Sukhoi fighter jets fly over a World War II monument in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol on May 9, 2020, the 75th anniversary of Russia's Victory Day. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, leading to deteriorated relations with the West. Photo: Asia Times files / AFP

Tamara Galashova is 92, but despite her age – which makes her among those most vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic currently storming across Russia – she shows no fear of the disease.

“We won such a war – what is a virus in comparison?” she asked Asia Times. “Just stay home and observe the rules! We will survive this one too.”

Galashova knows whereof she speaks.

A native of St Petersburg – the city known as Leningrad during World War II – she lost her entire family to German bombing as the Nazis laid siege to the Baltic city. She was only 14 when, pretending to be 16, she enlisted as a combat medic in the 268th Rifle Division on the Leningrad front.

After saving 15 lives and being wounded herself, Galashova was presented with the medal “For the Defence of Leningrad.”

The defiant spirit of Galashova’s generation is exactly what Russia needs today. The country is currently being shaken by some 10,000 new Covid-19 infections daily, and has entered the Top 5 ranking for countries impacted by the virus.

As a result, the most sacred day on the Russian calendar – “Victory Day, “May 9 – was celebrated this year with minimal fanfare.

May 9 marks the end of World War II in Europe for Russians. What Western Europeans call VE (“Victory Europe”) Day is celebrated on May 8, the date of the German surrender in 1945. But because of the time difference between Western Europe and Moscow, the date falls on May 9 for Russians and other peoples of the former Soviet Union.

St Petersburg/Leningrad World War II veteran Tamara Galashova. Photo: Russian Union of Veterans

Downbeat celebration

Sukhoi fighter jets and military helicopters flew in lines, almost unnoticed, in the sky over St Petersburg on the day. Below, small groups waving old-style Soviet red flags and the Russian tricolor walked through the city center, singing Russian war-time songs. 

This was not the mighty Victory Day event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of triumph in “The Great Patriotic War” – Russians’ name for World War II – that had been anticipated earlier this year. 

President Vladimir Putin had planned to oversee a mighty military parade on Moscow’s Red Square alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron as guests of honor.

But Russia’s vaunted military might has proven no defense against a tiny invader. As the novel coronavirus spreads across the world’s largest nation, the Kremlin was forced to postpone all mass celebrations, though Putin has insisted that the parade will take place – albeit at a later date.

 Still, the 75th anniversary of victory was too important of an event to give up entirely.  

The show goes on

“We will still celebrate our sacred holiday, Victory Day, while observing all safety requirements and the self-isolation order,” Putin said. “The entire country will do this together, no matter what.”

Russia’s Air Force staged aerial shows over Moscow and 47 other cities. “The Immortal Regiment” – a tradition under which Russians take to the streets carrying portraits of  relatives who fought in World War II – was transformed into an online event. In an offline add-on, participants were asked to place portraits of their ancestors on balconies and sing patriotic songs at a set time. 

“This is a day of grief,” said Anastasya, 42, who came to Saint Petersburg’s city center to lay flowers on the Victory Memorial. “There is no family in today’s Russia who did not lose someone during that terrible war.”

Former Soviet republics, which usually join Russia in celebrating the date, also canceled their parades. The exception was Belarus.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been underplaying the pandemic, calling it a “psychosis.”

“Our current difficulties pale before the hardships and losses suffered by the heroic generation that saved the world from the ‘brown plague,’ ” he said, refereeing to the Nazis. 

Russian spirit

The USSR took on the bulk of the German armed forces and bore the brunt of the Allies’ World War II losses, with an estimated 27 million dead. The city of Leningrad, today’s Saint Petersburg, endured an over two-year blockade – considered the most lethal in history – that killed more than a million civilians. 

But inevitably, the number of veterans left to remember those dramatic events diminishes each year. 

“Bombs were falling all the time,” remembers Galashova. “And we had nothing to eat.”

Vasily Shapochkin, 95, a former artillery intelligence topographer in the 23rd Army, still remembers the day Nazi Germany signed the capitulation. His column was marching through woods in Latvia, chasing one of the remaining German armed groups in the region.

“Suddenly we heard shooting into the air from the front of our column and shouting – ‘The war is over!,’” he recalled. “We couldn’t hold our tears of joy in that moment.” 

On a normal Victory Day, both Galashova and Shapochikin would have paraded on military trucks along Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s main avenue, showcasing their medals and receiving flowers from the crowd. 

This year, volunteers visited them in small groups to congratulate them. Galashova, who is the president of her neighborhood’s Veterans Committee, has spent the last few days communicating by phone with her fellow veterans. 

But inevitably, the number of veterans left to remember the dramatic events of the war diminishes each year.

World War II artillery veteran Vasily Shapochkin. Photo: Giovanni Pigni/Asia Times

Politics behind parades

It was Putin who transformed the May 9 Victory Day into a cornerstone of state ideology and patriotic messaging. Critics say the Kremlin leverages the celebration to boost nationalistic sentiment and distract public attention from the country’s many problems. 

The cancelation of this year’s big parade deprived Putin of a chance to sound a rallying cry to unify his nation in one of the most difficult times Russia has faced in recent years.

A perfect storm  – ongoing Western enmity; the surging coronavirus pandemic outbreak; the crash of oil prices – looks likely to drive the country, already suffering from a stagnating economy, falling living standards and a falling population, into a deep recession. 

Amid the confrontation with the West that followed the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, domestic media has been crafting a patriotic narrative that portrays modern Russia as a besieged fortress surrounded by enemies. 

And the increased centrality of World War II in Russia’s popular memory has been accompanied by the gradual rehabilitation of the war-era dictator, Josef Stalin.

Russians’ respect for Stalin – the man who led the USSR through the war years, but who was also responsible for the widespread, brutal and deadly repression of the Soviet people – reached record highs last year.

According to polls, some 70% of Russians believe the late Soviet leader – who was, in fact, Georgian – had played a positive role in Russian history.

Meanwhile, those who believed Russia’s colossal war-time losses partly resulted from Stalin’s reckless leadership decreased from 36% in 1991 to just 9% in 2018. 

“Stalin was our God and Czar,” remembers veteran Galashova. “For the Mother Land!” “For Stalin!” were the words she uttered when she first enlisted. 

The pandemic has unexpectedly disrupted Putin’s plans for 2020. Notably, a referendum on sweeping constitutional amendments that would pave the way for his re-election in 2024 has had to be postponed. 

Even so, the sacredness of Russia’s costly wartime victory is likely to be set in stone as part of a new constitution expected to be announced later in the year.

Among the proposed new clauses, one reads: “The Russian Federation honors the memory of defenders of the Motherland and protects historical truth. Diminishing the significance of the people’s heroism in defending the Motherland is not permitted.”