Victory Day is the Russian national holiday commemorating surrender of the German army on May 9, 1945. The country fought for 6 bloody years and lost over 26 million people including 8.5 million soldiers. In Moscow there is a military parade in Red Square, and afterward there is a gathering near the Bolshoi Theater that honors veterans, many of whom show up in full dress uniform. I traveled to Moscow in May 2012 to photograph the celebration of the veterans, but first I wanted to get a glimpse of Russian missiles.
I recall being puzzled about Russian missiles in 1962. It was during the Cuban Crisis and I was in third grade. We heard tests of air-raid sirens blasting through the streets, and our teachers issued pieces of cardboard to sit on when the Russian rockets came. I wondered, what good is a piece of cardboard if nuclear missiles landed in Jersey City? And why would they want to blow up this decrepit town anyway?
Victory Day was two days after Putin’s inauguration and the atmosphere was tense. There was a heavy military presence, and in the days leading up to the event I watched as demonstrators were hustled away by police in riot gear and loaded into crowded vans. All streets in central Moscow were locked down to vehicular traffic and subway stations were closed. The main ceremonies in Red Square were by invitation only and I didn’t have one, so I took my chances on the street.
With my translator and guide we set out early to find a good spot to see the action. There was no published parade route and a light rain was falling, but we followed the crowds up Tverskaya Street until we came to a large open square. We guessed this would be a good vantage point because a policeman with a bullhorn was announcing, “No armaments will pass here, please move on!” This didn’t make sense because there were hundreds of military personnel, and huge intercontinental ballistic missile launchers blocked the side streets.
Our bet paid off. At 11:00 AM a squad of military helicopters flew directly over our heads, down Tverskaya Street toward the Kremlin. Each helicopter carried a huge dangling flag. About fifteen minutes later a formidable fleet of tanks, rocket launchers, and assault vehicles sped up the street from the opposite direction. Thanks to the policeman’s announcements and the rain, the crowd was sparse and we had a clear view.
Once the army vehicles passed, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) began marching toward Red Square. A singing and shouting crowd of several hundred people waved red flags bearing the hammer and sickle and an occasional image of Stalin.
A heavy rain fell as we began walking to the Bolshoi. Police removed the barriers turning normally traffic-choked streets into festive pedestrian malls. After several blocks of crowds and rain the famous theater came into view. At that moment the rain miraculously stopped and the skies began to clear. Music was heard in the distance and the celebration of the veterans was in full swing.
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