Victory Day is the annual commemoration of the Great Patriotic War, what we in the West call World War II. The holiday is something like Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving, all rolled into one. There isn’t much anything like it, exactly, in the United States.
My friend Allen and I led the charge among the group we are traveling with to get up and out of the hotel early today. We wanted to bear witness to the annual military parade – a fixture during Soviet times, revived in the last decade by Vladimir Putin.
Our fixer, Viktor, a wonderful man if I have ever met one, tried mightily to make this happen for us. He got us to the right Metro stop in Pushkin Square, a mere block from where the tanks, missiles, and drones traditionally roll by. Unfortunately, this year, with no notice, the parade route was shortened and modified, and no onlookers were allowed on the street in this part of the city.
We found ourselves shunted between crowd control barriers and a fleet of loaded dump trucks (insurance against a European style vehicle attack), but unable to see anything. We could hear the rumble of distant military hardware. Finally, at the end of the parade, some 75 aircraft flew over in various configurations – helicopters, bombers, fighters, the latter of which carried two of Rusia’s newest tactical nuclear warheads… These can fired at hypersonic speeds, theoretically making them invulnerable to any current US missile defense schemes.
It is a chilling thing the way these fighters appear overhead in the gaps between the Moscow’s low rise architecture and its leafy green trees. They are virtually silent until you see them, then they roar overhead about out of sight again with barely enough time to register their shape. And these were flying at a fraction of their capacity, far slower than attack speed.
They dropped no bombs and fired no missiles – they did nothing but expel jaunty streams of smoke colored in the configuration of the Russian flag. But they lowered upon me a feeling of dread. Not because they were Russian, but because they carry with them weaponized terror.
My heart was racing, and I couldn’t help but think of all of the people in the world – in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Germany, England, Japan – in every country that has ever been subjected to aerial bombardment on any scale… If those planes were coming for my city, my home… All hope would be lost, and I would be helpless. At the mercy of their cold, raptor attack.
We humans can make awful things.
I had a lot of time to reflect upon this, behind that dump truck barrier. The next phase of Victory Day is the march of the Immortal Regiment. This is a massive outpouring of commemoration – Russians print pictures of family members who served in the Great Patriotic War and parade these by the tens of thousands through Red Square. Some wear period clothing, including the uniforms of their ancestors. Wartime music fills the air, spilling from cranked PAs or more humble men and boys who play their accordions. Some members of the crowd sing along and others dance. A sort of buckwheat porridge with only trace amounts of meat – a meager, if tasty peasant’s food associated in the minds of Russians with war time hardship – is cooked on massive military grade barbecues, distributed for free, and eaten with enthusiasm by nearly everyone.
The march of the Immortal Regiment is the main event for many Russians. Its origins are in the grassroots – it started a decade ago as an unofficial event, but is now facilitated and subsidized by the government. Putin even leads the march carrying a photo of his father who was wounded in the war.
We baked for four or five hours in the sun as the authorities held us out of Red Square. As with the sudden change in plans that meant we couldnt see the military parade, there was no immediate explanation for why the march of the Immortal Regiment was delayed for so long, I’m not sure any explanation will ever be forthcoming – the government does not owe you, and you don’t really have the right to question.
As with so many things in Russian history, the people will take what they given, and they will be thankful for it.
We are all Russians today.
The entry into Red Square is triumphal – a release from all of the tension, discomfort, and uncertainty of the scorching, stalled parade, the whole thing a brilliant simulacrum of the Russian war experience itself. This is Red Square the way it is meant to be seen – in the midst of a grand procession, the people energized and jubalant. First you must suffer to then taste the sweetness of its embrace.
Somewhere near Lenin`s mausoleum, we found ourselves tripped up once more. It seemed like another barricade had been set to block our progress, as a massive crowd of people planted themselves in the middle of the otherwise open square. We carefully navigated our way around the mass, noting that in actuality, the mass of people was supporting a gigantic banner invoking the gone heroes of the Soviet Union… I snapped a few photos and went on my way, thinking that he day was more or less done.
Later, back at the hotel, watching the day’s highlights on TV, I found out that Vladimir Putin himself was one of the people carrying the banner. I can say honestly that my eyes have seen him, even if my brain didn’t recognize him…
The night ended on the roof of the 29 story Crown Plaza hotel, opened specially for my group and several other participants in the Immortal Regiment parade… At 10 pm, from 360 degrees all around Moscow, the largest fireworks display I have ever seen was unreeled – an homage to the artillery barrage that announced the surrender of the Nazis some 73 years ago.
Truly, this is Russia at its most bombastic self – a country that demands respect that it feels it rarely gets.