Russian journalist Tamara Protopopova has seen Victory Day celebrations in Moscow over the years. Tainted by the war in Ukraine, this year’s festivities failed to attract the thousands of spectators they used to, while her friends turned to clandestine Soviet-era flat parties to sing anti-war songs.
President Vladimir Putin seized the occasion on Victory Day to blame the war on NATO’s refusal to compromise. Speaking before the military show of force held like every year at Moscow’s Red Square, the Russian leader argued that Russia’s actions were “forced, timely and the right decision”.
Spectators, who usually show up to 9 May celebrations in huge numbers, were not allowed to attend the parade. The main street, Tverskaya, was tightly closed and the entire city centre was paralysed. People lined the streets around the event, hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the passing military equipment. For such a large-scale event, not many people were there. Only rare passers-by could be seen 200 metres away. The city was empty and silent.
Before the war with Ukraine, Moscow would be noisy and crowded on Victory Day – a peaceful day of spring. Families and children with balloons, flowers and joy would fill the city.
This year, Moscow’s cafes and restaurants were open, the streets were wide and clean, with beautiful, well-groomed flowerbeds. But the city was still empty. It felt extinct.
“For me, Victory Day is a symbol of the unity of our multinational country. It is a memory of what our fathers and grandfathers did for the world, for us,” said Daniil, a tall man holding a St. George ribbon who came to see the parade.
“They defeated fascism, eternal memory to them for that. I support the actions of our president. Of our army.”
Asked if Nazism has been revived and if Russia is fighting against it, Daniil remained silent for a while, appearing confused.
“I don't know what to answer. I do not understand it myself,” he finally said.
Nine May has become Russia’s main public holiday, a symbol of identity, collective pride and self-respect. It is seen as our victory in the greatest tragedy in human history that was World War II. Other than a national holiday, it is also a deeply personal one. In that war, the Soviet Union lost 27 million of its citizens, an unfathomable figure. .
During Putin's rule, the holiday has changed beyond recognition. From their own propaganda, the Russian authorities have forgotten that war means suffering and death. It has been twisted from a time of mourning and remembrance into a celebration of militarism and the cult of war. About 10,000 soldiers marched in perfect lines on Red Square, while heavy military equipment drove through the centre of Moscow.
What is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War began at 4am on 22 June, 1941 with the bombing of Kyiv. It was Ukraine and its inhabitants who took the first and most terrible blow. In the next months, the Wehrmacht destroyed the entire Southwestern Front in the battle of Kyiv. Over 500,000 Soviet citizens were killed, and 650,000 were taken prisoners of war. Kiev and Odesa are immortalised in the centre of Moscow as hero-cities by the eternal flame, which burns constantly under the Kremlin wall.
How can we celebrate Victory Day without Ukrainians? How can we celebrate this day now, when in February, March, April 2022 the Russian army bombed Kyv, Odesa, Kharkov and other Ukrainian cities?
“This holiday was stolen from me,” a close friend told me, “it was always right here in my chest. Now it's a scorched field there.” I feel the same way. The present and the future have been taken away from me, as well as the past. It is fortunate that my grandfather, a Ukrainian who went through the Leningrad front, did not live to see 24 February, 2022.
Others in Russia feel the same way. On Monday, a long text on the homepage of the major pro-government news outlet Lenta.ru stated that “Putin bears full responsibility for the senseless and bloody war against Ukraine”.
The website wasn’t hacked. Yegor Polyakov Alexandra Miroshnikova of the editorial staff announced it themselves, as well as listing several dozen famous Russians who publicly opposed the war and thanking the millions of Russians who “remain human beings” in such disastrous conditions.
“I believe that all opponents of the war must unite now, regardless of their views,” said Miroshnikova, attributing her actions to an act of conscience.
My friends are also caught up in the stories of their grandparents who went through the war. They didn't go to the parade today, nor did they watch it on TV. They are instead planning to gather in a “tight circle” of friends for a flat party where they will sing anti-war songs.
Flat parties, or house concerts, were popular in times of the late Soviet Union. People who knew each other or thought alike would gather in flats and listen to banned musicians, sing their songs, read banned poets and writers, and argue about politics.
It had a powerful therapeutic effect, giving people a sense of support and a feeling that they were not alone. Attending them could get you thrown in jail. Russians know this from the stories told by their parents. Fifty years later, these flat parties emerge again as a refuge for those who want to speak against war.