Accessibility links

Breaking News

'It All Depends On The Body Count': Pandemic Threatens Putin's Spring Of Political Pageantry

Russian soldiers take part in a rehearsal for a military parade on Red Square in Moscow. (file photo)
Russian soldiers take part in a rehearsal for a military parade on Red Square in Moscow. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Aleksandr Kolotushkin is accustomed to being feted.

As one of the few remaining World War II veterans in a country that reveres them, he regularly dons his Red Army uniform to visit schools and reminisce about his past before crowds of children.

When he turned 93 in December, a ceremony in his honor was broadcast on state TV. And a month from now, when Russia marks 75 years since the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany, he hopes to stand alongside other veterans in Moscow to watch the spectacular military parade on Red Square.

But, even as the government pulls out all the stops to mark the anniversary in style, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to scupper its plans. Kolotushkin, who is normally inundated with messages of gratitude and invitations at this time of year, says his telephone has been silent.

"No one is calling anymore," he said by phone from Volgograd, the southern Russian city where he's self-isolating with his daughter, Natalia. "No one's inviting me anywhere. I just sit at home and keep to myself."

Russian veteran Aleksandr Kolotushkin
Russian veteran Aleksandr Kolotushkin

This year's Victory Day celebrations on May 9 were meant to unite Russia. Soaring monuments and cathedrals dedicated to the Russian military waited to be unveiled before cheering crowds and parades featuring tanks and fighter jets have been planned in major cities across the country.

In February, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the Red Square parade will feature 15,000 troops and 375 military vehicles and aircraft, including the newest elements of Russia's arsenal. French President Emmanuel Macron was among the world leaders expected to attend, lending the event prestige at a time when Russia remains subject to Western sanctions for its intervention in Ukraine. For war veterans flown to Moscow for the event, a special four-day program was planned.

'Defend Our Ancestors' Memory'

Victory Day was also meant to cap off a political season orchestrated to reinvigorate President Vladimir Putin's government. A major cabinet reshuffle in January was supposed to be followed on April 22 with a plebiscite that would rubber-stamp a set of constitutional changes anointing Putin as Russia's undisputed leader and granting the 67-year-old a chance to rule until he's 83. Now that plebiscite has been indefinitely postponed, and the parade is in jeopardy.

"A whole lot hung on these festivities," said Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist. "Victory Day is a crucial element of the state's legitimization, the nearest thing we have to an official ideology, and it was also supposed to uphold the constitutional vote. Now these plans have all been delayed."

Indeed, the symbolism authorities used in promoting the two events left little to the imagination: billboards plugging the constitutional vote played directly on World War II motifs, calling on people to "defend our ancestors' memory" while showing images of children dressed in Red Army uniforms. May 9 was envisioned as a grand finale.

"The parade would have confirmed the triumph of Putin's decision to remain forever at Russia's helm," said Aleksandr Golts, a military analyst.

However, while Putin postponed the vote in a public speech on March 25, his administration has been coy regarding its plans for Victory Day. Veterans have been urged to stay home, and the Immortal Regiment march, an event that follows the Red Square parade with many hundreds of thousands marching through Russia's streets holding photos of relatives who died in World War II, has been cancelled.

The Kremlin is facing appeals from soldiers' rights groups to cancel the military parade, too. But, as the administration stalls, preparations seem to be in full swing. A video posted on April 2 to Russia's Facebook equivalent, VK, showed thousands of conscripts assembled on training grounds in Alabino outside Moscow, where the Defense Ministry is holding rehearsals. None appeared to be wearing masks.

'Breeding Ground For The Virus'

Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny called the spectacle a "breeding ground for the coronavirus," but the Defense Ministry said the soldiers, who each year descend on Moscow from across Russia, are given regular temperature checks and other measures are being taken to ensure their safety.

"No decisions have yet been made" about Victory Day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on April 7. In several public addresses since the pandemic began, Putin has not mentioned the parade.

"It's obvious that organizers were hoping that memory of the victory would be projected onto the current Russian leadership," said Golts. "But it seems they're now waiting to see how things develop and hoping the epidemic will begin to recede within the month."

Schulmann agreed that officials will likely wait to see whether Russia's COVID-19 crisis -- which had killed more than 90 and infected some 12,000 as of April 10 -- will begin to abate before May.

"The authorities will play it by ear," she said. "Simply put, it all depends on the body count."

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with a World War II veteran during Victory Day celebrations in 2015,
Vladimir Putin shakes hands with a World War II veteran during Victory Day celebrations in 2015,

But forging ahead with the milestone celebrations may be politically expedient at a time when Putin's public support is flagging. Data from the Levada Center pollster shows a drop in his approval rating from 69 percent in February to 63 percent in March, his lowest since before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted a rally-round-the-flag effect that boosted Putin's standing. The Victory Day parade is "key to maintaining his approval ratings," political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov has written.

At a time when a government-mandated lockdown is leading to unemployment and the Russian ruble has plunged amid falling oil prices, there's also the question of how much ordinary Russians actually care about the military parade. Surveys show that the victory in World War II remains by far the most celebrated moment in Russian history. But they also show that, for the public at large, economic well-being comes first.

"People are now more concerned with the epidemic and the unemployment it's causing. They have little time for parades," said Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center. "The constitutional vote has been postponed indefinitely. Foreign leaders won't come. So, all of this is shorn of its pomposity and significance."

Mooting Several Options

According to Russian media reports, the leadership is mooting several options at this stage. One is to postpone the military parade until September 2, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in 1945 and the official end of World War II hostilities. Another is to hold a scaled-down version on May 9, without an audience on Red Square.

The third is to hedge bets and schedule the ostentatious display of military might on June 24, exactly 75 years after the original victory parade on Red Square presided over by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Aleksandr Kolotushkin as a young soldier in 1945
Aleksandr Kolotushkin as a young soldier in 1945

Kolotushkin is one of the only living participants of that parade. He still remembers sitting in the back of a Studebaker truck with 11 other soldiers as an 18-year-old, as they drove past the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square from atop which Stalin observed the show.

Now, holed up in his apartment in a city brought to a standstill by an invisible enemy, he says he'd fly to Moscow at the drop of a hat, coronavirus be damned.

"My legs still carry me, and my head still works," he said. "I just need an invitation, and I'd put on my old colonel's uniform and go."

If only his daughter would let him.

  • 16x9 Image

    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.