Victory Day in Occupied Moscow

9 May

Trucks with police and internal forces lying in wait. May 9, 2012 in the center of Moscow (my photo).

Today is May 9, when Victory Day is observed in Russia to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. There is virtually not one Russian (or, ex-Soviet) family that hasn’t in some way been affected by the war: my own grandfather served in the army from 1941 until 1945. And while the official observance of the holiday has always, to some extent, co-opted many private reflections on individual people’s relationships to the war and its memory and legacy, there has never been anything quite as profane as what is in plain sight in Moscow today.

Following a large opposition march that was violently dispersed on the eve of Putin’s inauguration as president for the third term, to which he was “elected” in March as a result of heavy falsification and fraud, sporadically organized protests have been ongoing in Moscow ever since. On the day of the inauguration, May 7, the police and internal forces blocked off the center of the city and disbanded people who were trying to observe Putin’s motorcade as it proceeded towards the Kremlin. I watched the inauguration on TV: the motorcade proceeded along completely deserted streets of Moscow in broad daylight as people who live in apartment buildings along the route of the motorcade weren’t allowed out of their homes. A juxtaposition shot of Barack Obama’s inauguration, observed by 2 million people on the National Mall and of Putin’s motorcade on Moscow’s empty streets became an immediate internet sensation, retwitted and reposted online. Protests have been going on ever since.

Today, in a sense, feels like an apogee of more than a week’s worth of events of misguided historical analogies. These analogies were launched on May 1, when Medvedev (the new ex-president) and Putin (the new president) went for a walk among 100,000 people (official and likely exaggerated estimate) celebrating May Day (who, by some accounts, were bussed in to participate in the happening). The duo, Putin dressed in a stylish black suit and Medvedev sporting a stylish white coat, followed up on their outing by going to have beer so as to seem as though they are one with the people – an event, which, as the poet Lev Rubinstein suggested, should have been avoided had Putin and Medvedev’s image makers thought of the historical analogy between the attempted seizure of power by the Nazis in Germany during Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 and the illegal seizure of power by the fraudulently “elected” Putin-Medvedev tandem. The inauguration on May 7, too, was full of misguided historical analogies: as I was watching the ceremony on state TV, I was finding it hard to keep my face straight as the commentators, in one breath, discussed both the coronations of Muscovite princes in the Kremlin in the Middle Ages and the fact that, according to the Soviet protocol still in force, Putin would be addressed by the Kremlin’s commandant as “Comrade President.” However, May 9 – the Victory Day today – is the most profaned historical analogy of all this week.

Putin’s regime has entirely co-opted the memory of the war against Germany, the memory that is nearly sacred to most Russians, for its own purposes and this was in evidence during the heavy military parade today, which the regime had been rehearsing for several days prior to today (causing huge traffic jams all over the city as a result). Shifting the epicenter of national attention from private reflections, using the stands filled with elderly veterans as a prop, Putin unflinchingly (because of botox injections to his face, as some maintain) observed as Army units and heavy military machinery marched along the Red Square. He’s done this in previous years, sure, being the first post-Soviet leader to re-institute the military parade on Victory Day on the Red Square as a form of commemoration (Boris Yeltsin made sure to move it off-site, even rebuilding a small cathedral at the entrance to the Square that was used for passage of heavy military machinery during Soviet-era parades so as to block the most direct entrance into the Square); but this year, following more than a week of events, nothing private was allowed to be left in the meaning of May 9. Putin, violently back in power and clinging on as if he is here to stay for good, has put himself forward as the personification of the day which now, officially, is about nothing else than military might and national pride enabled by his, Putin’s, own enlightened rule. Referring to Putin’s KGB service in East Germany and playing on today’s celebrations over Nazi Germany, someone on twitter pointed out that, “there is a German occupant in the Kremlin.”

There is a very famous song devoted to the Soviet victory over Germany that has the following line: “This Victory Day has a stench of powder to it” (i.e. referring to the hard-won victory that cost 27 million Soviet lives). I remember goosebumps against my skin when hearing this song on TV during observances of May 9 in my childhood. True, TV was still Soviet and full of propaganda, but at least my grandfather, himself with a stench of wartime powder to him, was there in his own person and with his own stories to overpower any officially-created meaning of the holiday. There are fewer and fewer veterans still living- and so the interpretation of May 9 falls, disproportionately, into the hands of Putin and his minions. Seen on Twitter this morning, a contemporary version of that chilling song: “Этот День Победы Путиным пропах” – “This Victory Day has a stench of Putin to it.” 

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