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Russian Student Resists Order To Join Immortal Regiment March

What began as a grassroots initiative has evolved into a quasi-official mass demonstration of patriotism and support for the government.

A 10th-grade student near Moscow has complained that he and his classmates are being compelled to participate in a Victory Day event that is billed as a solemn commemoration of Soviet soldiers and civilians who were killed in World War II.

"My desire not to be forced to participate in this demonstration does not stem from any distaste for the event itself," the student told RFE/RL, "but rather from my convictions about human liberty."

RFE/RL is not publishing the student's name because he is a minor. At the student's request, RFE/RL is also withholding the name of the school involved because the student said he experienced "pressure" from school officials after RFE/RL approached them for comment.

The school, in the Moscow Oblast town of Korolyov, is listed as one of the 100 best schools of the region, and the student has been featured in the local press as a winner of an international academic competition.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Russians across the country and around the world mark the May 9 anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany by marching with portraits of their relatives who gave their lives to defeat Hitler's army.

Since 2015, high-ranking Russian officials up to and including President Vladimir Putin have participated in the so-called Immortal Regiment demonstration, which has evolved from a grassroots initiative of three friends in Tomsk in 2011 to a quasi-official mass demonstration of patriotism and support for the government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) holds a portrait of his father as he takes part in the Immortal Regiment march on Red Square in Moscow in May 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) holds a portrait of his father as he takes part in the Immortal Regiment march on Red Square in Moscow in May 2015.

Increasingly, however, the event -- which is intended to evoke and honor the estimated 27 million Soviets who died in World War II and those who lived to see victory -- has been clouded by charges that people are being coerced into participating. In 2017, Izvestia reported that Putin's administration had instructed local officials not to force people to participate.

There have also been allegations that participants have marched with photographs of people they didn't know that had been provided by local-event organizers and that were quickly discarded after the march.

Mandatory Or Voluntary?

Officials at the Kovolyov school and municipal officials told RFE/RL that no one was required to participate in Immortal Regiment.

The Kovolyov student said his class had been told several times during lessons this term that participation in Immortal Regiment was obligatory. The event, the student said, had been included as part of his class's mandatory military training.

The student and six of his classmates sent an open letter to the Moscow Oblast children's rights ombudsman and the municipal Education Committee saying they believe they have the right to refuse to participate in organized activities on May 9 because that day is a state holiday.

The student also asked the municipal Education Committee to present a schedule of his class's required military training. When he got no response, he complained to the local prosecutor's office. After that, acting committee Chairwoman Natalya Sushilina wrote to the student that participation in Immortal Regiment was "strictly voluntary."

The student told RFE/RL that this flurry of activity on his part prompted "numerous conversations" between school officials, students, and their parents. In the end, the school announced it would proceed with its organized representation at Immortal Regiment but without the participation of "complainers."

Return Of 'Poster Patriotism'?

Sergei Lapenko, one of the original creators of Immortal Regiment in 2011 and chairman of the nongovernmental Immortal Regiment organization, told RFE/RL that he had not heard about the complaints in Korolyov but that his organization opposes any such coercion. He said his organization "regularly" encounters such complaints, usually in locations where the Immortal Regiment event is organized by local officials.

"I perfectly well remember the 'poster patriotism' of the Soviet era, because I was in school myself at that time," Lapenko said. "When I was in 10th grade, my class had to participate in various demonstrations and it was just an excuse for us to drink a bottle of port wine with our friends."

A return to Soviet-style "poster patriotism"?
A return to Soviet-style "poster patriotism"?

In addition, Lapenko said the idea of separating the students into their own group also violated the spirit of his event.

"This history must be a family thing," he said. "The Immortal Regiment is the story of each family's personal memory, the memory of specific individuals. When you begin to break up the family -- papa has to march with his company, mama together with some state agency, and the son and daughter with their schools -- it undermines the point of the event."

Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Aleksandr Litoi