May 17, 2013:
Back in 2010, Russia resumed the Cold War custom of holding large military parades to commemorate the Russian victory in World War II. Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Russia dropped the military displays for these victory parades, which became much smaller in size overall. But this year there were parades in 24 cities, involving 38,000 troops, hundreds of military vehicles plus dozens of aircraft overhead. Nearly ten million people came out to witness the parades and even more caught it on TV or the Internet. There was no problem with the crowds, in part because about 200,000 security personnel were on hand (including 4,700 Cossacks) to maintain order.
The first of these big parades in 2010 saw 11,000 troops and hundreds of military vehicles assembled for the May 9th parade in Moscow. Commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II has always been a big deal, if only because 18 percent of the population died during that conflict. The Russians refer to World War II as The Great Patriotic War and the extent of the casualties (nearly 30 million dead) was kept secret until the 1990s, partly out of embarrassment, partly to not demoralize the population, and partly not to let the outside world know just how badly the Russians had been hurt.
The 2010 parade also included, for the first time, small contingents from wartime allies Britain, the U.S., and France. The British contingent was particularly striking, as it was 76 members of the Welsh Guards, wearing their dress uniforms (red jackets, black trousers, and tall bearskin hats). Some of the best viewing locations were given to 3,000 grey haired veterans of the war, who tended to show up wearing their medals on their civilian clothes (a common Russian custom for such occasions).
The large military contingent also included many current Russian soldiers wearing World War II uniforms and carrying period weapons. This included World War II era armored vehicles, particularly dozens of the famous T-34 tank. The assembled veterans were visibly moved by this visible demonstration of the now departed Red (communist) Army of the Soviet Union. Overhead, 127 modern aircraft put on an eight minute flyover and display of their maneuverability. The parade took about 70 minutes to complete but was weeks in preparations, with many people coming down in the evening to watch various contingents practice.
Many Russian weapons systems that are rarely, if ever, shown in public, were displayed in the 2010 parade and subsequent ones. In 2010 there were smaller but similar parades in 71 other Russian cities, with 102,000 Russian troops taking part. All this was part of a morale building exercise, to reassure the Russian people that the armed forces were being rebuilt, after nearly two decades of decline. The end of the Soviet Union saw the armed forces lose 80 percent of its manpower within a decade, most equipment rotted away from lack of use, or maintenance, and there was little money to buy new stuff. That has changed in the past few years, and starting in 2010 the Victory Parade has become an effort to showcase the new military, while honoring past accomplishments.
The Great Patriotic War defined Russian attitudes during the Cold War because of the enormous casualties and devastation it inflicted. But now the memory, along with the few remaining veterans, are fading fast. The end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and communism in the early 1990s was another shock that is still sinking in. The government revival of the military participation in the victory parade was a novelty the first year, but enthusiasm faded along with the memories of new generations for whom World War II and the Soviet Union are ancient history.