oDR: Feature

‘War is terrible. But today is a holiday’: how Russia celebrated Victory Day

Across Russia, people mark the Soviet Union’s victory in World War Two - and the brutal war against Ukraine

Editors of oDR
9 May 2022, 7.22pm

The letter "Z" has come to stand for Russia's invasion of Ukraine

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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

At the official level, Russia’s Victory Day looks to have been a souped-up affair with symbols of the war on Ukraine.

Many feared big announcements on 9 May, including mass or partial mobilisation. But the Kremlin, it seems, decided to focus on justifying the invasion of Ukraine, though rumours of mobilisation continue.

Vladimir Putin’s speech in Moscow concentrated on how NATO had allegedly built up a military presence in Ukraine – and that the Ukrainian government had declared an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. “An absolutely unacceptable threat was growing, and directly on our borders,” he claimed. Since 24 February, 3,381 civilians have been killed in Ukraine, according to the UN. The real figures are likely to be much higher.

Across the country, people marked Victory Day by taking part in the ‘Immortal Regiment’, an event staged in major cities across Russia on this day each year. Originally set up by liberal journalists, the event’s aim is to commemorate people who took part in the Second World War, with participants carrying pictures of relatives and or family friends.

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But it has long become more of a pro-government affair. This year, the ‘Immortal Regiment’ seemed to also celebrate the war against Ukraine, and there were few anti-war protests or actions in sight.

Reporting from three Russian cities, openDemocracy authors tried to find out what 9 May looks like.

A Mariupol resident walks past burnt-out buses in front of a heavily shelled apartment block

Russia’s war aims have been reduced to taking as much control of Donbas as possible

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Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

“War is terrible. But today is a holiday”

Moscow, Researcher of political movements (anonymous)

When I was on my way into the centre, I recalled how I woke up on 9 May a few years back in another city. As a ceremonial concert played, I thought: all this vulgarity of Victory Day still cannot cancel its authenticity, its greatness! No matter how many stupid ceremonies you have, there is something indestructible to this holiday. Then, in the era of depoliticisation, I thought that the memory of the war would guarantee people’s interest in politics. How wrong I was! Today I learned that Victory Day is a decisive attack on political memory.

Sitting on the metro, I thought about how the general spirit of celebration on 9 May should not - and cannot - cancel the reality of war. I felt strained by the high spirits of the people who were going to the same place as me, to the “Immortal Regiment” action. But it was clear that for them today was, first of all, a day off. A day off is supposed to be a rest from work, but it is also a rest from politics and news. And so I realised that this is the main task of the authorities - to emasculate this holiday, to deprive it of its historical meaning.

I walked along Moscow’s central Tverskaya Boulevard with everyone else. I asked people: “Why are you rejoicing? There’s a war on.” They answered: “War is terrible. But today is a holiday, can we not think and talk about it today?” But all the war songs and military symbols seemed to tell people: war is cool, there is no real war happening. Or if there is, it is far away and does not concern you.

Today, they are trying to remove all politics, all ideology, the very rhythm of history, from an event in memory of a war where two ideologies, communist and fascism, were opposed

My main impression from today was that people needed this day off in order to convince themselves that everything is in order in Russia, that everything is fine. That the war in Ukraine is something unreal and distant, and that if it is really happening, it will end very soon. People laughed a lot, told jokes.

But I saw it in their eyes: they understood what is happening, that’s why they want to distract themselves from it.

At some point, I saw a boy of preschool age asked his mother: “Won’t they throw Molotov cocktails at us?” His mom scolded him: “What are you talking about?” And then she added: “Maybe they will throw them, it’s that kind of time.” I thought: mate, you know what a Molotov cocktail is, but most importantly, you understand what is happening in the country!

A friend sent me an interview with a woman in St Petersburg: “I’m already celebrating, I live on the streets, the war in Ukraine doesn’t interest me,” the woman told the journalist. “Spot on,” I thought. Will the authorities destroy our country with public indifference? Today, they are trying to remove all politics, all ideology, the very rhythm of history, from an event in memory of a war where two ideologies, communist and fascism, were opposed.

I love all these people. This is what separates me from Russia’s liberal opposition. I understand that I am part of this huge procession. I wanted to go up to each and every one, hug them and whisper in their ear: “Do you like it when people are killed?”

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9 May in St Petersburg

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Image: openDemocracy

“We remember what fascism is”

St Petersburg

Victory Day in Russia’s northern capital began with a total cleansing of the city centre.

From early morning, all approaches to Nevsky Prospect were not just limited, but completely blocked off. The public was not allowed even on the pavement, and citizens, many dressed for the occasion, were pushed to the streets that run parallel to the city’s main thoroughfare. Petersburgers, who went with their families and friends to the city center to watch the promised parade of military equipment from the last war, stood disappointedly at the metal barriers that blocked off the entrances to the street, the embankments and the approaches to Palace Square. To the bewildered questions of people “how can we watch the parade?” policemen only shrugged their shoulders, and advised them to ask regional governor Alexander Beglov.

The cancellation of the airforce part of the parade was also a surprise for Petersburgers - usually groups of Russian combat aircraft fly over the city on Victory Day. This year, the planes were canceled at the last moment, citing the weather, although the sun shone almost all day.

People wore orange-and-black St George’s ribbons - in the form of bows or rosettes - on their jackets and raincoats. Oddly enough, images in the form of the letters “Z” and “V” (the symbols of Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine) were extremely rare. And not only on the clothes of Petersburgers. Even in the festive decoration of the streets of the city, these new symbols on 9 May turned out to be literally driven underground - orange-black letters with the invariable inscription “We do not leave our own behind” could only be seen in the metro. It seems that the authorities decided not to escalate the city’s public trappings of pathos and patriotism.

"People must hold on to each other, and it is definitely wrong to fight”

Petersburg’s traditional site of protest - the exit from the Gostiny Dvor metro station at the corner of Sadovaya Street and Nevsky Prospekt - was cordoned off so that only a tiny patch of space remained. Even the entrance to the first floor gallery, where people with posters traditionally stood, was blocked off. The open space in front of Gostiny Dvor looked deserted, as if in the midst of the pandemic. In the metro, on the platforms of the Gostiny Dvor and Nevsky Prospekt stations, additional police squads were on duty.

The day did not pass without arrests. A correspondent for the opposition SOTA channel, Viktoria Arefieva, was detained in the city centre during the day without explanation. Earlier, in the morning, Arefieva could not manage to reach Palace Square to attend the parade. She was not allowed in despite having accreditation. When asked about the reason for the detention, the police told Viktoria: “You yourself know why.”

Later, it was reported that two unknown men attacked artist Elena Osipova, 76, who had planned to hold a one-person anti-war protest on the Immortal Regiment’s route in the city. On leaving her home, the men stole her placards and ran off.

According to the tradition of recent years, war veterans were first brought to the city’s Oktyabrsky concert hall and seated in open cars. Then, at 2pm, these cars set off in a festive column along Nevsky Prospect towards Palace Square. By this time, the public had already been allowed onto the sidewalks of the street, and people had gathered along the iron fences to greet the veterans.

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9 May in St Petersburg

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(c) SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The veterans were followed by a march from the Immortal Regiment. Its participants began to approach Alexander Nevsky Square a few hours before the start of the procession. In addition to ordinary citizens, a lot of cadets, military men, athletes and other groups of people dressed in various kinds of uniforms without identification marks gathered on the square. They also joined the column.

Contrary to expectations, no additional banners or posters (except for portraits of participants in the Second World War) were visible at the procession. But if there were no external signs of special enthusiasm and patriotism, then the mood of the audience was very combative. While people were gathering, I managed to talk to some of them. To the question “Does today differ in its mood from previous years?”, almost all answered: “Yes, it’s different.”

“It differs, given the latest events in the world,” said Oleg, 42. “Because of its patriotism, first of all. We remember what fascism is from the stories of our grandparents, and we understand it perfectly well. Eventually this should be over.”

When asked where exactly fascism should be ended, Oleg confidently answered: “In Ukraine!”

"There is some kind of negative tension, anxiety or something, as if some bad events are approaching"

Two students from the city’s polytechnic university, Artyom and Boris, told me that 9 May is a way to show that Russia is a big state, and no one will stop it from staying that way.

“For me, the events in Ukraine are a fight against nationalism,” Artyom said. “We correctly delivered a preemptive strike to stop the spread of nationalism and fascism.”

When asked if there is nationalism in Russia, Artyom, thinking for a second, said: “Here it is put out immediately.” And he said that if mobilisation was announced, he would definitely go to war.

Vitaly, 61, shared his impressions of the holiday.

“There is some kind of negative tension, anxiety or something, as if some bad events are approaching. I am sure that we are not waging a war against Ukraine, but actually against NATO countries.”

Only a few participants in this procession answered the question of what is happening between Ukraine and Russia without pathos and television propaganda. Ekaterina, 48, said: “This is something very bad, it’s not right, we don’t want war.” And Timofey, 17, said: “I have a negative attitude to [the war], there must be peace in the whole world, people must hold on to each other, and it is definitely wrong to fight.”

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9 May in Rostov-on-Don

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Image: Vladislav Ryazantsev

“How much is a flag with Stalin?”

Rostov-on-Don, Vladislav Ryazantsev

After a three-year break, the patriotic ‘Immortal Regiment’ action, where people parade with pictures of their relatives who died in World War Two, was held on the main square of Rostov-on-Don on 9 May.

According to government figures, 95,000 people, an unprecedented number of marchers, gathered in the centre of the southern Russian city. In total, local authorities counted about 200,000 people out to mark 9 May in Rostov region in total.

The Monday demonstration gathered on Karl Marx Square. Residents had been gathering there since seven am. Unlike previous years, traffic was blocked for several city blocks. It was impossible to drive directly to the square. On leaving public transport, participants were met by numerous cars selling various paraphernalia: large and small flags with the inscription “9 May”, Russian tricolours with the inscription “We do not leave our own behind” and the letter “Z” - the symbol of Russia’s “special military operation”, as well as a wide variety of icons and stickers. In general, Z-symbols have become a hallmark of 9 May this year.

“How much is a flag with Stalin?” asks a man with a beard hurrying to the procession, wearing some symbols of “victory”.

“One thousand rubles [£11].”

“Wow…” sighed an annoyed buyer

“But look how huge it is, take it and wave it as much as you want. There are only a couple left!” the seller tries to convince the buyer as he leaves. On the way to the square, young people were selling small flags of both the Russian Federation and the USSR for 200 rubles.

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9 May in Rostov-on-Don

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Image: Vladislav Ryazantsev

Songs of the war years were playing loudly on the square itself, and people took photographs wearing Second World War tunics and caps. Some hurried to take their place behind the “Immortal Regiment” banner, others met acquaintances, including in the police cordon, to have a quick chat. Men in suits with megaphones and high-level police officers followed the procession.

“Guys, who will hold the St. George ribbon?” a man with a huge banner asks loudly and, without waiting for consent, hands plastic poles to some people from Central Asia, who obviously do not understand Russian. They smile embarrassedly, but unfold the ribbon over the column. It turns out that the ribbon had the logo of the marginal, but pro-Kremlin organisation, the National Liberation Movement, written along its side.

The procession itself started at 10 am: bikers from the Night Wolves motorcycle club were followed by retro cars of the war years. Andrey Kudryakov, the coordinator of the action in the Rostov region, announced that the procession would carry “photos of those killed in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and the victims of genocide”, but only a few portraits were seen - at the very beginning of the column.

According to Kudryakov, refugees from Donbas also planned to join the procession. In Rostov region, which directly borders Ukraine, you often see cars with number plates from the so-called “People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine, as well as stickers that read “children” on people’s cars, complete with bullet holes and broken windows. Thousands of people have come here since 24 February. Nevertheless, if refugees did take part in the Rostov action, they did not emphasise their presence. Only in Novocherkassk, a nearby town, did two men unfurl the “Donetsk People’s Republic” flag.

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9 May in Rostov-on-Don

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Image; Vladislav Ryazantsev

In the march itself, people sang frontline songs, periodically chanting “Russia!”, and those who were tired discussed other topics.

“We should go to Moscow next year for the procession…” one woman says dreamily to her husband and son.

“Yeah, if there is a next year at all,” the man answers.

“But how, mom, the planes aren’t flying? They’re not flying because of the war!” the little boy joins in. Rostov’s Platov airport has been closed since the morning of 24 February.

Severe-looking men in military uniform discuss the situation on the front.

“We have to encircle them, encircle them faster than anyone else and pickle them there!”

“Yes, and we can’t let anyone go, otherwise they’ll just be taken prisoner again,” his friend echoes him.

Participants moved along Sovetskaya Street, through Rostov’s Theatre Square. A military parade, including vehicles with the Z symbol, had already passed. During the procession, students of local universities unfolded a giant St. George ribbon in their hands.

Officers from the regional Centre for Combating Extremism, a law enforcement body, watched the rolling up of the banners closely, apparently watching out for any anti-war placards. Some opposition Telegram channels called for anti-war protests on 9 May. However, no one, it seems, was ready for any anti-war speeches - no doubt mindful of previous repressions.

On 6 March, 70 people were detained during an anti-war protest in Rostov. These people were not allowed to seek legal counsel, and a week later law enforcement searched several activists’ homes, and confiscated their computer equipment. In early April, unknown people left bullet marks on the window of the author of an anti-war Telegram channel. On 1 May, a Rostov court arrested a picketer for 15 days for holding a poster that read “Make love not war”.

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