Last week, Crimean governor Sergei Aksyonov said he would cancel the annual parade in the city of Simferopol to celebrate the Soviet victory in the second world war owing to the coronavirus pandemic.
Two-and-a-half hours later, Mr Aksyonov announced that after “weighing up all the risks and taking all the circumstances into account” in conversations with Moscow, the parade would go ahead on Wednesday as planned. “I never change my decisions, but this situation requires a special approach,” Mr Aksyonov wrote on Russian social media network VK.
The Crimean volte-face indicates the complex politics governing this year’s Victory Day parade even as the coronavirus continues to spread. After postponing the customary May 9 showcase of tanks and ballistic missiles on Red Square, President Vladimir Putin rescheduled this year’s parade for Wednesday — a day before voting begins on constitutional changes that could see him remain in power until 2036.
The annual event is a lavish show of pomp and circumstance in cities nationwide displaying Moscow’s military strength. Despite the pandemic, Mr Putin hopes to hold the Immortal Regiment in late July, where 10m people across Russia march, holding portraits of relatives who fought in the war.
More than a dozen provinces have already postponed or cancelled planned festivities for Wednesday, citing worries over the pandemic, which has hit Russia harder than any country bar the US and Brazil. Moscow, which accounts for nearly half of the 584,680 cases in Russia, has weathered the worst of the virus and rapidly lifted most of its restrictions ahead of the parade, but many of Russia’s regions are still struggling to cope with the first wave of the disease.
Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin urged citizens not to attend this year’s parade, which will only have a shadow of its usual pomp and circumstance. Several foreign dignitaries who originally planned to stand on Lenin’s mausoleum alongside Mr Putin, including French president Emmanuel Macron and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, have dropped out.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Mr Putin had decided to hold the parade after the disease peaked in Russia in the spring. “There is a stable trend towards a decrease in daily documented cases, more and more people are recovering. The pressure on hospitals is decreasing. This has allowed the president to make such a decision regarding the 24th,” he said on state television on Saturday.
Having veterans present is so important to Mr Putin that the Kremlin is housing 80 of them in isolation in sanatoriums and guest houses for two weeks so that they can attend the parade alongside him. Several of the cities that cancelled their parades, however, said they were concerned about the health of their vulnerable elderly veterans.
“They want it to look good on TV, and when you have coronavirus and the hospitals are overflowing it doesn’t look so good,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik.
Analysts say holding the parade immediately after lifting lockdown is designed to drum up patriotic fervour before the vote. Mr Putin could use the boost. Six consecutive years of falling living standards and anger over the Kremlin’s uneven response to the pandemic have sent his approval ratings to record lows. Just 44 per cent of Russians support the constitutional changes, according to a poll published by the independent Levada Center earlier this month.
The IMF predicts Russian gross domestic product will fall by 5.5 per cent this year. Mr Putin has been reluctant to tap the Kremlin’s $172bn rainy-day fund, limiting relief efforts to a relatively small Rbs2tn ($28bn) rescue package that mostly repackages already budgeted spending.
“The expansion of victory in the Great Patriotic war to becoming part of fundamental legends and myths about Russia has been a feature of the Putin era, but it’s only been part of it — there’s been an emphasis on improving the quality of life for ordinary people, the great cult of stability over everything else,” said Mark Galeotti, honorary professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies.
After years of poor economic performance, however, “this is all he’s got,” Mr Galeotti added. “The fact they’re holding the vote [now] shows the Kremlin does not expect things to get better for the rest of the year.”
Since coming to office 20 years ago, Mr Putin has transformed what was a relatively little-celebrated holiday in Soviet times into a cornerstone of restoring Russia’s status as a great power. He chose the June 24 date to mark the anniversary of the original “legendary, historic” Victory Day parade in 1945.
Last week, Russia’s defence ministry opened a khaki-painted cathedral to commemorate the 75th anniversary complete with six golden domes dedicated to each branch of Russia’s armed forces, bells depicting major battles in the second world war and a display of Adolf Hitler’s captured belongings. One mosaic originally depicted Mr Putin and several other top Kremlin officials, but the Russian Orthodox Church removed it after a public outcry.
Ms Stanovaya said: “The parade is something sacred for him. It’s his spiritual bonds, it’s what he thinks allows him to strengthen the state and society. He feels he owes it to the veterans.”
The pandemic is the biggest obstacle Mr Putin has yet faced in bringing the nation together and has highlighted many of the inefficiencies of his rule. He has spent nearly all of the past three months in isolation in his residence outside Moscow, delegating unpopular lockdown decisions to local officials.
Victory Day is still set to go ahead in 28 cities, the defence ministry said this week. But several of them have taken Moscow’s lead and will parade Russia’s military might through empty streets. “They had the Covid portfolio dumped on them without any additional powers or resources and without any kind of reduction in the other demands being put on them,” Mr Galeotti said. “They recognise it’s Putin abdicating responsibility.”