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Russia holds Victory Day military parade and, for a day, forgets the grinding pandemic

A Russian service member marches Wednesday during the Victory Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

MOSCOW — Russians celebrated Victory Day on Wednesday, marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union's defeat of the Nazis in World War II, as President Vladimir Putin sought to shed the political setbacks of the coronavirus pandemic and drum up national pride in preparation for a nationwide vote on constitutional changes that could let him stay in power until 2036.

The holiday was actually May 9, but the military parade had to be postponed because of the novel coronavirus.

For Russians, Victory Day is perhaps the nation’s most emotional holiday and evokes triumphant memories of wartime heroism darkened by the cruel sacrifice of 27 million Soviet citizens who died in what is known here as the Great Patriotic War. Russian state television has been running a nonstop rolling banner on the right-hand side of the screen listing the names of every known casualty.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke during a military parade June 24, the eve of a nationwide vote that could extend his rule until 2036. (Video: Reuters)

After arriving at the parade, Putin shook hands with elderly veterans of the war, people in their 80s and 90s — one of the groups most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Neither Putin nor the veterans he greeted wore masks.

The last surviving member of three Soviet female air force regiments, Galina Brok-Beltsova, 95, was seated at Putin’s right.

Putin said Europe owed its freedom to the Soviet soldiers who laid down their lives in the war.

“They defended their land, freed the states of Europe from invaders, saved the people of Germany from Nazism and its ideology. It is impossible to imagine what would have happened to the world if the Red Army had not stood in the way of fascism,” he said in a speech opening the parade.

After he spoke, troops wearing uniforms dating back to the war and units from several former Soviet nations marched through the square as martial music rang out.

Russia uses prizes and patriotism to push vote to change constitution. There’s scant mention of the real goal: keeping Putin in power.

The parade was a showcase of Russian military force, with tanks and missiles rumbling through Red Square, troops marching in crisp formation and an air force flyover of the nation’s most advanced military planes, including MiG-31 interceptors carrying ­hypersonic Kinzhal missiles. More than 13,000 troops, 234 armored vehicles and 75 aircraft participated. Some Muscovites clambered onto pitched metal roofs to see the flyby as it approached Red Square and take photos with smartphones.

In addition to Russia’s latest military technology, the parade also featured a squadron of World War II-era T-34 tanks, once the mainstay of the Soviet armored columns that swept across Germany.

In recent weeks, health officials had insisted that the rate of coronavirus infection was low enough to go ahead with the postponed event — a patriotic set piece symbolizing Putin’s leadership. It preceded a week-long national vote beginning Thursday on constitutional amendments, including one that entitles Putin to run for reelection two more times after his term expires in 2024.

Critics and infectious-disease expert Victoria Adonyeva have warned that Russia’s rush to return to normalcy for the parade and the constitutional vote — even as official figures show that cases are rising by more than 7,000 a day — is likely to lead to a new surge in infections in coming weeks.

Ahead of Victory Day, Russia reopened gyms, restaurants, ­cafes, shops and hair salons, although mass events such as concerts are still banned.

By Wednesday, Russia had reported more than 600,000 coronavirus cases, the third-highest in the world after the United States and Brazil. According to official statistics, questioned by critics, Russia’s deaths have reached just over 8,500.

With Russia’s economy in crisis because of the pandemic, Putin’s approval rating recently reached its lowest level, 59 percent. Although still high by Western standards, it comes in a nation where the Kremlin maintains tight control over the media and routinely jails opposition figures and critics and seizes their assets.

In a national address Tuesday, Putin sought to turn public opinion around, telling Russians that authorities have done everything possible to save human lives since the pandemic reached the country. He extended a series of temporary benefits to families with children and unemployed people hit hard by the pandemic and announced more measures to support businesses.

Opposition politician Leonid Volkov said in a recent YouTube video that the thousands of new coronavirus cases each day proved that it was “ridiculous and criminal” to lift the restrictions and proceed with the nationwide vote.

“But as we see, the Chernobyl tragedy has not taught the officials anything,” he said, referring to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in Ukraine that was covered up by Soviet authorities. He predicted that thousands of people would die because of the vote.

“Dozens of thousands of lives will be on Putin, but there is no hope that he will reconsider because he doesn’t see anything in front of him except his eternal ruling and the walls of his bunker. That is why take care of yourselves and of your older relatives. We can’t rely on the state. It lied, lies and will lie.”

Putin has participated in several events this week, visiting a vast military cathedral Monday and laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin wall, where he met veterans and shook their hands.

Extensive measures have been taken to protect Putin from the coronavirus, including installing a special disinfectant tunnel at his residence that sprays a fine mist on visitors. Veterans meeting Putin were required to self-isolate for two weeks beforehand.

In recent months, the Kremlin has attacked officials from Europe, in particular Poland and Ukraine, who attribute World War II to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, dividing up parts of Europe between them.

Putin argued in a recent article in the National Interest, a foreign policy magazine, that Western powers including Britain, France and Italy were to blame for appeasing the Nazis by signing the 1938 Munich Agreement, which ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Germany. This, he argued, made war in Europe inevitable.

Russia and Poland use differing versions of World War II history for domestic ends

He said Western leaders and Poland were eager to “sweep the Munich Betrayal under the carpet” because “it is kind of embarrassing to recall that during those dramatic days of 1938, the Soviet Union was the only one to stand up for Czechoslovakia.”

He added: “Britain, as well as France, which was at the time the main ally of the Czechs and Slovaks, chose to withdraw their guarantees and abandon this Eastern European country to its fate. In so doing, they sought to direct the attention of the
Nazis eastward so that Germany and the Soviet Union would inevitably clash and bleed each other white.”

Russia’s historical version of events has been enshrined in its constitution, in amendments already passed by Russia’s parliament. The nationwide vote being held from Thursday until July 1 is expected to confirm these amendments, although technically it is not legally necessary.

As Russian authorities have burnished Stalin’s role in the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet dictator’s popularity has grown in contemporary Russia, according to an independent pollster, the Levada Analytical Center. The number of Russians expressing “respect” for Stalin increased from 28 percent in 2018 to 41 percent in 2019, according to the center.

Although millions of Russians were expected to flock into the streets Wednesday to commemorate Victory Day, protesters mounting single-person pickets — the only form of protest that is permitted without official permission — have been arrested in recent days. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, linked the arrests to ongoing coronavirus restrictions.

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