wreath-laying would surely not be out of place. Most Westerners might not fear any resurgence of fascism in Ukraine, but discussion with Putin and others – whose fathers fought on that front and others – could afford an understanding of why many Russians might. In recent years, the West has missed one opportunity after another to understand how Russia’s past influences its present. And here is another gone.