May Celebrations Cancelled, a Symbolic Victory for Ukrainians

This year, Moscow’s authorities had cancelled 1 May celebrations. Then, on 18 April, the press secretariat of the Immortal Regiment movement announced that the organisers had “decided to move away from the format of one street and one square, and go wider”. Immediately, rumours were mentioning a possible cancellation of the military parade itself – so much that, on 24 April, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, decided it was time “to cut speculations short” by confirming that “Preparations for the parade are under way, it will take place. It will be a very important event, a traditional one for 9 May. We will say in due course what elements the parade will include, it is premature to talk about it now”.  What he called ‘speculations’ were linked to speculations that some components of the parade will be missing, notably the no fly-past.


Peskov has refused to discuss the motives for the cancellations, which later extended from Moscow to several regions of the Russian Federation and Crimea. Officially, the decision has been taken because of “terrorist threat”, a formulation alluding to the context of the “special operation” in Ukraine. This was not the first time that, both Moscow and Kiev, have been qualifying the actions by the adversary as ‘terrorism’. Zelensky even wants the international community to label Russia a terrorist state. In the case of the Kremlin, it has been used in the past – but in a totally different context. It entered the official vocabulary during the first Chechen war in 1994-1996, and later on after November 11 attentats, when Russia joined the international fight against Islamic terrorism. Today, the Kremlin labels terrorists opponents who are calling for a regime change, or simply show human concern for Ukrainians living under bombs. This is why the cancellations can be seen as an admission by the Russian authorities that they are unable to ensure the security of their citizens in their own cities; or that they are conscious that a real resentment against the war might expression themselves during the civilians corteges of 1 and 9 May. Images of the police storming the crowd during the “International Day of the workers” or, even worst, during the march of the Immortal Regiment, would be disastrous for the image of national unity and popular confidence so prominent in the Kremlin’s narrative. Another nightmare scenario would be a participation into the Immortal Regiment of relatives of men killed in Ukraine and wanting them to be recognised as heroes, on par with those of WWII. This would confront the authorities with the hypocrisy of the “special operation” qualification. One can even guess that some families of victims may use the opportunity to protest against the lack of consideration for Russian lives.

In short, the “terrorist” argument is an easy way to escape the fact that, despite the growing resignation of Russians, the mood can easily shift, especially in case of new calls-up. Talking of terrorism is also a way to frame the mysterious attacks against military or villages close to the border with Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities have seldom claimed responsibility for those actions, and Russian ones preferred to speak of accident – and lately of “actions by terrorists”. But they must have sense that the population is well aware of the danger, including in the Moscow’s Region, where pieces of drones are now frequently found. Some Muscovites even claim that, in those conditions, they were not entirely surprised by the  cancellations, nor by the decision to go on with the military parade, albeit with extra security measures, including the activation of the anti-missile defence system of the capital. The feeling of unreality has been reinforced by the revelations of the Washington Post on 23 April. The paper details American Intelligence reports about a plan by Ukraine’s head of the military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, for a “massive attack on Russian territory”, including Moscow, on 24 February, the anniversary of the invasion. According to the CIA, Washington pressured president Zelensky to abandon the plans, afraid that Russia would retaliate with nuclear weapons.

International symbolism

In any case, the decision to cancel such popular events is surprising, because it affects symbols of national unity, a concept so central to Putin’s policy. But the effects go well beyond Russia itself: the “common memory” of the Great Patriotic War has been enlarged to the former Soviet countries. Since 1992, Russian foreign policy doctrines have singled those countries as part of a special geopolitical space build on a common past. Its components include joint Soviet infrastructures, industrial complementarity, past heroes and shared memories, such as the celebrations of Victory Day. Soon, Moscow had to swallow the organisation of separate military parades, in the different capitals, attended by their new national armed forces profiled as the guarantor of the newly found independence. But it did not prevent the presidents of flying briefly to attend the parade in Moscow, and keeping on the tradition of civilian defiles. This is why it has been criticized by opposition parties and nationalist circles, wanting total emancipation of the Soviet past and of Russian influence. In the most radical cases, the presidents of Georgia and Ukraine refused invitation to attend the ceremony on Red Square. In Ukraine, celebrations have been reverted to 8 May, as in the West, and extended to all those who fought for Ukraine, independently of the forces in which they served.

The war in Ukraine has thinned the rank of foreign representatives in Moscow, to the point that in 2023, more than ever, attendances will be assessed in geopolitical terms. This year, the eyes will be on president Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, after the announcement by Kazakhstan’s Defence Ministry that there will be no national military parade on 9 May in order to “save budget funds”, but that “does not mean the cancellation of the holiday itself. May 9 is still a red day in the calendar. And politicians will certainly bring flowers to the Eternal Flame. The vast majority of them have fathers and grandfathers who fought against real fascism and Nazism,” he added. But the cancellation of the military parade has also been presented as a “pacific gesture” and a sign of protest “against a war between the two largest ethnic groups that participated and achieved victory”. Nevertheless, the question of president Tokaev on Red Square stays open.

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