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At Russia's Victory Day, a brighter spotlight on USSR's 'immortal regiment'

Understanding others

The 'immortal regiment' parade, started in 2012, was meant to allow Russians to highlight their forebears' role in beating back the Nazis during World War II. But it has grown immensely in popularity and prominence since then.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin (c.) holds the portrait of his father, war veteran Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, as he takes part in the Immortal Regiment march during the Victory Day celebrations, marking the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, at Red Square in Moscow Monday.
    Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
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Sofia Serbinenko was on the streets of Moscow with about 800,000 other marchers Monday, carrying a beribboned photograph of her great-grandfather, a Soviet fighter-bomber pilot who fought the Nazis in World War II.

"Victory Day has always been very important in our family," says Sofia, an 8th grader. "I have read so many books about the war, and I think all the time about the people who died so that we could live. For me, with a good life today, it is only right to declare that I will always remember, and to express my gratitude."

The march of the "immortal regiment," in which Russians from all ages and walks of life carry pictures of ancestors who fought, was modest at its 2012 inception. But while the war ended 71 years ago, the efforts put into annual commemorations of that titanic victory over the Nazis seem to be actually growing in Russia.

In a remarkable feat of historical memory, today it is a vast torrent that fills the streets of every Russian city and has since spread to over a dozen other countries, including nine US cities this year, according to Russian media. This year it almost eclipsed the more familiar official military parade, in which thousands of troops, armored vehicles, and intercontinental missiles rumbled past the Red Square reviewing stand, while bombers and fighter planes roared overhead.

The originator of the "immortal" movement, Igor Dmitriev from the Siberian city of Tomsk, has complained that his idea for spontaneous, voluntary, and non-commercial acts of memory has been hijacked by the Russian state and turned into a regimented spectacle that validates official views. Some veterans also say it papers over unmet obligations of the Soviet and now Russian governments to those who fought in the war.

Yet it's hard to deny the sheer weight of public enthusiasm on display, with whole families walking together to honor their ancestors, generating a mood that seems both somber and festive.

"It is something for parents to do with their children, generation after generation," says Sofia.

'Not something you can ever forget'

It seems a bit of a mystery why the World War II anniversary, which has faded with time almost everywhere else, appears to be a growing concern in Russia.

One answer Russians give is the immensity of Soviet sacrifice in the war, which still remains largely unknown in the West. About 28 million Soviets died and much of the country was devastated, leaving almost no family untouched.

The numbers are mind-boggling. About 3 million Soviet prisoners-of-war were worked to death in Nazi camps, 1.5 million died of starvation in the siege of Leningrad, and the fates of many millions more remain unknown to their relatives.

"My two grandfathers died in the war. One was missing and has no grave, even if we know approximately where he was killed," says Grigory Kunis, coordinator of the "immortal" march in St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad. "This is not something you can ever forget. For my family, it's an incredibly important day."

But as Russia drifts into a new era of geopolitical isolation and economic uncertainty, the unifying force of the anniversary is hard to ignore.

"Victory Day is practically the only 20th century event that all Russians, from every part of the political spectrum, can agree upon," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "Now the Kremlin is emphasizing the glorious Soviet past. But when you examine that past, almost every episode evokes controversy. All that we actually have is the victory over Naziism, and maybe Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. So, a big part of Victory Day is about official myth-building."

Historical re-evaluation?

Serious historical controversy is brewing over the looming centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which arrives next year.

For many Russians the revolution remains a sacred event, and they regard the czarist regime it overthrew as odious. But President Vladimir Putin signaled that tough debate and historical re-evaluation may be in the wind when he told a group of supporters recently that Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin planted "an atomic bomb under the house called Russia," which later exploded and destroyed the state.

"The anti-Nazi victory is a great source of pride for our people, and legitimacy for our state, at a time when there is quite a lot of uncertainty," says Mr. Petrov. "So, the idea is to take every opportunity to celebrate it."

Paradoxically, polls show that overall public interest in the anniversary is gradually declining, as one might expect as the event recedes in time. Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center in Moscow says that 82 percent of Russians said they were actively celebrating the day in 1995, but that fell to 75 percent in 2010, to 65 percent last year, and 63 percent today.

"The 'immortal regiment' has touched a public nerve, and inspired many to take part in it," Mr. Grazhdankin says. "But, overall, the interest in Victory Day celebrations is inexorably decreasing."

Promises unfulfilled

For Russia's 3.4 million surviving war veterans, it's a day to parade in the old medal-bedecked uniforms, and accept flowers, praise, and gratitude from strangers in the street.

But there is a nagging undercurrent of criticism from some veterans, and their supporters, who complain that despite the lavish public ceremonies on Victory Day, thousands of those who fought in the war have yet to receive the housing that was promised to them 7 decades ago. Just last month Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered local governors to urgently provide apartments to 8,350 World War II vets who are still waiting in the queue.

Another controversy concerns the millions who went missing, most of whom died anonymously, whose relatives have received minimal state assistance and have little hope of closure.

"The USSR lost 15 million military people in the war, but the general staff only recognizes the figure of 11 million to this day," says Mikhail Cherepanov, director of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kazan, in the Volga republic of Tatarstan. Part of the reason for that, he alleges, is that the state does not have to pay full pensions for those who are missing-in-action to surviving families, but gives much lower allowances.

The task of locating and identifying remains of lost soldiers on Russia's far-flung World War II battlefields also falls to private groups, with little state assistance, Mr. Cherepanov says.

"I still go every summer with young people, who dig in the forests and steppe, to locate unburied soldiers and try to restore their identities," he says. "There are still so many of them. What prevents our government from making these efforts? Apparently it has too many other things to do, and different expenses to pay for."

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