MOSCOW -- Russia on May 9 commemorated the 74th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with a military parade on Moscow's Red Square and celebrations in every town and city from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.
President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev attended the parade held in the capital in the morning, before crowds of people descended on the city for the annual Immortal Regiment march to commemorate the 27 million Soviet civilians estimated to have died in the war.
In his speech before troops and dignitaries on Red Square, Putin said "the main liberator of Europe" from Nazi Germany was the Soviet Union and called the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, "an ancient Russian capital."
Critics say his government has increasingly sought in recent years to nationalize the victory over Nazi Germany.
The Immortal Regiment march in Moscow. Hundreds of thousands of people are walking along the central Tverskaya street holding photographs of relatives who died in the war (& the occasional Stalin portrait) #VictoryDay #БессмертныйПолк pic.twitter.com/mjyW6qK84Z— Matthew Luxmoore (@mjluxmoore) May 9, 2019
"The victory was earned by the bravery of those who participated in defending ancient Russian capitals -- Kyiv and the Great Novgorod, by the courage of the defenders of Smolensk, Odesa [a Ukrainian Black Sea port city], Sevastopol [a city in Ukraine’s Crimea annexed by Moscow in 2014], and the unlimited stamina of the residents of the blockaded Leningrad," Putin said.
The Russian president also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin.
Moscow managed to defy dismal weather forecasts by deploying cloud-seeding technology to disperse cloud cover in the hours preceding the morning parade.
Temperatures in the early afternoon rose to a humid 25 degrees Celsius as hundreds of thousands of people descended on the central Tverskaya Street, clutching portraits of dead relatives who had fought in the war.
The annual Immortal Regiment march is held in every major Russian town and dozens of foreign cities where Russian-speaking communities live and attracts millions of participants each year. Critics say the Kremlin has hijacked it since its inception in 2012 as a grassroots movement to honor the dead.
They also cite the annual military parades across Russia as a show of strength by Putin's government and argue that the Kremlin uses the celebrations to stoke patriotism but pays little attention to the needs of aging World War II veterans.
Russia's Defense Ministry said earlier that 13,000 troops and 130 pieces of advanced military hardware took part in the parade, which was broadcast nationally on state-run television.
According to the ministry, representatives from all of Russia's armed forces and the National Guard participated.
However, the Kremlin's flight control center said combat aircraft did not take part in the parade because weather conditions were unfavorable.
Nazarbaev's presence alongside Putin came as a surprise. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had said earlier that no foreign leader would attend the event.
Although Nazarbaev resigned as Kazakhstan's president on March 19, he retains the title "Leader of the Nation."
Putin and other Russian officials wore the ribbon of St. George, a centuries-old military symbol that decorated postcards and posters in the Soviet Union and was revived in 2005 as a physical prop representing victory in World War II.
My favourite scene from Moscow today: A couple enjoys an outdoor meal as the rain pours & their dead grandfathers’ portraits recline on a nearby hammock. #VictoryDay #БессмертныйПолк2019 pic.twitter.com/qv2s8QETq6— Matthew Luxmoore (@mjluxmoore) May 9, 2019
In recent years, the ribbon has come to be seen in some former Soviet republics as a symbol of Russian nationalism, not least in light of its widespread use by the pro-Russian separatists who have occupied swathes of territory in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Since 2017, the ribbon of St. George has been officially banned in Ukraine as a symbol of "Russian aggression."
Rather than the ribbon of St. George, Nazarbaev wore a blue ribbon representing Kazakhstan's national flag.
Wow. A banner has been unfurled in a Moscow district reading: “Putin! Our grandfathers fought, and you’re a fascist. Aren’t you ashamed?” Never seen anything like this. Via @nadezdanba #VictoryDay pic.twitter.com/Se6YHrE18c— Matthew Luxmoore (@mjluxmoore) May 9, 2019
Russia's land forces commander, Army General Oleg Salyukov, opened the parade and reported to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who then led the event.
Victory Day celebrations were also being held in several other former Soviet republics.
But feelings of unity with Moscow inspired by memory of a common enemy during the war are fading -- and many of Russia's neighbors are wary of its perceived appetite of expansion following its military intervention against Ukraine.
The way the end of the war is commemorated in other former Soviet republics now differs from country to country.