Moscow's Victory Day: Russians riled by West's boycott

The Kremlin may use the pomp and circumstance of the annual celebration to improve its own image. But the day is also dear to average Russians – who see Western leaders' decision to stay away as offensive.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian army soldiers, dressed in World War II era uniforms, march along Moscow's Red Square during a May 7 general rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade. The parade, scheduled for Saturday, will celebrate the 70th anniversary of victory in the war.

In Russia, where it sometimes seems as though World War II was only yesterday, the annual May 9 celebration of Victory Day is always an intensely emotional occasion. And this year, as Russia marks the 70th anniversary of the former USSR's victory over Nazi Germany, will be its biggest ever.

The dwindling ranks of war veterans will be out on the streets, their chests festooned with medals, to be applauded, wept over, kissed, and handed bouquets of flowers by complete strangers. Marching bands will play familiar war songs, and crowds of spectators will sing along. 

And while the Kremlin does everything it can to stage-manage the occasion and bask as much as possible in the reflected glory of the victory, most of the public's reactions will be completely spontaneous and genuine.

"There was hardly a single family that didn't suffer in some way during the war. Even now when we poll people, over 90 percent can name a grandfather or other relatives who fought and perhaps died in the war," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center in Moscow. "Victory Day is the one day on our calendar where there is no controversy. Everyone feels happy and proud of their country."

Yet this year's parade will be starkly different from many previous ones, because Western leaders are overwhelmingly boycotting it to express their anger over Russian intervention in next door Ukraine. Just some 30 mostly Asian and African world leaders will join President Vladimir Putin in the reviewing stand, beneath which some 16,000 troops, including guest units from China and India, will march.

Experts say the headcount on Red Square's reviewing stand is symbolic of a much deeper geopolitical shift that's been gathering pace over the past crisis-ridden year, as Russia turns away from the West pivots toward a less critical and economically welcoming Asia. Leaders of India and China will be there, along with United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, and leaders of most post-Soviet central Asian countries.

'Deeply offensive' boycott

Just five years ago NATO military units joined their Russian counterparts in the triumphal march across Red Square, a reminder of the grand alliance between the USSR and the Western allies that brought down Hitler's Germany.

But on Saturday the only European head of state who will be alongside Mr. Putin on the reviewing stand is Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, though several others will be in Moscow but avoid the military parade. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel will fly in Sunday to lay a wreath at the Kremlin's tomb of the unknown soldier.

"This Western boycott is not unexpected, but it is deeply offensive to Russians. Not just the leadership, but regular people who regard this as a sacred holiday," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"The fact that they're staying away adds another layer of acrimony, another reason for Russians to resent the West, but it probably doesn't really make any difference. Even if they came, Ukraine would still be the big apple of discord. There would have been no ideological truce."

Some argue that it's better this way. "I don't feel outrage at the Western leaders' boycott. In fact, I am grateful to them," says Viktor Baranets, a former defense ministry spokesman who is now a military columnist for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. "This is a moment of truth, in which they display their real attitude toward us. The era of hypocrisy is over, and everything is clear."

The key message of Russia's V-Day parade, as it is every year, is not merely to remind the world of the titanic land war against Nazi Germany that the USSR played a disproportionate role in winning, but also to display Russia's ongoing military readiness. This year, amid the rift with the West and competing war games on Russia's borders with NATO, that point will be stressed more loudly than ever. Many of the results of Russia's massive rearmament program will be on full display, many for the first time, and the message will be noted.

About 200 pieces of armor will rumble through Red Square, with the main stars of the show being Russia's new generation of Armata main battle tanks. Over 140 warplanes, including some of Russia's newest, will scream overhead throughout the performance.

"It's not an accident that this year's parade is of such scale," says Mr. Makarkin. "It's a demonstration of force and power, pure and simple."

Remembering the war

But for most Russians the main focus will be the war veterans, whose personal stories have filled newspapers and TV screens over the past week.

Most of those still alive were actually children during the war, like Lyudmila Yermalyuk, who was taken to Nazi Germany as a slave laborer at the age of 12. She says only 26 out of 150 Soviet children in her labor camp survived until the Red Army freed them in 1945.

"On that day it seemed unbelievable that we were still alive," she says. "My first thought was, 'I'll go find my dad now.' Later I learned that he'd been killed in the war."

Yury Kuznetsov was captured by the Nazis when they invaded the USSR in 1941. He passed through the hell of several concentration camps, escaped four times, and on the fourth try was found by Soviet troops near the war's end in Czechoslovakia.

"No one believes me, they simply can't accept that anybody could have survived all that," he says. "But I survived, and when the war ended I felt the most incredible wave of joy. I don't feel any hatred toward the Germans today. I feel that we were fighting fascism, not Germans."

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