Thursday

23rd Jan 2020

Feature

What does Putin’s 9 May parade mean?

  • Russian armour, with St. George insignia, at 9 May rehearsal (Photo: Dmitriy Fomin)

At 10am Moscow time on Saturday (9 May), Russian president Vladimir Putin, other leaders, and a happy crowd will watch thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tanks roll through Red Square.

It’s the largest parade ever and it’ll be the centrepiece of events to mark 70 years after the Red Army defeated Hitler.

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Celebrations will start in Novosibirsk at 7am Moscow time and will take place in all big cities, as well as in Sevastopol, Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine last year.

There’ll be blanket coverage on Russian TV. RT, a state broadcaster, will live-stream proceedings in Arabic, English, and Spanish on YouTube.

But what does it mean?

Part of the answer lies in the St. George’s ribbon.

The striped, black-and-amber insignia is a symbol of military valour from the 18th century. It’s the official logo of the 9 May event and it’ll be displayed on the turrets of Armatas, the new Russian tank to be unveiled this weekend.

It’s also the badge used by Russia’s proxy forces in east Ukraine in a war which has cost more than 6,000 lives.

Russia’s EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, and his entourage wore them at a press briefing in Brussels this week.

When EUobserver asked him what it means, he said: “The order of St. George was inaugurated by Catherine the Great in Russia’s wars with the Ottoman Empire. About 10 years ago, it became a popular symbol of our devotion to the memory of those who fought in The Great Patriotic War … The order existed long before Crimea became part of the Russian empire. So, that’s about the ribbon”.

He noted, in other remarks, that WWII began with Germany’s “Anschluss” of Czechoslovakia prior to its invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939.

But he rejected comparison with Crimea, saying “Crimea was not an annexation by any means … it was an attempt by local people to decide their future for themselves”.

He justified Russia’s deployment of special forces in Crimea by claiming Ukrainian nationalists were preparing a “massacre” of Russian speakers.

He added that Stalin, who, like Hitler, murdered millions of Russians, was in his “personal opinion” a “dictator”.

But he said he’s a “national hero” for many Russians and that, in any case, he shouldn’t overshadow the memory of Nazi victims.

He also defended Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1939, under the "Molotov-Ribbentrop" pact with Germany, as an act of “necessity” at the time.

Narrative

It’s a narrative espoused by many Russian people.

Denis Volkov, a sociologist who works for Levada, an independent pollster in Russia, told this website the St. George’s ribbon is primarily associated with 1945 not 2014.

He said that, for “some minorities, such as hard nationalists and ultra-supporters of the war in Donbas [east Ukraine]”, the badge has “a more complex meaning” related directly to Ukraine.

But he disagreed with Chizhov, saying the seizure of Crimea is part of the “joy” of this year’s 9 May holiday.

“The ribbon is linked to Crimea … it means that 70 years ago Russia was a great power shaping Europe and the wider world and now Russia is a great power once again”, he said.

“We did it then. We’ve done it again. And we’ll do more if we have to”.

Looking at Soviet symbols - such as Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square, busts of Stalin - he said there’s a debate in Russian society.

The anti-Putin intelligentsia aside, Volkov said one third of Russians want Lenin to be moved. But most of them, especially young people, have stripped Soviet icons of historical fact.

“Stalin has been freed of responsibility because he’s so central to the image of Russia’s greatness”, he said.

“People say: ‘Yes. Stalin killed people’. But most of them don’t have a historical understanding. The meaning of Stalin is more about the present time”.

“I’ll give you an example: In my own housing committee, in my block of flats, two days ago, they handed out leaflets with Stalin’s face and the words ‘Only he can fix this’. It was about today’s problems - the government not working properly, high prices. It means Stalin was a strong leader and we need a strong leader to fix things”.

Interpretation

The narrative causes horror in Russia’s neighbours.

The invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s nationalist-imperialist rhetoric has prompted thousands of people in the Baltic states and in Poland to join military reserves.

There are calls to ban Soviet symbols in public places, as with the swastika.

Ukrainians in Kiev and other government-controlled cities have torn down statues of Lenin and smashed them with hammers.

It’s a narrative which has also caused alarm in EU chancelleries and in Washington.

Nato has created a rapid reaction force to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic region.

The EU has blacklisted Putin’s top officials and imposed economic sanctions on Russian banks, arms firms, and energy companies.

Most EU leaders - but not Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, or Slovakia - boycotted the 9 May event.

The fact that chancellor Angela Merkel, the custodian of German war guilt, won’t sit next to Putin on Saturday shows the depth of European concern.

Chizhov, like Putin and his spokesmen, say Russia isn't isolated on the world stage.

They note that 27 heads of state or government are coming. The list includes China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Serbia, South Africa, Venezuela, and UN chief Ban Ki Moon.

Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping, on Friday, signed an agreement between Russia’s “Eurasian Union” and China’s “Silk Road”, an economic project.

The Russian leader said it means “a new level of partnership and actually implies a common economic space on the continent”.

His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, spoke of “an impressive project, of economic, geopolitical, and other value”.

Rewind

But rewind to 2005, the 60th memorial of the Great Patriotic War, and the change is stark.

There was military pomp and Putin also voiced Soviet nostalgia. But he sat next to US president George W. Bush, France’s Jacques Chirac, Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder, and 50 other heads of state.

The EU and Russia were in talks on a new "strategic" pact.

Russia’s economy was growing. Independent media, opposition groups, and foreign-backed NGOs were allowed to work.

Ten years later, lack of reform, low oil prices, and sanctions have caused stagnation.

Russia has invaded Georgia and now Ukraine. There’s no independent information, except on the internet. Opposition leaders, such as Boris Nemtsov, are being murdered, and NGOs are being harassed as “foreign agents”.

“He [Putin] has nothing to brag about at home … so the only thing he can offer to Russian people is fear of an outside enemy and fantasies of imperial greatness”, Garry Kasparov, a former Soviet chess champion who lives in the US, told EUobserver in a recent interview.

It’s an offer, embodied in the 9 May event, which Russian people accept.

For Kasparov, they do it because “the collapse of the Soviet Union was painful. But, unlike Germany, there was no process of reconciliation or lustration, of cleansing society of former Communist apparatchiks, and, most importantly, of the KGB”, he said, referring to the Russian intelligence service, now called the FSB.

For Volkov, most Russians won’t be thinking of Ukraine on 9 May.

But their “joy” will be a symptom of what he calls Russia’s “post-imperial complex”.

“The situation was better in 2005 than it is today. But people are happier now. The policy of confrontation with the West is satisfying”, he said.

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