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Russia’s Victory Day Ain’t What It Used to Be

A downcast celebration in Red Square, led by a tired-looking Putin, as Russians fear the long-awaited Ukrainian offensive.
May 12, 2023
Russia’s Victory Day Ain’t What It Used to Be
A lone T-34 tank in the Victory Day military parade in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9, 2023. (Photo by VCG / Getty Images)

In the run-up to the Victory Day parade on Red Square on May 9, the Russian government was clearly nervous about the possibility of a Ukrainian drone attack, especially after a couple of drones dinged a Kremlin dome in the early morning hours of May 3. In the wake of the embarrassing incident, the authorities in Moscow banned drone flights, introduced a new anti-drone police unit, and started jamming GPS, causing chaos for ride-sharing apps. In the end, the parade was completed with no drones in sight (though there were people with anti-drone guns). But Vladimir Putin and his regime didn’t need Ukrainian- or guerrilla-operated drones to humiliate them on Victory Day. They did that all by themselves.

A lot of commentary following the event has focused on the poverty of the truncated parade, which lasted barely 45 minutes (compared to an hour last year and an hour and 10 minutes in 2021, the last Victory Day before the start of the “special military operation”) and featured no airplanes, no shiny new missiles (although the old ones were trotted out), and, most remarkably, just one lonely tank—a World War II-era T-34.

Just imagine the strained calculation behind that decision: If you parade a lot of tanks, you provoke obvious questions about why those tanks aren’t being used in Ukraine. If you parade no tanks, you look weak. So you go with just one, and symbolically choose one of the legendary tank models with which the Red Army shocked the Nazis—a model built originally in Ukraine.

Presiding over these diminished proceedings, Putin looked tired and miserable. His brief speech hit all the usual talking points—peace-loving Russia, the perfidious West whose elites promote “Russophobia” and hate traditional family values, Ukraine as a pawn of the “criminal regime of its Western masters”—and contained an eyebrow-raising line easily read as a Freudian self-own: “Boundless ambition, arrogance and impunity inevitably lead to tragedies.” The two heavily bemedaled old men who flanked Putin as he sat in the stands, presumably representing World War II vets, turned out to be veterans of the Soviet secret police. On his right: 98-year-old Yuri Dvoikin, whose role in World War II consisted of participation in NKVD operations to eliminate Ukrainian nationalist guerrillas in Western Ukraine’s Lviv region in 1944. On his left: retired KGB officer Gennady Zaitsev, 89, whose only “combat” experience was at the head of a team that seized a government building during the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Also at Putin’s side: heads of state from seven countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Independent States, the rump alliance of nine of the 22 former Soviet republics. Originally, only one, Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov, had been scheduled to attend; announcements of participation by the other heads of state started to come in on May 5, just a few days before the parade. Speculation abounded: Had the Kremlin invited the late-joining guests at the last minute, or stepped up the pressure on them to attend? Was it simply for better optics and a public relations boost, or was there something more going on—such as a connection between the May 3 drone strikes and the hastily scheduled visits by six more foreign leaders?

That was, at least, the hypothesis advanced by Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov on Ukrainian television: The new guests—all men who “who could not refuse” Russia’s belated invitation to attend—were “human shields” meant to ensure that Kyiv would not use the occasion to take out Putin with a drone because killing a few other leaders of nearby countries would look bad and anger Ukraine’s Western partners (or masters, as the Kremlin sees them).

This is pure speculation, of course—though, given the notorious paranoia of the man known as “bunker Grandpa” to his many detractors, it’s not that far-fetched. In any case, Ukrainian and independent Russian journalists loved the idea—particularly in conjunction with the weird moment when, during the walk across Red Square to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Putin seemed startled by a loud bang (actually the opening drumroll of a march played by the military band) and seemed to hide among the foreign dignitaries. Add to this the fact that Putin’s closest ally in this group, fellow tyrant Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, was taken to the tomb by motorized cart and skipped the post-parade festivities, either because he was genuinely unwell or because he wanted to minimize his participation—and what you get is “a fiasco of a spectacle,” as dissident Russian journalist Dmitry Oreshkin put it on the now-exiled independent channel Dozhd TV.

To make things worse, much of the Victory Day spotlight was stolen by Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose latest viral video not only discussed Russian failures at Bakhmut (where Putin had desperately hoped for a victory as a May 9 holiday gift) and ranted at Russian generals and defense ministry bureaucrats, but seemed to aim some venomous language at Putin himself.

This was the latest chapter in a long drama in which Prigozhin has been accusing the generals and bureaucrats of criminally starving Wagner of ammunition; his previously announced deal for more ammo and better communications with the defense ministry had turned out to be a bust. In an instantly famous moment, Prigozhin, clad in fatigues and standing in the field next to one of his men, delivered scathing remarks about a “happy grandpa” who thinks everything is fine while soldiers are dying needlessly. He then concluded: “What are we going to do about the country, about our children, about the future of Russia, and how can we win the war if it turns out, by pure chance, and I’m just speculating here, that this grandpa is a total asshole?” (The Russian word he really used is the difficult-to-translate epithet mudak, derived from a slang term for testicles and connoting a wide range of nasty qualities from stupidity and ineptitude to obnoxiousness and general bad character.)

Just about everyone listening assumed that the “happy grandpa” was Putin. In response to a query from the New York–based Russian-language TV station RTVI, Prigozhin named three possible “grandpas”: Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov; former deputy defense minister for logistics and newly minted Wagner officer Mikhail Mizintsev; and, in an odd gender-bending twist, ex-model-turned-“patriotic”-activist Natalia Khim, who had volunteered to procure more ammunition for Wagner. In other words, Prigozhin, the founder of the Kremlin troll factory, is also a master troll—and Putin, the only major public figure in Russia associated with the “grandpa” moniker, is still the likely target of his “happy grandpa” rant. In any case, there’s no doubt that Prigozhin’s May 9 video, which also essentially accused the current Russian leadership of appropriating an earlier generation’s victory for a pompous display of stolen valor, was a way of raining (feel free to substitute the more colorful verb Prigozhin might use here) on Putin’s parade.

How seriously to take Prigozhin’s statements about anything, whether he’s really in rebellion against Putin, and what his game really is are topics for another day. But for other commentators, from Russian dissidents in exile such as Yulia Latynina and Stanislav Belkovsky to Ukrainians such as journalist Vitaly Portnikov, the true shame of Putin’s parade was that it turned a holiday that meant something real and good to millions of Russians, Ukrainians and other people in the former Soviet Union—the end of a horrific war and a victory over a global evil—into a celebration of a de facto neo-fascist regime that seemed to be trying to reenact World War II playing the baddies. There are eerie parallels: The Soviet Union’s “Great Patriotic War” against the German invasion began with the bombing of Kyiv on June 22, 1941. On the day of Russian victory celebrations on May 9, 2023, it was Russian missiles flying at Kyiv (and getting shot down). There are Ukrainians alive today who fled from German bombings as little boys and girls and are now fleeing from Russian bombings as old men and women. Meanwhile, in Russia, at the Victory Day parade in Khabarovsk, the tank that headed heavy armor column was manned by Col. Azatbek Omurbekov, a “Hero of Russia” medal recipient accused by multiple former subordinates of ordering the murder of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha last year.

Under the circumstances, it’s hardly a surprise that Ukraine is distancing itself from May 9, historically recognized as Victory Day in the USSR, Soviet-bloc countries, and the post-Soviet successor states while Western Europe and the United States celebrated victory in Europe on May 8. President Volodymyr Zelensky used the customary Western date to announce a bill officially moving Ukraine’s Victory Day to May 8 and redesignating May 9 Europe Day. In his video address on May 9, Zelensky, like his adversary in the Kremlin, stressed parallels between World War II and the current war:

The Day of Remembrance and Victory over Nazism in World War II, and immediately after it, the Day of Europe, Europe as a realized dream of a peaceful continent. And it is only a matter of time before we can restore a sustainable and just peace for our part of Europe, for Ukraine. It is only a matter of time before the current aggressor loses, like the aggressor who lost 78 years ago, before Russian revanchism is crushed by the bravery of our warriors and the joint power of the free world.

“Joint power” is apt: Zelensky also discussed meeting that day with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, with whom he discussed Ukraine’s defense needs and a new sanctions package against Russia; he also noted a new $1.2 billion defense package from the United States.

Russian propagandists, already on pins and needles awaiting the Ukrainian offensive, did not take Victory Day well. Vladimir Solovyov morosely noted on his Solovyov Live online show that there wasn’t much equipment on Red Square, but he found some consolation in the display of ICBMs, which he read as a threat to “bang” the Western enemy. (“Apparently, it’s no longer the question as to whether [the ICBMs] will fly or won’t, but when [they] will fly.”) He also railed against apathetic Russians who won’t “pull their heads out of their fat asses” to understand the “existential threat” facing the country (true, but not the way Solovyov presumably intends it) and against male migrants who refuse to join the armed forces.

Russian propagandist promotes military recruitment

(All this, by the way, was preceded by a racist swipe at White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who angered Solovyov by referring to “the victory of the United States and Allied forces over fascism and aggression on the continent”; the irate propagandist jeered Jean-Pierre as “a woman indistinguishable from Chunga-Changa,” a stereotypically drawn African child in a Soviet-era cartoon. Then he assailed Western “Nazis.”)

But even Solovyov’s characteristically gross rant paled compared to fellow propagandist Olga Skabeyeva’s May 10 show on the Rossiya-1 channel, which had as its main topic Zelensky’s decision to redesignate May 9 as Europe Day. (While most of the two-hour program focused on Ukrainian depredations and NATO perfidy, Skabeyeva and her guests took the time to agree that both Tucker Carlson’s firing from Fox News and the jury verdict finding Donald Trump liable for sexual abuse toward E. Jean Carroll were a part of the Biden administration’s ruthless campaign to squelch and silence its domestic enemies.) Toward the end, one of the panelists, “journalist” and “member of parliament” Andrei Medvedev, warned ominously that unless Russia achieves total victory, May 9 celebrations are over: “There’ll be a gay parade instead of that May 9.” It always comes back to that.

60 minutes Europe Day

Within 24 hours, the Ukrainians were pushing the Russians back at Bakhmut, with Wagner and regular troops accusing each other of running away first; rumblings that the long-awaited Ukrainian offensive had finally begun were growing louder on pro-Russian Telegram channels; and the guests on the latest edition of Skabeyeva’s daily show were freaking out over the long-range Storm Shadow missiles England had reportedly delivered to Ukraine.

Maybe Red Square should get ready for the gays.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.