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'Do They Fear Large Crowds?': In The Shadow Of War Against Ukraine, Kremlin Scales Back Victory Day Commemorations

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) carries a portrait of his father as he takes part in the Immortal Regiment march during the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) carries a portrait of his father as he takes part in the Immortal Regiment march during the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9, 2015.

With Moscow deeply embroiled in a costly invasion of neighboring Ukraine that has no clear resolution in sight, Victory Day on May 9 will look starkly different in Russia this year.

Across the country, parades and public gatherings to honor the Soviet contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II have been canceled, with the authorities citing security concerns.

The national Immortal Regiment spectacle -- in which hundreds of thousands of Russians across the country have joined President Vladimir Putin and other officials in marching with photographs of their relatives who gave their lives or otherwise contributed to the Soviet war effort in World War II -- has been called off.

The glorification of Soviet -- particularly, Russian -- sacrifices in defeating Germany has been a cornerstone of Russia's nationalist resurgence during Putin's decades in power. But now, many observers say, the Kremlin's efforts to inflate Russian military might have run up against its need to conceal the enormous costs in lives and equipment that Russia has paid since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

"What if someone comes out carrying portraits of relatives who were killed in the war against Ukraine?" asked historian Maksim Kuzakhmetov. "What if hundreds of people do? That would be a shock."

"The Kremlin is trying to foster a sense that 'we will win', with a smile and laughter, as well as a sense of 'all for the front,'" he told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "And in this regard, the Immortal Regiment can only cause ideological harm."

'All Too Mortal'

In many cities, officials have urged residents to mark the occasion by displaying the portraits in their cars.

"Not only residents can participate in this demonstration, but entire entities," a press statement by the government of Nizhny Novgorod stated. "Public transportation, city vehicles, fire brigades, ambulance services, and others."

Officials in Kazan, the capital of the central Tatarstan region, have called on residents to display the portraits on badges on their clothing or on their cars. People have also been encouraged to post statements on the official Victory Day website or to create memorial bulletin boards in their workplaces.

People march in the Immortal Regiment parade in St. Petersburg on May 9, 2022.
People march in the Immortal Regiment parade in St. Petersburg on May 9, 2022.

In Moscow, the world-famous parade of military equipment on Red Square will be strictly closed off to the public, although the proceedings will be given wall-to-wall coverage on state television channels.

Historian Kuzakhmetov is skeptical about the Kremlin's reasoning for closing the Red Square parade, noting that ordinary Russians had little chance to witness the event even during normal times. Instead, he attributes the closure to Putin's "paranoia," saying the Russian president likely remembers the 1981 assassination of Egypt's Anwar Sadat by his own officers during a military parade.

"What if something like that happened?" he said. "What if one of the armored vehicles had a live round? Putin sees betrayal everywhere. He is afraid."

Regarding the Immortal Regiment march, Moscow political activist Elvira Vikhareva is not the only commentator who notes the Kremlin was not afraid of a "terrorist" attack when it gathered tens of thousands of people for a pro-war rally in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium in March.

"People would come out not bearing the portraits of their great-grandfathers," she wrote in a Facebook post on April 18. "People would come out with portraits of their fathers, sons, brothers. The regiment would turn out not to be immortal at all but all too mortal. The scale would be evident -- the 'special military operation' is not being conducted without cost. That is why they canceled it."

The Russian government calls its war on Ukraine a "special military operation," and citizens who publicly call it a war can be prosecuted under legislation Putin signed shortly after he launched the large-scale invasion in February 2022.

"Trillions of rubles have been spent on security, which, it turns out, they can't ensure," actor and blogger Alisa Kovalyova wrote on Telegram. "Or do they fear large crowds?"

Fear Of Crowds

"There is a fear that people will carry portraits of people who have been killed in Ukraine and the real casualty figures -- not the ones presented by the Defense Ministry -- will be visible," historian Ivan Kurilla told RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities. "That is the most likely reason. But more generally, the authorities are afraid of any mass demonstration by the people in public. The authorities are obviously afraid."

During the 2022 Victory Day events, 125 people were detained for anti-war protests, many of them during the Immortal Regiment events.

The Russian government has not provided reliable information on the country's losses in Ukraine. On September 21, 2022, the military reported 5,937 soldiers killed since the invasion seven months earlier, a figure that has not been updated since. Western experts estimate the total number of Russian killed and wounded at over 200,000.

At the same time, the authorities have ramped up their crackdown on anti-war dissent, handing down long prison terms and opening an unprecedented number of "treason" cases in recent weeks.

The Immortal Regiment commemoration began in the Siberian city of Tomsk in 2011 as a genuine grassroots movement that stemmed from a group of friends solemnly paying their respects at the city's Eternal Flame memorial, as a way to honor the sacrifices of the Soviet people -- including their own relatives -- and to connect the current generation with the events of a rapidly receding past.

"We wanted to return the holiday to the main hero -- to the person who experienced the war and to whom we are ultimately grateful for the fact that we are alive," co-founder and journalist Sergei Lapenkov told RFE/RL in 2017.

Within a couple of years, the idea had been co-opted by Putin's government -- which, according to Lapenkov, turned it into "a completely artificial organization."

One Russian commentator on social media speculated on what would happen if Russians ignored the Kremlin's cancelation of the official Immortal Regiment and filed out into the streets anyway.

"Imagine this picture," the commentator wrote on Telegram. "People come out for an unsanctioned Immortal Regiment and the riot police smash them and the portraits of their great-grandfathers. Madness."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Current Time and RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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