It’s difficult to think of a good comparison from the thousands of public holidays, festivals, galas and pageants around the world by which to describe Victory Day celebrations in Russia. Remembrance Day is too sombre, Bastille Day too jolly.
The day on which Russians remembers the nasally voice of Joseph Stalin coming over the wireless to announce the end of the war is a curious mix of solemnity and jubilation. In St. Petersburg one year, I remember thinking how swiftly the funereal marches of the morning turned to night-time revelry, with sailors who had earlier been firing off three-volley salutes now tanked up and cavorting across the town in high spirits.
Then there’s the bravado that goes with it too. International Women’s Day is widely and actively observed in Russia, and though there is an official male equivalent in November, Victory Day is far closer to any actual celebration of masculinity. In the same year that I was wandering the streets of Petersburg trying to steer clear of drunken sailors, a friend of mine was invited to a dacha in the countryside by some of his male colleagues. What he had envisaged as a quiet weekend spent reading Tolstoy by the lakeside, turned out to be a testosteronic blaze of bare-chested rifle shooting and competitive drinking.
For onlookers, particularly those in the west, the day is remembered as the one where the nukes get paraded through Red Square. (Not strictly nukes, of course, but the long cylindrical nuke-shaped shells used to send them across continents.) This is the national holiday’s ceremonial epicentre, a tradition that has been going since 1965 and which, under Vladimir Putin, has become bigger and more focal.
At this year’s parade on Wednesday, the defence ministry showcased some of its newest weaponry, including a remote-controlled tank, a hypersonic missile (called ‘the dagger’) capable of flying at ten times the speed of sound and a nuclear bomb that can swerve in mid-air to avoid anti-missile defences. Which makes for quite an unusual day out when coupled with the festive mood and near ubiquity of rainbow coloured banners. Watching this on TV the incongruity was hammered home when, during lulls between the jaunty bandstand music, the sound of a tannoy could be heard introducing the latest passing juggernaut with lines like: “These machines ensure swift and complete destruction.”
Russians are hugely proud of their significant hand in defeating Nazism, and Victory Day is a day on which they can publicly remember the 20 million of their ancestors who died during the struggle. The Red Square parade, however, represents something entirely different. It isn’t homage to the past, but a statement on the condition of Russia’s defences. “We remember the tragedies of the two world wars,” Putin told the parade on Wednesday, “about the lessons of history which do not allow us to become blind. The same old ugly traits are appearing along with new threats and mankind must realise that peace is very fragile. We should all fear each other, and respect each other.”
Some of that is intended to pander to the home crowd, to play well with the Putin heartlands and burnish the credentials of Kremlin-brand authoritarian nationalism. But a lot is also an overt communique to be pondered by State Department mandarins. What was noticeable in this year’s crop of new technologies on display was the fact that all were designed specifically with western defences in mind. While Uran-9, the remote-controlled tank, is said to have no direct American equivalent, ‘the dagger’ and the swerving bomb have been developed in order to counter new anti-missile technology.
In some respects this may be a good thing. Redressing the balance of nuclear capabilities is essential to maintaining the deterrent of mutually assured destruction, which anti-missile systems had, for a time, thrown into flux. But what is worrying is that both Russia and the USA are modernising their atomic arsenals. Added to that, both sides have in the last few years accused the other of violating arms limitation treaties, and it is looking increasingly likely that curbs agreed to by Obama and Medvedev in 2011, will not be extended when they come up for renewal in 2021.
Thoughts of comparison with the arms race of the Cold War deflate pretty quickly when we recall that Russian defence spending is only a tenth of the USA’s budget, and falling. In spite of that though, Putin does an excellent job of keeping up appearances by perpetuating the façade of military parity. No one’s falling for it – but the annual Red Square ritual is a healthy reminder that a hit from just one of those bombs is more than enough.