Victory Day in Russia, the 9th May, is a triumphant celebration of the military, a colossal tribute to the millions who gave their lives during The Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная Война), also known as World War II.
Through the lens of a camera, the world sees parading army regiments, an extravagant fireworks display, and an ominous procession of tanks and missiles passing through Red Square. On the evidence of these images alone, Victory Day might seem like a display of military strength and power. However, on the streets, one discovers that the 9th May is a personal experience, emotional, and collectively shared.
After a week of glorious sunshine in Moscow, freezing temperatures and a spot of snow pulled fur coats and gloves back out of the closet just in time for Victory Day. The Air Force flyover had to be cancelled for the first time in many years as clouds engulfed the city. Soldiers stood shivering in the cold on Red Square in front of politicians and veterans in the grandstand. Vladimir Putin delivered a heartfelt speech to the crowd, as well as to many millions watching worldwide. He was more passionate than in his New Year’s address, asserting that just as the Soviet Union overcame the threat of Nazism in the 1940s, so Russia would not surrender to the poisonous ideologies of today. A minute’s silence followed.
Unlike Remembrance Day or VE Day in the UK, Victory Day impinges fully on the national conscience. It is little wonder when one considers that over 26 million Soviet citizens died during the conflict, compared with British losses of around 450,000. Loss of life and the destruction of war pervaded almost every family in the Soviet Union. People remember the horror of the Nazi invasion and come together every year to pay their respects and thank their ancestors for their victory.
‘Спасибо за победу’ (Spasibo za pobedu) - ‘Thank you for the victory’.
‘The Immortal Regiment’ (Бессмертный Полк - Besmertniy Polk) sees thousands of people march along the streets, holding placards aloft that commemorate their fallen ancestors. Families walk together, brandishing flags and waving to the crowds. Others walk alone, remembering their loved ones alongside thousands of others. People wait for hours in the cold and rain to pay their respects. Across the country and around the world, hundreds of thousands more do the same. Marching through Red Square alongside these people is a humbling experience.
The authorities hand out ribbons of Saint George on Victory Day. The orange and black ribbon dates back to tsarist times, when the colours adorned the highest military award in the Imperial Russian Army. It was also used for the Great Patriotic War victory medal. In 2005, Putin revived the ribbon in response to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and since then, tensions between Russia and former Soviet states have been rising. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has led some people, in Ukraine and the Baltic nations particularly, to see the colours as symbolic of Russian nationalism and expansionism.
Russia and the military go hand in hand. Ever since the military reforms of Peter the Great in the late 17th century, military strength has been a fundamental pillar of Soviet and Russian national identity. However, while there is undoubtedly an offensive element to Russia’s recent military strategy, Victory Day is far more a national celebration of victory and remembrance than it is an armament showpiece.