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APC Weddings, Tank Biathlon: Russia's Martial Mood

  • Tom Balmforth

A woman walks past a rocket launcher during the International Military-Technical Forum ARMY-2015 in the Russian military Patriot park in Kubinka, outside Moscow.

A woman walks past a rocket launcher during the International Military-Technical Forum ARMY-2015 in the Russian military Patriot park in Kubinka, outside Moscow.

MOSCOW -- Here comes the bride -- in an armored personnel carrier (APC).

Forget those Hummer stretch limousines. These days, several companies in Moscow are renting out APCs for couples riding off into matrimony -- part of a military craze that is permeating Russia amid the conflict in Ukraine and a Kremlin drive to boost patriotism.

Nourished by President Vladimir Putin's defiant rhetoric and the bellicose bullhorn of state television, the martial mood has boomed amid confrontation with the West and is being harnessed for PR and profit by private companies, the military, and politicians, sometimes with unusual results.

The Defense Ministry launched a foray into fashion this week with new boutiques in Moscow and St. Petersburg touting "Army of Russia" accessories and urban casual wear -- camouflage hoodies, a "Victory 1945-2015" leather jacket for 82,650 rubles ($1,525), and gold-plated iPhone 6s with the Red Army star for 120,000 rubles ($2,210).

At the shop near the Kremlin on Moscow's main street, dance remixes of Soviet wartime hits Katyusha and Blue Scarf played in a children's section stocked with T-shirts featuring Putin in sunglasses and "Polite Little Bears" in uniform -- a kids' version of "polite people," the Russian nickname for the troops Moscow sent to annex Crimea from Ukraine last year.

As an alternative to civilian-style limousines, couples in the capital can now hire APCs for wedding parties -- a new "established fashion," according to the official government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"There is a kind of trend," says the director of a company that since last year rents out APCs for weddings once every month or two. "The usual limousine or some kind of normal luxury car has become uninteresting."

Turning Up The Tough Talk

For some travelers, the war footing is palpable upon arrival: "Russians are polite people," proclaimed a 2-meter-tall cardboard soldier, toting a machine gun, that stood in the arrivals section at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport recently -- apparently an advertisement for a shopping center.

Politicians and officials are in on the act, setting the tone with tough talk about Russia's military and suggesting that, if it wanted to, Russia could turn up the heat in what many are calling a new Cold War with the United States and Europe.

Participating crews from Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia (left-right) take part in the Tank Biathlon international competition in the village of Alabino outside Moscow in August 2013.

Participating crews from Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia (left-right) take part in the Tank Biathlon international competition in the village of Alabino outside Moscow in August 2013.

"Tanks don't need visas," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin proclaimed on national television in May as Western politicians expressed concern at Russia's military buildup in the Arctic.

And the mania shows no sign of retreat.

Later this month, the southern city of Volgograd -- formerly Stalingrad -- will host the Tank Biathlon world championships, a Russian "military-sporting" event in which teams of soldiers in color-coded battle tanks career over sprawling, rough terrain and fire their guns.

Next month's Nashestvie rock festival -- an annual event that in the past has been called Russia's version of Woodstock or Glastonbury -- will feature a Defense Ministry recruiting tent enlisting soldiers, as well as military hardware on show and a heavy-arms gun salute.

If a centerpiece of Dmitry Medvedev's 2008-2012 presidency was the Skolkovo technology park, an effort to promote innovation and enliven the economy, it's a sign of the times that Putin this week opened a huge high-tech arms fair at Patriot, a military park being built outside Moscow for war-history and arms enthusiasts that will reportedly cost the Defense Ministry $370 million.

'Distracting From Real Problems'

It goes on. The mania might have been expected to culminate on May 9, when Russia celebrated 70 years since victory in World War II with a massive military parade in Red Square. But over a month later, it shows no signs of abating -- pointing to a new zeitgeist that pollsters and public relations specialists say has its roots in the early Putin years, but has blown up since crisis and conflict erupted in Ukraine.

"It began during the annexation of Crimea when they first began actively selling symbols with the 'polite people,'" says Oleg Voronin, director of the Moscow-based PR agency Bernays. "People at the moment are making purchases on patriotic rhetoric. The Defense Ministry is using the situation in order to raise its rating within the country."

In March 2014, Putin signed legislation formalizing what most of the world says was the illegal takeover of Crimea. On national television that same month, state TV presenter and news agency chief Dmitry Kiselyov boasted that Russia was the only country "genuinely capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash."

A monument to Russia's "polite people" is opened in Belogorsk.

A monument to Russia's "polite people" is opened in Belogorsk.

Kremlin critics lament the rise of military rhetoric and imagery, which they say is meant to stoke patriotism and draw Russians' attention away from economic troubles while blaming the West.

"A terrible militarization of the conscience is under way," Yevgenia Albats, editor in chief of the weekly New Times, said in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio. "It distracts from real problems, if tomorrow there is war, if tomorrow there is a campaign. The state channels are playing a terrible game with the public conscience."

This week, top stories on state TV news programs included Putin's declaration on June 16 that 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles would be added to Russia's nuclear arsenal, and a paratrooper commander's announcement on June 18 that 10 new "rapid-reaction" battalions had been formed for military operations abroad.

Meanwhile, Russia continues to deny it is involved in the conflict that has killed more than 6,400 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, despite what Kyiv and NATO say is mounting evidence Moscow has sent troops and weapons to support separatists fighting against Ukrainian government forces.

Commenting on Putin's May 28 decree classifying peacetime military deaths as "secret," Dmitry Bykov, a writer and poet critical of the Kremlin, wrote on his blog that the pronouncements from the authorities and a news cycle laden with talk of military issues had brought the country to something resembling a wartime state that lacks little but an all-out war.

"For the moment it is just preparation for a new regime of existence, when needless discussion is cut short, propaganda becomes a scream, and any grumble is equated with betrayal of the motherland. It's long been noted that military psychosis becomes the ideal, and often only way to distract attention from internal problems," Bykov wrote.

Every Day Is Victory Day

And yet analysts say the seeds of the current campaign were planted during Putin's first two terms, as he searched for ways to bolster his power and to promote patriotism in a nation he says was adrift.

Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center polling agency, says that victory in World War II was placed at the heart of the national idea around 2004, four years into Putin's presidency, and that the military has since loomed large in state ideology.

"Since then there has been a gradual rise in this militarized trend or line in propaganda in domestic politics," Gudkov says. "This is primarily because he tried to base his authority on victory in World War II, the central symbol of national identity."

Gudkov points for instance to the founding in 2005 of Zvezda, the Defense Ministry's own national television station. "The Putin regime relies on this ideology of the military past, of military confrontation and patriotism -- primarily the heroic valor of Russian people," he explains.

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