A massive Russian military parade postponed by the coronavirus pandemic will roll through Red Square this week to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, even though Russia is still registering a steady rise in infections.
President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on holding the parade reflects not only his desire to put Russia’s power on display but also to bolster patriotic sentiments a week before a constitutional referendum that could allow him to remain in office until 2036.
The Victory Day parade normally is held on May 9, the nation’s most important secular holiday. This year’s date of Wednesday, June 24, coincides with the day in 1945 when the first parade was held on Red Square after the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union and its allies.
The Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 million people in what it called the Great Patriotic War and the enormous suffering and sacrifice of that era has left a deep scar in Russia’s psyche.
Victory Day is a rare event in the nation’s divisive post-Soviet history that is revered by all political sides, and the Kremlin has used that sentiment to encourage patriotic pride and underline Russia’s role as a global power.
The show is particularly important this year for Putin. The Kremlin hopes it will help secure public support a week before the July 1 nationwide vote on constitutional amendments that effectively reset the clock on his tenure in office and will allow him to seek two more six-year terms if he chooses.
“For Putin, the parade has a symbolic meaning, a symbol that the epidemic is over and so the vote can be held,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based independent political analyst. “And even more importantly, Victory Day serves as a positive symbol of people’s unification, economic mobilization, strong leadership and consolidation — the things that Putin wants to claim credit for.”
The plebiscite was initially set for April 22 but, like the parade, was postponed by the coronavirus outbreak. When the first signs of a slowdown in the contagion appeared, Putin rescheduled the vote for July 1, eager to consolidate his power before the economic fallout from the pandemic further eroded his popularity.
His approval rating plummeted to 59% in April, its lowest level in more than two decades, according to the Levada Center, the nation’s top independent pollster.
“Three months later, the ratings will be lower as the economy is going downhill,” Oreshkin said. “It’s essential to hold the vote right now.”
While the pandemic has shattered the Kremlin’s hopes to get top world leaders to attend the parade, the heads of several ex-Soviet nations and Serbia’s president are still scheduled to show up Wednesday. The celebration will feature 14,000 troops, about 300 military vehicles and 75 warplanes in a display of the country’s military might.
Russian officials have insisted that all necessary precautions have been taken to protect the health of its troops, elderly veterans and foreign guests at the parade.