For the first time in 17 years, Russia will celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany with a display of the country’s big military hardware. Red Square will host a monumental procession of tanks and missiles on May 9, including the country’s new Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile and the S-300 missile-defense system that Russia now sells to Iran. More than 30 military airplanes and helicopters will roar overhead. “This is not saber-rattling,” Vladimir Putin told the last cabinet meeting he will preside over as Russian president before stepping down in two days. “We are not threatening anybody and we are not imposing anything on anybody,” Putin said on May 5. “We have enough of everything. But this is a demonstration of our growing defense capability. We are capable of defending our people, our citizens, our state, our abundant riches.”
Still, the parade is a deliberate throwback to the country’s communist past, when millions of people watched live on television as the Soviet Union celebrated its vast military might. It also comes on the heels of a historic political transition, when Putin — the still-powerful, still-popular leader — moves into the premiership to make way for his protege, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev.
Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian political analyst, says beefing up the Victory Day parade is just one of many steps that Putin has taken toward resurrecting the hallmarks of the Soviet empire and the country’s former glory. “He gives free rein to the Soviet dream,” Oreshkin says. “The huge number of people who were brought up in a military tradition, and who conceive the world in terms of the West wanting to enslave them, have the painful feeling that Russia lacks tanks. So why not show them these tanks? Why not roll them across Red Square? Let them watch, shed a few tears, and calm down.”
To that end, the army has erected a full-scale replica of Moscow’s most famous square outside the capital to train for the event. State-run television has been flooding the screens with images of tanks and missile carriers trundling through the city’s main thoroughfares as part of the rehearsal. The show should feature more than 8,000 soldiers wearing spiffy new uniforms, designed by a top Russian couturier and personally approved by Putin, which highlight design motifs from both the Soviet and imperial past.
The outgoing president, who famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the 20th century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe,” has made no secret of his fondness for the Soviet era. A former KGB officer, Putin as president restored the Soviet anthem and the red banner as Russia’s official military flag. In 2005, he allowed Moscow authorities to put up a statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the dreaded Cheka secret police that preceded the KGB.
Like Putin, large swaths of the population never quite shook off their nostalgia for all things Soviet. Websites ending in the Soviet “.su” domain, for example, are back in vogue, with registrations increasing by 45 percent since the beginning of the year. There’s also talk of reinstating Misha the Bear [shown above], the emblem of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and one of the best-selling toys in the Soviet Union, as the mascot for the 2014 Winter Games in the Russian resort of Sochi. And in December, a sequel to the cult Soviet film “Ironia Sudby” (Irony of Fate), pulverized Russian box-office records.
Russians and the Russian government have flirted with Soviet nostalgia virtually since the collapse of the USSR, when economic and political chaos dealt a heavy blow to national self-worth. But Boris Dubin, a sociologist at the Levada polling center, says the current Soviet revival is unprecedented. “This tendency has consolidated under Putin’s two presidential terms,” Dubin says. “All these symbols suggest that both the country’s leadership and the overall population are re-embracing Soviet times. This was not characteristic of the first Yeltsin period or even, to a large extent, of Gorbachev’s perestroika.”
Putin and his disciples, who have overseen a massive economic and consumer boom, are not bent on resurrecting all aspects of the USSR. But analysts say the Kremlin has sought to fill the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet demise by tapping into what it believes to be the most memorable pages of the country’s history. The Soviet Union, including its most brutal episodes, certainly has many admirers in today’s Russia.
One of them is Azirkhan Pashayev, a pensioner who opened a museum commemorating Josef Stalin three years ago at his home in Makhachkala, the capital of the Russian republic of Daghestan. Pashayev, who prides himself on his resemblance to the Soviet dictator, says his museum draws a steady stream of visitors. “It’s our history, whatever mistakes were made. We shouldn’t forget our history, we should teach it to the younger generations,” says Pashayev. “Teachers come here with schoolchildren. We celebrate birthdays. On Stalin’s remembrance day, I invite 40 or 50 veterans and stage a commemorative ceremony for them.”
‘Just 70 Years’
Back in Moscow, Soviet memorabilia is all the rage in the dozens of souvenir shops that line the Old Arbat, the capital’s famous pedestrian street. One Arbat shopkeeper says it is mainly tourists who visit her shop, piled high with brightly colored matryoshka dolls, Putin refrigerator magnets, and bottles of vodka shaped like Kalashnikov assault rifles. But it is Russians, she says, who are quick to snatch other wares, like the secondhand Soviet cameras, binoculars, posters, and old watches displayed in a dusty cabinet at the back of the shop.
Vadim, a 42-year-old collector, recently purchased three podstakaniki, the metal glass holders, once ubiquitous on every Soviet train, from which passengers would sip hot tea. “This period didn’t last very long, just 70 years,” Vadim says. “And much was achieved in these 70 years in the Soviet Union. But unfortunately this epoch is gone. A few of its items have remained, and that’s why it’s so interesting. Besides, I spent my youth, my childhood in this era.”
While this year’s May 9 parade will have most Soviet nostalgists whooping with excitement, many blame Putin for turning the country into a pastiche of the Soviet Union. Putin, however, has also restored a number of potent prerevolutionary symbols. Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were reburied with great pomp in St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998, after painstaking efforts to identify their remains. The whole family was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church two years later. Putin has also backed the ceremonial reburials of Russian empress Maria Fyodorovna and tsarist General Anton Denikin, both of whom died in exile after fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution.
The sky-high popularity rating enjoyed by Putin and his successor Medvedev underscores widespread nostalgia for what many Russians see as their country’s heydays. But the forced marriage between Tsarist and Soviet symbols, critics like Dubin argue, is not only absurd, it is also harmful. “These things are far from being innocuous. There is no doubt that all these symbols, this rhetoric, act counter to modernization. The potential for modernization in Russia, the desire for reforms, is already extremely small,” Dubin says. “The bulk of the population is now becoming convinced that nothing is changing, and nothing should change.”