Patriotism and unease mix as Russia prepares to mark Victory Day

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Victory Day, Russia, Moscow, Ukraine
Russian tanks in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade (2021)

The pride and patriotism usually associated with Russia’s most important holiday, marked by a huge parade of soldiers and military hardware through Moscow’s Red Square, is mixing with apprehension and unease over what this year’s Victory Day may bring.

At first glance, preparations for Monday’s celebration of Victory Day, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, seem to be the same as ever.

Red Soviet flags and orange-and-black striped military ribbons are on display in Russian cities and towns.

Neighbourhoods are staging holiday concerts.

Flowers are being laid by veterans’ groups at monuments to the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in the country.

But the mood this year is very different, because Russian troops are fighting and dying again.

And this battle, now in its 11th week, is going on in neighbouring Ukraine, against what the government has falsely called a campaign against “Nazis”.

Some Russians fear that President Vladimir Putin will use it to declare that what the Kremlin has previously called a “special military operation” in Ukraine will now be a full-fledged war – bringing with it a broad mobilisation of troops to bolster Russia’s forces.

“I can’t remember a time when the May 9 holiday was anticipated with such anxiety,” historian Ivan Kurilla wrote on Facebook.

Ukraine’s intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said Moscow was covertly preparing such a plan.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC Radio that Mr Putin was “laying the ground for being able to say, ‘Look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people’”.

The Kremlin denied having such plans, calling the reports “untrue” and “nonsense”.

Asked by the Associated Press on Friday whether mobilisation rumours could dampen the Victory Day mood, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “nothing will cast a shadow” over “the sacred day, the most important day” for Russians.

Still, human rights groups reported a spike in calls from people asking about laws concerning mobilisation and their rights in case of being ordered to join the military.

“Questions about who can be called up and how have started to flow on a mass scale through our hotline about the rights of conscripts and the military,” said Pavel Chikov, founder of the Agora legal aid group, on the messaging app Telegram.

Russian state TV has ramped up the patriotic rhetoric.

In announcing the February 24 military operation, Mr Putin declared it was aimed at the “demilitarisation” of Ukraine to remove a perceived military threat to Russia by “neo-Nazis”.

A recent TV commentary said Mr Putin’s words were “not an abstract thing and not a slogan” and praised Russia’s success in Ukraine, even though Moscow’s troops have got bogged down, making only minor gains in recent weeks.

Ukraine, which has a democratically elected Jewish president who lost relatives in the Holocaust, and the West have condemned the remarks as a fictitious cover for a blunt act of aggression.

But many Russians fed a steady diet of the official narrative have cheered on their troops, comparing them to “our grandfathers” who fought the Germans.

Popular support in Russia for the war in Ukraine is difficult to gauge in a country that has seen a steady crackdown on journalists in recent years, with independent media outlets shut down and state-controlled television providing a pervasive influence.

A recent poll by the respected independent Levada Centre found that 82% of Russians remain concerned by the military campaign in Ukraine.

The vast majority of them – 47% – are worried about the deaths of civilians and Russian soldiers in the war, along with the devastation and suffering.

Only 6% of those concerned by the war said they were bothered by the alleged presence of “Nazis” and “fascists” in Ukraine.

“A significant part of the population is horrified, and even those who support the war are in a permanent psychological militant state of a perpetual nightmare,” said political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov in a recent commentary.

A government campaign encouraging support for the military is using the distinctive black-and-orange St George’s ribbon that is traditionally associated with Victory Day.

The letter “Z” has become a symbol of the conflict, decorating buildings, posters and billboards across Russia, and many forms of it use the ribbon’s colours and pattern.

Rallies supporting the troops have taken place in recent days at Second World War memorials, with participants singing wartime songs from the 1940s.

One official has suggested that Victory Day marchers display photos of soldiers now fighting in Ukraine.

Normally on the holiday, Russians carry portraits of their relatives who took part in the Second World War to honour those in the so-called Immortal Regiment from a conflict in which the Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 million people.

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