May 9, 2018: Victory Day, in which our hero inadvertently crosses Vladimir Putin

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.

3B4FB26F-1B7B-494B-82E0-0EC43CBB90FA.jpegWe 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.



May 6, 2018: On the Eve of Putin’s Fourth Term

Moscow is like one big monument to the past.  It is full of hammers and sickles, and grand, imposing Soviet-era statues.  The so-called Seven Sisters – Stalin-era skyscrapers that were supposed to make Moscow look like the capital of a modern superpower – now look dated.  They haunt the city’s skyline like testaments to a world that might have been…  Imagine what the world would have been like had the USSR poured its resources into further developing that unique form of architecture, instead of a generation or so of nuclear and missile development…  Instead of a generation of backing satellite regimes and leftist revolutionaries the world over.

With reference to all of that Cold War stuff, I could write the same things about my own country…  What if the United States had declined to pursue those same provocative actions?  What if instead we had looked inward and gotten serious about, say, a War on Poverty?

Well, the world would be a different place in so many ways…  Not the least of which is that this mini-Cold War we are now reliving – typified by election hacking and assassinations by nerve toxins – would likely be the stuff of fiction instead of fact.

And Vladimir Putin, whose fourth inauguration is tomorrow, would probably be an anonymous government functionary in some modified, but still socialist USSR.

It is a strange coincidence that I am in Moscow for this moment.  I’m here to commemorate Victory Day – May 9 – the anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied Powers at the end of World War II.  What we used to call V-E Day.  The last moment where the United States and Russia could plausibly claim to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder on anything.

On May 6, as I was landing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, more than a thousand anti-Putin demonstrators were arrested for protesting against Putin’s impending inauguration.  They see him as corrupt – as a man who has held on to office in part by preventing free and open elections in his own country.  By encouraging the same thing in mine.

Putin is a man who has learned from history.

Competition, not collaboration, was the story of the Twentieth Century.  And that winners don’t need to play fair, because they can retell the story of their triumph anyway they please.

More missiles mean more security.

More guns mean more safety.

Poverty isn’t a social problem, it is a personal one.

Why am I in Russia this week?

Because I’m trying to remember that fleeting moment when collaboration was necessary for survival – when both Russia and the United States found themselves with their back to each other, fighting for their very existence.

I wonder how dire things must get in our present before we can see each other in that light once more.

More funky, dated skyscrapers more 1945 and all of the missed potential it carried…  Less missiles, less stolen elections, less climate change, less 2018.