MOSCOW -- For 2020, the Kremlin had a season of political pageantry planned.
A major cabinet reshuffle in January was to be followed on April 22 with a nationwide vote to
rubber-stamp constitutional changes granting President Vladimir Putin a chance to rule until 2036.
On May 9, Victory Day festivities marking 75 years since the Nazi defeat in World War II could have sealed the deal, confirming Putin's coronation as the longest-serving leader in Moscow since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with a grand military parade on Red Square and footage fit for the archives.
But when the coronavirus pandemic intervened, both the vote and the parade were postponed. And as COVID-19 spread in Russia throughout April and May, Kremlin aides scrambled to salvage the plans. In early June, Putin announced that the vote would now happen on July 1, a week after a delayed Red Square parade.
"We have fulfilled the main task — to prevent the explosive negative development of the situation," he said in a video conference call with officials. "It allows us to return to normal life as the situation is gradually stabilizing."
The delayed spectacle on June 24 was meant to place that original vision back on track, drumming up patriotism as cities across Russia pulled out all the stops to promote the upcoming vote.
"For many people, the victory parade is the quintessence of patriotism," political analyst Konstantin Kalachyov said. "It's supposed to help raise social well-being and optimism and show people that Russia is on the right path, that we respect our history and take pride in the feats of our forefathers."
On June 23, the Kremlin confirmed the countries whose leaders would attend: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Serbia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Also on the list were the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's multiethnic presidency and the de facto leaders of Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, which Russia recognizes as independent states.
For the guests who were expected to show up, special precautions had been taken to shield them from Putin, who has spent much of the past three months isolated in his residence outside Moscow, reportedly only conducting meetings with visitors who had passed through a special disinfection tunnel and been tested for COVID-19.
Bloomberg reported that nearly 80 World War Two veterans selected to sit near Putin at the military parade were being quarantined at a health resort outside Moscow as part of measures to protect the Russian president from exposure to the coronavirus. The army newspaper Red Star reported that specially disinfected buses would deliver them to the parade.
On June 24, Putin gathered with the leaders in the stands overlooking Red Square to watch elaborately uniformed troops march across it before tanks, intercontinental ballistic missiles,
and other military hardware followed.
The turnout of leaders with little international heft was a far cry from the attendance Moscow had hoped to attract when it was making final preparations early this year for the grand May 9 parade. France, China, the Czech Republic, and other countries withdrew their RSVPs when the coronavirus prompted the postponement, leaving Putin with a pared-down celebration.
The delayed parade on Red Square was meant to coincide with other, smaller ones that traditionally happen across Russia. But at least 17 of Russia's 85 regions cancelled their parades altogether, citing a local rise in coronavirus cases and risks to the population.
Those cancellations compounded questions about Putin's decision to hold the parade at a time when Russia's coronavirus caseload continues to rise, waning gradually in Moscow but showing no signs of abating in other regions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was based on a "deep analysis of Russia's epidemiological situation based on scientific and expert conclusions."
In a pointed parody video released a day before the parade, an actor posing as Notvladimir Notvladimirovich Notputin suggested otherwise, addressing Putin with the question: "Why are you saying the epidemic is over when it is raging?" Within a day of its appearance, the video had been viewed almost 1.7 million times on YouTube.
'What The Hell Do We Need It For?'
In Moscow, where lockdown restrictions have been gradually phased out since early June, the unexpected day off saw thousands of people enjoying the hot weather on restaurant verandas and park benches or strolling the streets with iced coffees in hand. Few seemed to care too much for the victory parade, rehearsals for which had been happening regularly since late April.
"I'm just happy I don't have to go to work," said Anna Kolesnikova, an office manager who was walking with friends in a central Moscow park. "We need to remember those who died in the war, but I don't think many people are paying attention today."
For Putin, who has been Russia's president or prime minister since 1999, the parade was likewise routine, differing little from past events aside from the date change.
But for a leader whose public support has fallen in recent years, it was a chance for some positive exposure ahead of the vote on constitutional changes that would, among other things, give him the option of running for two more six-year presidential terms after his current term ends in 2024.
In a state TV interview ahead of the parade, Putin said that he had not yet decided whether he would run for reelection but suggested that not doing so could cause instability because, as he put it, as 2024 approaches "the normal rhythm of work of many parts of government will be replaced by a search for possible successors."
Putin made no mention of the vote in his address to the parade, which was televised live. He spoke of the huge price paid by the U.S.S.R. in helping the world defeat fascism and urged Russians to come together in remembrance of the 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians estimated to have died in that effort.
"It's impossible to imagine what would have happened to the world if the Red Army hadn't defended it," Putin said. Soviet soldiers, he added, "did not need war, or other countries, or glory, or honor. They sought to finish off the enemy, win, and return home. And they paid an irreplaceable price for the freedom of Europe."
Polls show that the majority of Russians, 75 years on, see victory over Nazi Germany in what they call the Great Patriotic War as a cornerstone of national identity.
But critics slammed the cost of the parade and questioned its timing, calling it a transparent ploy to rally support around the president ahead of the vote for constitutional changes he has initiated and endorsed.
"The whole country is amazed: What the hell do we need a parade for? What is it needed for?" prominent Putin opponent Aleksei Navalny said in a video posted to his YouTube channel. "Everyone in the country knows that all this madness is done for one person only."