Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015
I will open with full disclosure: I am generally not enthusiastic about crowds or going with the flow. That is simply a question of temperament. So it took a bit of coaxing from my Russian wife to prepare me for the Immortal Regiment parade in St. Petersburg, where we otherwise were staying within the context of our bimonthly visits to the city.
She was intent on honoring her father and grandmother, both of whom were on active duty during the Great Patriotic War: he, a naval officer detached for much of the time to working with the Allies on matters of Lend Lease; she on the front lines as a radiologist in the medical service.
Like thousands and thousands of other residents of St. Petersburg and the outlying suburbs, we did what was necessary to be full-blooded participants of the May 9 march. Several days in advance, we visited our neighborhood photo shop and handed over our less-than-perfect photos of her relatives to be enlarged, placed within a standard Immortal Regiment format, laminated, and affixed to a white plastic pole.
The format contained the obligatory St. George’s ribbon, symbol of the Victory, to one side, plus the last name, first name and patronymic of each family member, their military service, rank and dates of birth and death at the bottom. As I later saw on the parade, some people inserted details of the battles and awards, if any, that their family heroes had earned. Others gave no more than the names.
Accounts of the march that have appeared in Russia media are sparing on details. See the fragment of live RT coverage. I have not heard a more precise number of participants than “several hundred thousand.” What I intend to share here is a sense of the mood and composition of the crowd, as well as of the efforts of the city to provide the safety infrastructure that made it what it was: a family event.
Given the manifestly patriotic nature of Victory in Europe Day celebrations, which open in Moscow and cities across Russia with military parades, precise marching columns, displays of military hardware on the ground and in the air, I was uncertain how possibly strident the Immortal Regiment component might be.
As it turned out, the crowd was uniformly good-humored and focused on its private obligations to be met: the celebration of parents, grandparents, even great grandparents’ role in the war and reconfirmation of their status as family heroes whatever their military or civil defense rank, whether they survived or were among the countless fatalities.
Among the marchers, there were a great many family groups consisting of two and three generations. The latest demographic trends were on full display – young families with two or three children in tow. There were also young courting couples. Very few single elderly or lone marchers in general.
From the very outset, at the marshalling point, you could see friends and acquaintances waiting to meet up and march together. From conversations en route, it was plain that the parade was an occasion for people who thought they knew one another to talk about what otherwise had been kept under wraps in this country, where so much had was secret during the decades of Communism: details of their family history and innermost thoughts.
Faces on Placards
The faces on placards were unretouched. Simple, honest photos, many of them photos of peasants or laborers. Other placards showed off their more successful relatives in officers’ uniforms bedecked with medals. The whole gamut of service ranks was on display.
One curious but inescapable fact: the marchers were only white folks. Though there is a substantial population of Central Asians or Caucasus nationalities in St. Petersburg, both legal and illegal, and though many of them surely had fathers and grandfathers in the War, they did not show up. Perhaps they were uncertain about the welcome that might await them. If so, they were excessively cautious.
The starting point of the march was the Alexander Nevsky Square overlooking the Neva River and just next to the city’s most famous cemetery, where many of its great literary and artistic lions are buried. From there we proceeded two kilometers down what is called the Old Nevsky Prospekt, today a luxury shopping district for fashion clothing, until we reached the intermediate open space next to the Moscow Railway Station known as Uprising Square.
Then we thinned out a bit as we proceeded down Nevsky Prospekt proper, which is a still wider boulevard that runs a further 2.5 kilometers to meet the Neva at another point is its winding course around the city, at Palace Square. Here, in a large public space framed by the Hermitage Museum and its annexes, there would be entertainment from bandstands in the evening and the closing fireworks display close to midnight.
Along the route, there were several stands for musicians singing WWII and Victory songs to amplified music. Our march was at a slow gait with paused every minute or two to tighten ranks. The spirit of the crowd was enlivened by shouts of “Ura” that traveled in successive waves from front to rear. Here and there, some marchers spontaneously broke into song, Katyusha being the most popular number.
The local city fathers also did their work very well to ensure both a feeling – and reality – of security for an event in the open that could otherwise pose hazards of keeping out trouble makers, not to mention terrorists for whom this great mass of humanity could be a splendid target.
Every three or four meters along the route of Nevsky Prospekt there were uniformed police, both male and female officers. Many of them trained experienced eyes either on the marchers or on those passing by on the sidewalks. A very few were busy chatting on mobile phones, while a few male and female cops flirted. In brief, it was a very human scene such as you might expect in New York or Paris.
All roads crossing Nevsky were blocked by police lines and/or vehicles. The metro stations where many entered the system on their way to the rallying point of the Alexander Nevsky Square received empty trains in order to very quickly whisk away those traveling to the Square.
In closing, I wish to point out that Russian opposition personalities and cynical intellectuals in Russia and abroad have insinuated that the Immortal Regiment marches around the country are phony, some kind of Kremlin-promoted gimmick to close ranks around President Vladimir Putin. But the efforts invested by the thousands of people I saw and the very private, family celebration that they were conducting within the anonymity of a collective action left me with no doubt this is an initiative fully owned by its participants.