No one was sure what to expect this year on May 9, Russia’ Victory Day, but no one quite expected the anti-climactic show that it seems to have been.
Nothing means just plain nothing when it comes to hugely symbolic days like Victory Day, particularly when such days fall less than three months after the start of an unprovoked war. A war, moreover, that’s going surprisingly poorly for the giant aggressor as it fights the country it wanted to show to the world as an illegitimate thief of its land but that instead has shown itself to be a brave, scrappy, surprisingly successful underdog.
What does the fizzle that was this year’s Victory Day mean?
And before that, what is Victory Day?
Aleksander Smukler of Montclair, an American of some 30 years standing, grew up in Moscow; he left in 1990, when he was 30, approximately half his life ago. He’s enlightened this newspaper’s readers with his understanding of Russia, and of the insecure, haunted, deeply Russian man who leads it — Vladimir Putin, the man we’ve come to call the angry dwarf for his insecurities, and the butchery that are their logical extensions. Now, he combines his memory of what Victory Day once meant and what it seems to be now as he explains what he saw on Monday.
May 9 celebrates the end of World War II in Europe; it’s the anniversary of the day when the Nazis signed the instrument of surrender. It also shows how Russia both is part of Europe and in an odd way isn’t, or at least isn’t entirely. The rest of Europe celebrates May 8 as the end of the war on its soil, but Russia is so far east that it already was May 9 in Moscow when the war-ending late-night signing happened.
May 9 also shows how Putin never got beyond the war that ended about seven years before he was born but has remained alive for him, Mr. Smukler said.
To start at the beginning, Mr. Smukler, who grew up in Moscow, right across the river from the Kremlin, remembers May 9 as “the major, major event in Russian and Soviet memory,” and in civic life, he said. And he remembers it with happiness; life in the Soviet Union was hard, but it had its pleasures, and this was one of them.
He thinks back to his childhood. “Victory Day always was a long weekend, a major holiday,” he said; no matter when it fell in the week, it stretched to include a weekend.”
Families would mark it together. “I remember when my grandparents were alive,” he said. “We always were together on May 9, and we would have a major celebration. We talked about those who lost their lives during the war” — despite all the wars there have been since, World War II always was “the war” — “and it was a special day for every family in the Soviet Union.” One of Mr. Smukler’s grandfathers escaped Babyn Yar with most of his family — one of his sons, Mr. Smukler’s uncle Efraim, was captured, brought to Babyn Yar, shot into that pit and left to die there — and the other grandfather was injured as he fought in the Red Army; he survived for 12 years after the war but died young of those injuries, leaving his widow with five children and not much hope.
“My father always said that we had to celebrate May 9 because we are alive because of those who sacrificed their lives,” Mr. Smukler said. “And especially because we are Jews.
“Every Jewish family in the Soviet Union celebrated that day. There was not one Jewish family in the Soviet Union who did not lose relatives in the Holocaust or behind the front lines or serving in the army.”
There were few families untouched by the war; about 27 million Russians died during that terrible time.
Mr. Smukler also remembers the excitement of May 9. Although he and his family never were able to join the crowds in Red Square — that was reserved for ticketholders, important Soviet apparatchiks who were allowed on the reviewing stand — they were able to stand on the bridge just beyond the square. That’s where the parade ended, so Mr. Smukler and his friends were able to see the marchers and the equipment — the tanks and the missiles and the brand-new high-tech-for-that-time weapons, and the military bands and the horses and everything else that make up a massive parade — up close. That was heaven for small boys, and he remembers it that way.
The parades were massive, Mr. Smukler said. “It cost a fortune, zillions of dollars, and it paralyzed the capital of Russia for two or three days before and after.”
Although there’s not much about the Soviet Union that makes him nostalgic, this parade does. It’s clear in his voice, and in his words.
But then he brings himself back to the present, with a little detour through more recent history.
“During Soviet times, there were parades twice a year,” he said. “There was one on November 7, celebrating the October revolution, and then the one on May 9. Gorbachev canceled the Revolution Day parade.”
There was a short time when the parade and the day changed character, Mr. Smukler said. “When Boris Yeltsin was in power, from 1991 to 1999, the parades and government-sponsored celebration were canceled, because he did not want to spend zillions for them. The government and the president did not feel that this was the right way to spend money — to waste money — and they wanted to demonstrate their desire to demilitarize Russia.”
There were only two parades during that eight-year period, Mr. Smukler said, and they showed how Yeltsin wanted change. The day then became more about remembrance than puffery; it was more like our Memorial Day. “Instead of new equipment, new missiles, the parade had antique military cars and tanks.
“And then Putin restored the tradition of a major military parade, with thousands of soldiers marching in Red Square, with a massive presentation of new military equipment, new fighter jets. He was elected in 2000 and restored the parade in 2001. It was showing Greater Russia as having an enormous military capacity, and it was implanted into the Russian mind.”
The parades got bigger, louder, showier, heavier on military equipment, more aimed at showing military strength and both physical and technical advantages. Also, it became more expensive to produce (and it never was cheap).
“It is such an unusual event,” Mr. Smukler said. “The only things that are at all similar, as far as I know, are in China and North Korea. So only China, North Korea, and Russia, out of all the countries in the world, do something like this.”
Putin, of course, is at the parade’s center, and at Victory Day’s.
He doesn’t look like his bedecked soldiers.
“Putin never wears a uniform,” Mr. Smukler said. This year, like every year, he wore a suit, “and because it was cold this year, around 49 degrees, he was wearing a coat.” Observers noted that Putin looked a bit thicker than usual under the coat, and guessed that he was wearing bulky protective gear beneath it.
“But Putin always is surrounded by generals who are wearing their dress uniforms and decorated like Christmas trees,” Mr. Smukler continued. “It looks kind of unusual to the Western eye. I remember Brezhnev; he loved his military decorations and he used to wear a uniform with zillions of different pins and metals. But Putin is different.
“And this parade was completely different.”
To describe what he saw, Mr. Smukler talked about what he sees as driving Vladimir Putin. The Russian president was born in 1952, so although World War II — what Russians formally call the Great Patriotic War in Defense of the Motherland — had been over for seven years, it still was going on in his family, in his life, in his head. His father remained a promotion-less private during his entire time in the Russian army, but he fought actively on the front lines for five years, and his survival was extraordinarily against the odds. His mother was left to fend for herself during the siege of Leningrad; it is estimated that about 800,000 people died during that siege. One of them was Vladimir’s baby brother, the only other child of his parents. So Vladimir Putin grew up the only child of older, understandably but unmistakably embittered parents, in the rubble of a mass graveyard. “The war continues for Putin,” Mr. Smukler said.
When he watched the parade on Russian television on Monday, Mr. Smukler surprised himself with the anger he felt.
“I had the feeling that my memorial day, and the feelings that I grew up with, were stolen,” he said.
“The parade and the celebration that I saw on Russian TV looked to me to be totally artificial, and what I’ve heard from TV and Putin’s speech made me sick. The memory and the significance of the day were completely stolen.
“Right now, Putin is using Victory Day for their purposes, and they completely twisted its significance.
“Interestingly, his major speech, the one he gave in Red Square, was very brief. It was only about 10 minutes. And he mentioned almost nothing direct about the war. He said something about the ‘military operation’ in Donbas.
“He said that the military operation is the liberation of Donbas and of the Ukrainian people from the Nazis. And that is what makes me feel that my memories are stolen.
“I know that there are no Nazis in Ukraine. It is not the same thing. My grandfather, who fought, and my uncle, who died in Babyn Yar — it is totally different.
“There is nothing to celebrate today. Russia is acting exactly as the fascist government did in Nazi Germany back in 1941. That’s why the celebration in my mind was completely different from what I felt when I was a kid living in the Soviet Union.”
Although it was short, it was “a major state speech,” Mr. Smukler said. “Every Russian news channel will repeat it again and again and again.”
Putin called the war with Ukraine inevitable — even though he used neither word — because the threat Ukraine poses, and the memories of fighting the Nazis, demand it. “He said that the war would have started anyway” — “Russia did everything to prevent the advance of the aggressor,” Putin said. “It was the only correct decision, the sovereign decision of an independent country.”
Putin frequently has said that “the political leadership at the start of the Second World War made a major mistake,” Mr. Smukler said. “They were not prepared for the Nazi army attacking the Soviet Union. And because of that mistake, the Soviet Union lost millions of soldiers fighting to reverse that situation and defend the country.”
So, in his May 9 speech, “Putin said that now Russia is facing the same threat from NATO and the United States that it had faced before World War II. He presented the military operation as a move to defend Russia and liberate Ukraine from the new Nazis and its new Nazi government. He said that NATO had moved toward Russian borders over the years, and it had created a military structure on Ukraine’s territory that was an extreme threat to our security.
“To Putin, the Second World War never ended. He is using events that took place 83 years ago to explain his aggressive politics and his invasion of Ukraine.
“The irony is that Putin might be right in comparing the Nazis’ war against the Soviet Union with his war against Ukraine, but now Russia is playing the part of Nazi Germany, and Ukraine has become the Soviet Union.”
Mr. Smukler detailed some of the differences between this year’s Victory Day speech and earlier ones. “This is the first one I can remember where there were no foreigners. Usually during the Soviet time, and of course during Putin’s time, there were lots of leaders of foreign countries who attended the parade and stood next to Putin.
“A few years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was there. A few years before that, it was Xi Jinping.” In 2005, it was President George W. Bush.
“This year, there was a big reception after the parade, as there is every year, but no foreign leaders came. The Russian official propaganda said that no one had been invited.”
One thing that Putin did not do — and this despite fears that it was inevitable — he did not raise the stakes. “There was no threat to the West. No threat of expanding the war. Nothing like that,” Mr. Smukler said.
“What he did say was that the place where his military operation is going on right now, Ukraine, is historically Russian. To quote Putin, “Donbass militia alongside with the Russian Army are fighting on their land today, where princes Svyatoslav and Vladimir Monomakh’s retainers, solders under the command of Rumyantsev and Potemkin, Suvorov and Brusilov crushed their enemies, where Great Patriotic War heroes Nikolai Vatutin, Sidor Kovpak, and Lyudmila Pavlichenko stood to the end.”
In other words, he was heavy on the romance of the illusory past, while not so straightforward about the present. (Forget the future.)
“Putin never mentioned Ukraine as an independent state,” Mr. Smukler said. “He is imprinting in the Russian public mind that there is no question that Ukraine is part of our land. It always has been Russian land. A person listening to that speech would think this, ‘Oh, this has always been Russian, so we’re just taking it back from NATO or its new Nazi government. So nothing major is happening. We are just taking back what belongs to us.”
It’s true that for throughout most of its history Ukraine was not independent, Mr. Smukler said. It gained its independence from Russia most recently in 1991, when “the Soviet Union collapsed into different parts, and Ukraine chose its own path. Now, 30 years later, Putin says no no no, Yeltsin was too drunk.
“It was all a big mistake. That’s how the Russian leadership explains it. Yeltsin was too crazy and too drunk, and that’s how he let Ukraine and Belarus get away.”
Back in Red Square — and at many of the smaller Victory Day parades around Russia — there was a demonstration supporting Putin after the parade. “It’s a custom to do that; it’s often organized and supported by Putin,” Mr. Smukler said. People carry placards with the photographs of friends or family members who died during the war. “This year, it was massive,” Mr. Smukler said. “I have read difference sources, including foreign ones, that there were more than one million people in the street in Moscow, even though the weather was bad.
“Russian state television presented it as the support and unity of the people around their president and commander in chief during this military operation.”
Putin’s support still is strong, Mr. Smukler said. “The sanctions were implemented about 70 days ago. The Russian economy is ruined, but it doesn’t hurt most of the population. Only a small percentage feels that the economy is collapsing.” That’s mainly the country’s upper middle class, he added. It’s entirely possible that in a few months the pain will spread downward, but as for now, “the majority doesn’t feel it.”
The group that is suffering the most are the highly educated, highly paid, mainly fairly young people. Many of them work for foreign companies — or to be more accurate, they worked for foreign companies. Those businesses are gone now. “They’re IT specialists, scientists, doctors, top managers, who work mainly in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and other big cities.
“Their lives are ruined, and they are trying to flee from Russia,” Mr. Smukler said.
He thinks that the most harmful action the West could take toward the Russian economy would be “to let these people go,” he continued. “They’re all highly skilled and very well-educated, and most of them are not older than 40. If they can leave Russia, they can get employment in any country in the world, and they will jump on it.
“And that would be a major, major hit on Putin’s economy.”
So what now? May 9 is over and on May 10, we all learned that the city of Odessa was hit by hypersonic missiles. The major shopping mall was completely leveled and two hotels were ruined. There were casualties, but as of this writing, we don’t know the number.
And yesterday, President Joe Biden signed the lend-leased agreement that Congress passed last week. That will allow Ukraine to receive a massive amount of heavy weaponry from the United States.
So although the threats posed by May 9 were left unexploded, Putin and his military still are in Ukraine, they’re still attacking, Ukraine continues to fight back, and threat continues unabated. So we’ll see.
As long as the war in Ukraine grinds on, we will continue to report on its progress.