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Military Might, Past and Present

May 10, 2010 at 5:18 am
By Denis Griffis and Ben Hellerstein

So, yesterday was Victory Day—the celebration of victory over the Axis powers in World War II.  One of the major attractions of the day was the military parade in the morning on Red Square—however, since you need a special invitation to attend, we had to settle for enjoying some of the parade rolling past down Tverskaya street on the way to and from Red Square.

We arrived on Tverskaya about an hour before the parade’s 10 AM start time, and the sidewalks were already beginning to fill up. People of all ages, most of whom were far too young to have lived through the war, lined up against the railings while stone-faced police officers stood at regular intervals to keep anyone from getting too rowdy. As the sun rose higher in the sky and 10:00 passed by, we waited impatiently for the parade to start.

Finally, we heard a low rumble in the distance, and turning our heads, we saw the first group of military aircraft flying overhead. Airplanes and helicopters of all shapes and sizes flew in tight formations low over Tverskaya to Red Square, where President Dmitry Medvedev and the rest of the Russian and foreign dignitaries sat and waited. The final airplanes that flew overhead released colored chemicals into their exhaust streams, forming the white, blue and red of the Russian tricolor flag. All in the crowd were impressed, especially the numerous little children perched on parents’ shoulders.

After the air show finished, Tverskaya was quiet once more for a few minutes, until some of the parade on Red Square made its way down Tverskaya.  Some of the parade, that is, meaning vehicle after vehicle of military hardware—tanks, artillery, transport vehicles; basically anything the military uses that has wheels, went past us.  Thankfully, it wasn’t the entire arsenal, or we would have been there for a couple weeks, but it was quite impressive nonetheless.  As with the air show, where gunships and fighter planes provided the bulk of the entertainment, very few of these vehicles were peaceful in any way—most of them could probably have leveled the block we were standing on without really trying.

The message of the parade was clear, and perhaps not quite what we were expecting.  Generally, when we think of parades, even on national holidays, sure, we imagine some troops, maybe some big guns going by, but the idea often seems to be more of a celebration of peace and prosperity than anything else.  Here, however, there were no community marchers, no old veterans marching under the flags of their regiments, certainly none of the fun floats that often appear in parades we’re used to.  This was military might, pure and simple.  The drivers of these vehicles were probably all under 30, and despite all the horn-honking and cheering going on, the procession felt far more serious than celebratory.  The variety of hardware presented carried its own undertone: that this was only a small sample of what the Russian military has around, a brief showpiece, if you will.

Perhaps even stranger is the fact that very little of the parade was directly connected to World War II. The airplanes and tanks that we saw were all recently constructed; none were involved in liberating Russia from German forces sixty-five years ago. The parade that we saw on Tverskaya was a celebration of Russia’s continuing military strength, rather than a specific commemoration of the victory in 1945.

Later that night, footage of the parade in Red Square was replayed on television. In addition to the tanks and aircraft we saw on Tverskaya, thousands of troops marched down Red Square for the review of Medvedev and the other dignitaries. There were Russian troops of all types, as well as delegations of troops sent from other former Soviet countries and the other Allied powers. It was reassuring to see American, French and British troops in attendance, since the Russian narrative of World War II often emphasizes the role of the their own army at the expense of the other Allies. At one point during the parade, Medvedev gave a speech, some of which was lost on us, since our Russian language skills are not yet strong enough to understand everything we hear. But the visual demonstration of power was clear enough, and certainly did not require any translation.

On the whole, Victory Day was a pretty good day.  Lots of people having fun, lots of crazy things going on, including a great fireworks show in the evening.  It was striking, nonetheless, how much the focus seemed not to be on victories past, but on the probability of victories to come.  After 65 years, we were expecting perhaps not a Macy’s parade, but certainly something a little more peaceful.  However, in a country where basically everyone lost a family member to the war, it is perhaps a little more understandable to celebrate enduring power over enduring peace.  Time will tell what happens to the celebration as generations move on.


  • May 10 2010 at 9:22 pm
    G/ Is

    Much better than the coverage in today's NY Times! Your comments on the day's message were--no surprise--very perceptive.

  • May 15 2010 at 10:47 pm
    Lisa Hellerstein

    Wow, Denis and Ben.  Thank you for a very vivid and sobering description.  It sounds a little overwhelming.  Keep up the very interesting observations. We're getting an education back here at home.

    Lisa/Mom of Ben