Fortune favored the Russians this past Saturday. The sun shone, birds twittered in the shrubbery alongside the Kremlin’s walls and pathways, Moscow’s golden domes gleamed in the bright light of a bright day, and the bad manners of the European and American leadership’s ingrates and hypocrites, who boycotted the event, had an effect comparable to that of water off a duck’s back..
From the parade’s opening moment, when – in a first – Russia’s much-loved Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, bowed his head and made the sign of the Orthodox cross before signaling his driver to proceed, the largest Victory Day parade Moscow has ever undertaken came off without a hitch; Putin delivered a gracious speech, the large military band performed with great aplomb, sixteen thousand soldiers and seamen marched smartly across Red Square, joined by troops from over ten countries including China, Mongolia and India, and a contingent of female military cadets made their first appearance among parade participants. The Air Force, led by Hero of Russia Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev, flying the lead plane, a beautifully-designed TU 160-M long range strategic bomber, performed their fly-overs expertly. The entire extravaganza was well-organized and crisply executed, lasting little more than an hour top to bottom.
The last Victory Day parade I attended was in 1995 when the parade was re-instituted on Poklonnaya Hill after a hiatus of several years in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Bill and Hill attended, and I recall a not so spirited an affair; in fact, it was grim despite the spectacle. It seemed to go on for hours, and the marchers’ passing faces were just as expressionless as Hilary’s.
Today’s marchers were altogether different. Passing lines of eager cadets from the military academies and enlisted soldiers leaned ever so slightly forward trying hard to stay on form, march, and still catch a glimpse of Putin, and quite a few couldn’t suppress happy grins, which I’m pretty sure is nelzya (“not permitted”) for marching soldiers. I didn’t see a one twenty years ago, but I doubt even Marshall Zhukov would have begrudged any soldier’s smile on such a perfect day.
Though a display of weaponry and human muscle was the event’s focus, a holiday mood prevailed. Yet it was a day of solemn commemoration, devoid of a single belligerent note. The Russians recalled their warriors’ great achievement of having triumphed in the greatest and bloodiest war the world has ever known and their ancestors’ immense suffering in paying the price of that achievement (27 million dead), showed the world some new, suitably lethal weapons, while smiling back at western disdain as if to say, “We are among the most resilient and resourceful people on the planet. You cannot, and you will not, defeat us.”
For all that, it was singularly depressing to learn at day’s end that the recent violence in Macedonia, a key link, but the weakest, in the Russians’ new Turkish Stream pipeline project meant to replace the South Stream project European sanctions had prompted Putin to scuttle, may well be the start of another U.S.-organized rainbow revolution. It is critical to the success of western pipeline sabotage that Russia fail to establish a link between Greece and Serbia.
After the riots and murders in Skopje, “Macedonian police,” targeted pertinent offices in both Skopje and Veles, seizing “five laptops, three desktop computers, 19 mobile phones, 100 compact discs, 17 hard-drives and nine digital books – material that reveals connections to (Victoria) Nuland and her collaborators against the government.”
Counter-balancing my gloomy thoughts was a friend’s emailed link to an article F. William Engdahl, a frequent contributor to New Eastern Outlook, published upon his return from a recent visit to Moscow. Engdahl’s work is good reading, but here he focuses on Russia’s remarkable spiritual turnaround. Emiges are returning home, seeing greater opportunity there than here. People are ready to roll up their sleeves, and Russians are experts at making a little go a long way. Engdahl describes the new endeavors and spirit of Russia’s “hybrid generation,” who had “experience of both the depravity of Soviet communist bureaucracy but as well of the hollow world of US-led so-called ‘free market capitalism’.”
Putin’s pro-active governance is meant to deliver certainty and stability to Russian life. The Russian president’s determination to protect the country’s sovereignty and very existence while devising new structures and institutions to secure the land and expand citizens’ prosperity has led not only to an environment in which the young might thrive, but may have succeeded – if only by a hair – in reversing Russia’s alarming demographics. In 2009 the birth rate exceeded the death rate, but just barely. If this trend holds, it may well be Putin’s double achievement to have saved both the land and the Russians themselves.
I cannot say how it is today, but in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, the very best place to be on Victory Day was Teatralnaya Ploshchad (“Theater Square”) across from the Bolshoi, in the shadow of Lev Kerbel’s iconic bust of Karl Marx. It is in this square that the veterans, having put on their old uniforms and grabbed the family accordion or pocketed a harmonica on their way out the door, congregate each year for their own celebration. It was never organized in those days, it just happened. What fun it was to hear their stories and their songs, and share in the atmosphere of what Putin referenced in his parade speech as “the brotherhood of the front line.”
It was in Teatralnaya Ploshchad that I met a veteran, who hooked me up to Evgeny Khaldey, a renowned World War II photo-correspondent. On the first holiday marking the October Revolution after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992, I went to visit him in his dusty studio, which was packed with what to me was pure treasure. Throughout the war, Khaldey carried both a camera and a gun; in other words, he photographed and he fought. Consequently, his photographs captured the miseries ordinary people – civilians and soldiers alike – suffered.
He had been at Potsdam when Truman, Churchill, and Stalin met, and he reported that when Stalin, “a very mysterious figure,” entered the hall both Churchill and Truman stood! He laughed softly at my reaction and said, “All Americans are so innocent, what a pity I have met so few of you. But you can’t just say Stalin was terrible, he was also great, and Truman and Churchill knew that, and that’s why they stood.” After a moment, he added quietly, “No one is great today.”
While we were speaking of “the mathematics of war,” I was sifting through the many piles of his extraordinary photographs, which I sensed surrounded us because the old man had been searching his oeuvre for something that might be sold for ready cash. The times were hard. A particular picture caught my eye since it was unlike the others in the pile, but I see why at first.
“That’s not an old picture,” Evgeny said. “It’s my family’s grave. I took a picture the last time I made my pilgrimage to Donetsk, which I don’t suppose I’ll ever do again.” He saw that the photograph now puzzled me even more as I stood squinting at it.
“It’s not a grave proper, it’s a mine shaft. My father, mother, and sister were thrown to their deaths into its depths along with 800 others during the war.” After a pause, he added as if still surprised himself, “The nightmares have never left me.”
Neither of us spoke for some time, and then Yevgeny rasped with a listless sadness, “Now it is a shame to put on the medals and go out. People see them and shout, ‘What were you fighting for? What did you achieve?’
“Last year, I saw an old veteran thrown out of line [a Soviet privilege of veterans was always to be allowed to the front of queues] at the railway station. ‘What were you fighting for?’” He sighed, taking the picture to look at himself.
“I and all the other veterans are just alike now. When Russia is great again, we won’t be living.”
Sadly, the aging photo-correspondent was correct on the latter point. Evgeny Khaldey died in 1997.
But there are still living veterans, who, like me, saw the Russian president leave the post-parade luncheon for visiting heads of state to plunge into a stream of three hundred thousand Russians marching in memory of “The Immortal Brigade.” Each participant carried a picture of a family member, who had served in the struggle to defeat the mighty Huns. A relaxed and upbeat Putin carried a photograph of his father, a submariner. (A U.S. president in similar circumstances would have been accompanied down the stairs and into the square by a crowd of 40 Secret Service thugs, a motorcycle police escort and several detachments of armed marines.)
Maybe it was a publicity stunt, but I don’t think so. Only two body guards were visible, and each kept a close but discreet distance while Putin mingled freely with crowds of ordinary Muscovites.
Personally, I think he just wanted to spend some time with the family.