Russia is holding rehearsals for its Victory Day parade, scheduled for 9 May despite the coronavirus crisis, as the Kremlin resists cancelling a patriotic holiday with major political significance.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is supposed to host France’s Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders at a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war. The event is a significant historical landmark for Russia and a coveted photo opportunity to claim Putin’s re-emergence from political isolation in the west.
But with 12 million Muscovites confined to their apartments and a global pandemic ushering in a period of self-isolation, preparations for the parade have raised concerns in Russia.
A leaked video has shown up to 15,000 soldiers lined up on a parade grounds outside Moscow, where Russia’s defence ministry has confirmed that it is holding rehearsals for the event, most recently on 1 April.
“How many people are there, 15,000? Fuck, and they’ve said no more than 50 are supposed to gather in one place. Not one fucking mask,” said one voice on the video, which was shot anonymously.
Video purportedly of Russian troops at the Victory Day Parade rehearsals in Alabino who aren’t quite meeting the 1.5 meter social distancing requirement instituted by local officials.
Refurbished T-34 tanks have also been filmed performing parade manoeuvres at the grounds in Alabino, where authorities say they have built a to-scale model of Red Square.
Russia’s general prosecutor has censured a news website for writing that the parade may be cancelled in one Russian region due to the coronavirus, sayingits article violated regulations on fake news.
“May 9th is a sacred date for millions upon millions in Russia and CIS countries,” a foreign ministry account wrote on Twitter. “The Victory Day parade is scheduled (sanitary measures taken) and will march on Red Square.”
The opposition leader Alexei Navalny blasted what he called the “idiocy” of the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, for going forward with the rehearsals, calling the crowds of soldiers a potential “breeding ground for the coronavirus”.
Russia’s defence ministry has said that it is taking precautionary measures to ensure the soldiers’ safety, including regular temperature checks. “All the members of the rehearsals are burning with desire to participate in this historic event and are training their hearts out,” said Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the ministry.
The virus has wreaked havoc on an important political season in Russia. Putin has already delayed a symbolic public vote on constitutional amendments that would allow him to run for another two terms as president, potentially ruling until 2036. A major business forum in St Petersburg scheduled for June has also been cancelled.
Victory Day is the most important public event remaining in Russia’s calendar. Western leaders have snubbed the parade since 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Moscow’s alleged meddling in the US presidential elections and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 have made relations even chillier.
Still, the Kremlin has sought to leverage the memory of the second world war to bring foreign leaders back to Moscow. Macron, who has been keen to rebuild relations with Putin, had agreed to attend the parade, as had the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and the US national security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
But with more than 7,500 deaths due to coronavirus in France, it appears less likely now that Macron will attend, and Japanese media have also reported that Abe does not plan to go.
The Kremlin has said that it understands if foreign guests choose not to attend and has said it is considering “a wide variety of options” for what to do, but that so far it plans to go forward with the parade. The Russian business newspaper RBC has said the Kremlin is quietly considering either holding the parade without spectators or postponing the event until August.
This 9 May marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, elevated under Putin to the country’s most important holiday. Russia holds a military parade on Red Square with with soldiers, tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles and sees hundreds of thousands march with pictures of their relatives in a new tradition called the Immortal Regiment.