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Missiles, Medals, And Putin's Victory Day Parade

During Vladimir Putin's time in power, Russian Victory Day parades have become lavishly produced events bristling with military hardware.
During Vladimir Putin's time in power, Russian Victory Day parades have become lavishly produced events bristling with military hardware.

Last May I was still living in Moscow, and on my home from work one night I drove past an arresting sight: an intercontinental ballistic (ICBM) missile parked on a central square named after a poet, a few dozen steps from McDonald's.

Ready and waiting to roll onto Red Square for a Victory Day parade, the ICBM was a telling symbol of Russia under President Vladimir Putin, who was sworn in to his first term on May 7, 2000, two years before I arrived for what would turn out to be a 12-year stint.

During his 15 years in power (including four as prime minister), President Putin has increasingly used the annual celebrations marking Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II to enhance his portrayal of his nation as a strong country that saved the world from Nazi aggression and now stands firm against a global threat from a bellicose United States that, in his depiction, is bent on domination.

With tanks in the street and warplanes overhead, it would be easy to forget that May 9 parades did not always bristle with military hardware: the Cold War practice of putting weapons on display was revived in 2008, two months before Russian tanks entered Georgia in the country's first post-Soviet war beyond its borders.

It might also be easy to forget that the Soviet Union and the United States were on the same side in World War II. In his address to the parade last year from a grandstand near Lenin's tomb, Putin spoke of the victory in what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War as a "national triumph" and made no mention of the Soviet Union's Western allies.

"It was precisely our country that drove the Nazis back to their lair and achieved their full and final destruction," Putin said.

'Defensive' Military Might

This year's parade is being billed as the biggest ever, with a high-tech battle tank and other new hardware on display.

Putin will host foreign dignitaries, including Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders are staying away -- unwilling to watch a military parade with Putin, who they say has torn up the postwar order by seizing the Crimean peninsula and sending troops and weapons into Ukraine to back separatists in a deadly war against government forces.

Putin denies Russian involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and says his efforts to enhance Russia's military might are deeply defensive in nature.

He has used similar arguments to justify Moscow's actions over nearly a century, depicting the 1939 pact under which Stalin and Hitler each grabbed a portion of Eastern Europe as an effort to avoid war and describing the 2008 conflict in Georgia as a "peace enforcement" operation.

As for Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, Putin has variously explained it as an effort to protect residents from a Ukrainian threat critics say did not exist, and a response to fears that NATO forces could eventually be deployed on the Black Sea peninsula.

In Putin's narrative, it is the United States that is on the offensive.

Medal-bedecked veterans are still a staple feature of Russian victory day celebrations.
Medal-bedecked veterans are still a staple feature of Russian victory day celebrations.

It is natural that Russians take pride in the victory in World War II, which killed 27 million Soviet citizens and left few families in the country untouched.

Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, which endured a harrowing Nazi siege for more than two years during the war. The infant who would have been his older brother did not survive.

In an article published late last month, Putin said that his father saved his mother by grabbing her from a medical team that had taken her, still living, from their home while rounding up starvation victims. At another time, he said, his father eluded German soldiers by lying beneath the surface of a swamp and breathing through a reed.

That account may sound like something from the movies. But stories of wartime suffering and survival shaped Putin's generation and those that followed, imbuing many Russians with fierce pride in the World War II victory -- one of the few bright spots in a century of turmoil.

Tears, Not Words

In European nations that were dominated by Moscow for decades after the war, many people chafe at Putin's depiction of the Soviet Union as Europe's liberator -- particularly after Russia's interference in Ukraine, which has reignited concerns about the Kremlin's intentions despite his assurances that he is not trying to "resurrect the empire."

And in Russia itself, support for Putin's black-and-white portrayal -- what he has called the "truthful view" of the war and its aftermath -- is far from universal, even among the dwindling number of veterans.

Attending the May 9 parade a few times during my years in Moscow, I spoke to medal-bedecked veterans in the grandstand who echoed the grand language used by Putin and other officials to describe the war.

But the only Russian veteran I knew from more than a few words for a news article did not share their enthusiasm.

Conscripted before the Nazi invasion of 1941, he made it to Berlin -- often under fire -- and scrawled his name there. But he never liked to talk about the war, and imparted few details of his experiences, even to close relatives, before passing away more than a decade ago.

He usually spent May 9 at home outside Moscow, where he would meet with his brother -- a fellow veteran.

After sitting down briefly with the rest of the family for the start of a holiday meal, the two brothers would retire to a separate room, talk quietly, and cry.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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