By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
If Vladimir Putin wanted to vindicate those who accuse him of hijacking the celebrations of 9 May for political and personal reasons, he could hardly have done better than announcing two successive postponements. The main motive was of course the coronavirus epidemy, still out of control in early May. Putin decided wisely to cancel an event dragging millions of people through the country’s streets. The event was replaced by a low-key ceremony on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, under the walls of the Kremlin, where Putin bowed his head in respect to the 28 million Soviet citizens who lost their lives during WWII. Instead of a military parade on Red Square, jets and helicopters flew over Moscow.
But Vladimir Putin cannot reconciliate himself with the cancellation of the special celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Victory over Nazism he had planned for months. This 75th years were due to be grandiose, projecting the image of his personal power and of Russian greatness, with the president surrounded by the leaders of the world, many of them allies during WWII.
In consequence, he postponed the commemorations, not once, but twice. First, he proposed to mark Victory Day on 3 September (the end of World War Two in the Pacific). Then, on 26 May, as the coronavirus became better controlled, he ordered Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to organise a massive military parade on 24 June (the day of the first victory parade on Red Square after the 9 May 1945 German surrender)
The Kremlin has been reissuing invitations to world leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancelor Angela Merkel, China’s leader Xi Jinping, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump. All can, of course, still use the fear of coronavirus to decline the invitation.
The selected successive dates for postponements put the accent on the fact that the URSS took part on all the fronts of WWII, on the European continent but also on the Asian front. Another demonstration of the “distinct Russian civilisation” on the basis of both its European and Asian identities.
The gathering of leaders should also mark a return of Putin on the international scene after the cancellation of many official meetings, including at presidential level, due to the epidemic.
The new calendars did not involve the “Immortals Regiment March” consisting of processions by hundred thousand of Russians, carrying pictures of family members who died during the war. In 2012, the first time it crossed the streets of central Moscow, it was a moving event, breaking the mold of the military parade with a rare sign of popular reconnection with people’s past. Despite being made an official event in 2015, and turned into another symbol of national union, its human dimension has not been lost, including among the youth.
Putin judged that the coronavirus was sufficiently under control to allow military parades, but not enough to allow such huge processions of Russians side by side on the streets, knowing that after they will join millions of others in the parks or on the terraces. In consequence, he postponed the March from 9 may to 26 July, out of the blue, with the vague idea that he might be coupled with the referendum on Constitutional reforms that was due on 22 April.
On their side, regional authorities did not hide their reluctance to organise military parades, feeling unable to ensure social distancing. This was specially the case in Moscow, the main cluster of the infection, whose mayor Sergei Sobianin has repeated that the measures of confinement, albeit reduced, were still in place in the city and that public security was his personal responsibility. Other regional leaders share his views, as many provinces have been hit later by the virus, and are still very vulnerable. More than Sobianin, they lack the human, technical and financial means to organise the events and protect the population.
The Russian media were prompt to underline the bizarre character of successive postponements, the contradictions of a president secluded in his residence of Novo-Ogorievo, and the political use not only of WWII, but also of the coronavirus. They specially asked “how social distances can be guaranteed for soldiers and for people watching them”. Indeed, even the military raised the question of the security of the men in cities under partial confinement.
As usual Moscow is full of rumours. Unusually, it is not only the social media who are questioning the behaviour of Putin. Traditional media, including some considered close to the power, are uneasy with the idea of postponing a 9 May Victory day that is written in the DNA of the population.
The easier explanation is Putin’s obsession with any symbol of national unity, expressed by his mantra that Russians can win anyone and overcome anything as long as they are united. He certainly pay attention to the fact that, among others, WWII forged a Soviet identity, from people able to overtake ethnic or class division when fighting an invader. That included millions of men and women born into repressed families.
The 75th anniversary was due to show to the world the strength of an united Russia, reinforce Putin’s image of a strong Russian president despite recent cracks in his vertical power, and of course that of a key actor of the global world.
This was especially sensitive at a time when Putin, and many Russians, denounce attempts by the West to “rewrite history” to justify Western “aggressive policy” towards Russia. This include attempts to reduce the role of the Red Army, and efforts to put Hitler and Stalin on the same foot.
Westerners accuse “revanchist Russia” of using a distant past to encourage nationalism – another episode of the soft-power new cold war between Russia and the Western former allies.