Victory Day, when Russians celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, is one of the country's most important holidays


Victory Day, when Russians celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, is one of the country’s most important holidays – Copyright AFP YAMIL LAGE


Tanks rolled through the streets of Moscow on Monday just like every May 9, but this year’s Victory Day was being marked with Russia’s military action in Ukraine on everyone’s minds.

The annual celebration, which sees military vehicles parade through Red Square and central city streets, is one of Russia’s most important holidays, celebrating the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.

In most years the focus is squarely on the past, on the heroic victories and sacrifices of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

But with troops now deployed in Ukraine for what President Vladimir Putin calls a campaign to “de-Nazify” Russia’s pro-Western neighbour, this year the present was never far away.

Joining the crowds in central Moscow, Anya said she was from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol — which has seen some of the heaviest fighting since Moscow sent troops to Ukraine on February 24 — and that she supported Russia’s military action.

“I am very grateful to Putin for what he is doing…. We must defeat Nazism like our grandparents,” said Anya, wearing a military-style cap and a black-and-orange ribbon, a symbol of World War II victory celebrations in Russia.

Like others who spoke to AFP on Monday, Anya refused to give her last name.

– Memory ‘stolen and destroyed’ –

Other participants questioned whether it was appropriate to link the sacred memories of World War II with the current conflict.

“You shouldn’t draw parallels, these are completely different times,” said 40-year-old Irina, who came out to pay tribute to her two grandfathers who fought against Nazi Germany.

She said she hoped “all this will end quickly”.

Some simply chose to ignore the celebrations, like 35-year-old blogger Anna, who said she would spend the morning in bed with noise-cancelling headphones.

“I can’t bear anything connected to the military anymore, because it used to be associated with peace and defending the Motherland. Now it’s not,” she said.

“It feels like the whole memory of Victory Day has been stolen and destroyed,” she said.

For many, the day was a simply a chance to enjoy some time off and the spectacle of the parade.

Waving Soviet and Russian flags, they watched as tanks, intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and armoured vehicles made their way to Red Square.

“Look, those are S-300s and S-400s, they’re using them in Ukraine right now,” said one man to his girlfriend in the crowd.

“These are the most powerful weapons we have,” said a father to his little boy perched on his shoulders as surface-to-air missile systems went by.

The city was festooned with Soviet-era symbols ahead of the celebration, including a 10-metre-high replica of a medal from 1945 reading “USSR – Victory” and displayed outside the Bolshoi Theatre, a short walk from the Kremlin.

– ‘Z’ the new symbol –

But a new military symbol was also on display this year, drawn on car windows and on people’s clothes — the letter “Z” that is being used to show support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine.

During rehearsals for the parade, Russian fighter jets even practised flying across Moscow in the shape of a “Z”, although the flypast was cancelled on the day due to bad weather.

Below Moscow’s busy roads, Viktoria, the owner of a small cafe in an underground passage, said she felt “it’s a little strange” to celebrate Victory Day this year.

“I avoid reading the news but what I do follow are the soldiers who died in Ukraine, who are buried in Russian regions,” said the 30-year-old from Kalmykia, a region in southwestern Russia.

She said she fears the economic consequences of the unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia over the conflict.

“We are all afraid of the future. There have been deaths from Covid, will there be deaths from starvation?”

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