The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s speech at Victory Day events subdued by the coronavirus

Russian servicewomen march during the Victory Day parade, which marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, in Red Square in central Moscow on Saturday. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)
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MOSCOW — With Red Square and the walkways around the Kremlin walls deserted, Russian President Vladimir Putin carried a bouquet of red roses alone. He knelt to set them at the foot of the Eternal Flame, then stood with his head bowed for several seconds.

An overcast and rainy morning in Moscow suited the uncharacteristically somber mood of the occasion — the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War II triumph. This day is usually marked with big, jubilant crowds, a parade showing off the full force of Russia’s military might and honored guests.

Instead, as Putin stepped up to the lectern for a short nationally televised speech, he promised all of that would eventually come to fruition but at a future unspecified date — when the country isn’t grappling with a coronavirus epidemic that has unraveled plans for the most important national holiday on the Russian calendar and Putin’s personal ambitions tied to it in one fell swoop.

“We will have both our main parade on Red Square and the Immortal Regiment people’s march,” Putin said Saturday. He made no direct mention of the coronavirus during his address.

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Putin’s public reemergence comes after weeks of seclusion at his Novo-Ogaryovo estate on the outskirts of Moscow, where he appeared to Russians during weekly teleconferences with governors and ministers to discuss the coronavirus. This was supposed to be an afternoon that would have him flanked by China’s Xi Jinping, France’s Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders.

But the subdued festivities come as three of the country’s cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past 10 days. Russia has been reporting more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases per day this week, putting its confirmed total at around 200,000 — the fifth most in the world. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Friday that figure is low; health screenings suggest 300,000 people in the capital alone are infected.

Coupled with plummeting oil prices that have crippled Russia’s energy-dependent economy, the coronavirus foiled not just what was supposed to be an extravagant Victory Day but Putin’s agenda for the year. A vote on constitutional changes that was scheduled for last month and would allow Putin to seek two more presidential terms, keeping him in power until 2036, was postponed. Even though those amendments have already been passed in parliament, Putin had been insistent on a national vote, which would offer greater validation.

But Putin’s latest approval ratings, according to the independent Levada Center, have slumped to 59 percent — high for many world leaders but a new low for Putin’s 20-year regime.

Putin’s public perception has typically benefited from patriotic events like Saturday’s 75th anniversary, reinforcing a sense of national unity with him at the center of it. But facing a slimmed-down Victory Day, Putin turned to a favorite talking point and again warned of what he said are attempts to rewrite the history of World War II during an interview aired Friday on state TV. He has frequently accused Russia’s detractors of diminishing the Soviet Union’s contributions and putting Russians “in the position of people who should feel guilty.”

Putin “puts such a premium on shaping a new historical discourse for the country that he can reasonably be dubbed Russia’s national historian,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, chairman of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“Russia stands out in two respects: first, in its categorical refusal to discuss all uncomfortable historical issues, and secondly in the extremely aggressive tone of its discourse on historical issues, which acts as a kind of political mobilization on contemporary issues,” Kolesnikov said in the commentary.

This woman flew Soviet combat missions in WWII. She is the last one left.

Even with most of Russia in its sixth week of strict stay-at-home orders, not all efforts to commemorate Victory Day were scrapped. In Novosibirsk, 2,000 miles east of Moscow, actors earlier in the week dressed as Soviet soldiers — but with face masks — and were hoisted up to the windows and balconies of veterans using a construction lift. They played the accordion and sang war songs in a clever way to observe social distancing guidelines.

The state-run Rossiya-24 channel devoted a sidebar to air the names of the nearly 13 million Soviet soldiers killed in World War II, starting the broadcast in late February.

Windows across the country rattled Saturday morning as the Russian air force carried out flyovers in more than 47 cities, as well as at its military base in Syria, with a full array of jets and helicopters, including the country’s most advanced warplanes.

Six jets streamed the white, blue and red colors of the Russian flag across Moscow skies at about 10:30 a.m., a finale for festivities that lasted just 30 minutes. State TV then started to air footage of last year’s parade.

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