MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin marked Victory Day calling for unity and a dignified honoring of those killed during World War II, even as the coronavirus pandemic curtailed the pomp the Kremlin had planned for Russia’s most important secular holiday.
With this year marking 75 years since the Nazi defeat, the Kremlin had hoped to turn already elaborate May 9 celebrations into a platform for Putin to host world leaders and promote what he sees as Russia’s rightful place on the world stage.
But the coronavirus has upended political life, and society in general, with millions under lockdown orders, the economy contracting, and Putin forced to limit his appearances to teleconferences with cabinet members and governors.
At a speech that marked his first public appearance in nearly a month, Putin did not mention the virus or its spread in Russia, focusing solely on the memory of the millions of Soviet citizens who died in what is known as the Great Patriotic War.
“We will, as usual, widely and solemnly mark the anniversary date, do it with dignity, as our duty to those who have suffered, achieved, and accomplished the victory tells us,” he said. “There will be our main parade on Red Square, and the national march of the Immortal Regiment -- the march of our grateful memory and inextricable, vital, living communication between generations.”
He also vowed that Russia would always remember the victims of the conflict, which killed an estimated 25 million Soviet citizens -- most of them civilians.
"We know and firmly believe that we are invincible when we stand together," he said.
Russia has nearly 200,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and a death toll that stood at more than 1,800 as of May 9 -- a figure that many observers believe is an undercount.
Earlier, Putin laid flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorial, next to the Kremlin’s walls. Later on, 75 Russian jets and other warplanes roared over Red Square and the Moscow skyline.
While Victory Day has always been a major event, under Putin it has taken on even grander ceremonial importance, a reflection in part of how the Kremlin has sought to extol aspects of Soviet history and promote nationalist sentiment.
Russian authorities on May 9 reported the seventh straight daily increase in infections over 10,000, a further sign that the virus is tightening its grip on the country despite some early, strict moves by the government aimed at curtailing the disease’s spread.
The streets in the Russian capital’s central district were mostly empty of people, a contrast to past years when parks and boulevards were typically filled with people celebrating and handing flowers to veterans.
A heavy police presence was seen in many parts of the city, helping to enforce the strict lockdown measures that have been in place since late March.
Still, some Muscovites took to the streets in small groups to witness the flyover, gathering on street corners.
A group of Communist Party activists protested on Tverskaya Street, less than a kilometer from the Kremlin, against coronavirus-related prohibitions that kept them from publicly marching. Two members of the group were detained by police. The group included two members of Russia’s lower house of parliament.
Some people defied the restrictions to take to the streets displaying photos of grandparents who died in the war.
Irina Popova, 60, who owns a cosmetics business, told RFE/RL near Red Square that her grandmother always used to take her for walks through Moscow on Victory Day.
"You can’t not celebrate this day. It’s sacred,” she said. “It’s good to self-isolate, this thing is dangerous. But I got an [electronic] pass, so I’m allowed to go on the street.”
One day earlier, as most of Europe and the United States marked VE Day, Putin sent messages to U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with reminders of cooperation among the war-time allies.
Putin and Trump spoke by phone on May 7, and the Kremlin said on May 8 that Putin and Johnson also spoke by phone, congratulating each other on the 75th anniversary.
"Both sides expressed readiness to establish dialogue and cooperation on issues on the agenda of Russian-British relations, as well as in solving pressing international problems," the Kremlin said.
In his message to Trump, Putin said Russia and the United States stood at the forefront of confronting global challenges and “could do a lot to ensure international security and stability."
While Russia’s celebrations were curtailed, Belarus went ahead with parade watched by thousands of spectators in the capital Minsk,
Elsewhere across Europe, VE Day events had to be postponed, canceled, or reduced to online commemorations.
In Washington, D.C., Trump joined seven World War II veterans, ages 96 to 100, at a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the anniversary.