In any other year, hundreds of thousands of Russians would have marched with portraits of relatives who fought in the second world war in a memorial called the Immortal Regiment.
But on Saturday, the images of Soviet veterans and their families floated past on Russian television, a public vigil adapted for the era of social isolation.
The coronavirus outbreak transformed Russia’s 9 May Victory Day celebrations, a holiday usually marked by family gatherings, memorials and an elaborate military parade on Red Square.
“Of course it is hard, it is a real shame,” said Svetlana Fomina, an elementary school teacher returning from a shopping trip. “But I don’t see any other choice than to stay home. It would be ridiculous to mark [Victory Day] by everyone getting sick.”
Things looked very different in neighbouring Belarus, where elderly veterans and thousands more viewers packed on to bleachers for the usual military parade. Few were wearing masks.
“This year, let the military parade in Minsk be the only one in the post-Soviet space,” boasted Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s president, who has publicly downplayed the dangers from the pandemic. The country has more than 22,000 cases of the disease and has recorded 126 deaths.
He appeared to relish upstaging Moscow’s celebrations.
“In this insane, disoriented world, there will be people who condemn us for the time and place of this sacred act,” he said defiantly. “Don’t rush to conclusions or condemn us, descendants of the victory of Belarusians. We couldn’t have acted differently. We had no other choice. And even if we had one, we would have done the same.”
In Russia, however, where the tally of coronavirus infections on Saturday approached 200,000, and the capital’s climbed past 100,000, they chose to do it differently.
City authorities in Moscow were desperate for people to stay at home, with police detaining several activists with flags marking the holiday at Pushkin Square.
Vladimir Putin appeared in an overcast Moscow for the first time in more than a month to lay a bouquet of red roses at the Eternal Flame and vow to hold the parade as soon as possible. “We will, as usual, celebrate the anniversary widely and solemnly, and we will do it with dignity, as is our duty to those who suffered and achieved this victory,” he said. He was accompanied by a guard of honour and observed an airforce flypast, the only element of the military parade preserved this year.
Elsewhere some of the most committed got creative. Volunteers in Novosibirsk climbed cherry-pickers to sing war ballads to veterans on their balconies. News programmes urged families to mount images of veterans on their windows and take part in a national moment of silence at 7pm, followed by a rendition of the song Victory Day from their balconies. The authorities hope an array of online concerts, digital museum tours and popular war films on TV will keep Russians occupied and off the streets.
When all else fails, there are always reruns. A sports channels played repeats of Russia’s victories at a recent hockey tournament. And as soon as Putin finished his short visit to the Eternal Flame, the state television channel flipped over to footage of troops, tanks and other military hardware rolling across Red Square to mark the holiday in years past.
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