What is Victory Day in Russia? History and meaning explained

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Russia’s most important holiday has gained prominence this year after Putin’s brutal and bloody invasion of Ukraine

Russian soldiers march in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2017 (AFP via Getty Images)

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The eyes of the world will be on Russia on Monday (9 May) as it marks its Victory Day.

While the annual event is always a mix of pride and patriotism for the Kremlin, this year there are also concerns about what President Vladimir Putin might say given his desire to make military advances as his brutal invasion of Ukraine falters .

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Victory Day, May 9, was set as a priority for Russia early in the conflict, although Moscow has realized that a quick victory was impossible given Ukraine’s tight defenses.

But what is Victory Day, how is it celebrated in Russia and what could Putin announce? Here’s what you need to know.

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May 8, 1945: A British sergeant is lifted off his feet as Moscow women celebrate VE Day. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

What is the historical significance of Victory Day in Russia?

Victory Day in Russia marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 and falls one day after Victory Day in Europe (VE Day), which is celebrated in Britain and Western Europe.

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On May 9, 1945, after the signing ceremony in Berlin, the Soviet government prematurely announced victory.

Victory Day is Russia’s central national holiday and has an enduring meaning for ordinary Russians, many of whom carry portraits of their relatives who fought in the war.

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The Soviet Union suffered the highest human casualties of any country during World War II, with up to 27 million Soviet lives lost.

There were up to 11.4 million military casualties, while millions of civilians died in the fighting or from starvation or disease.

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Soviet troops parade in Red Square during the commemoration of the end of World War II, May 8, 1985 (AFP via Getty Images)

How is Victory Day celebrated in Russia?

Victory Day in Russia is all about parades and pageantry.

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It’s always a public holiday, and if it falls on a weekend, Russians can take the following Monday off.

The first Victory Parade took place on June 24, 1945 in Red Square in Moscow with the participation of the Red Army and a small detachment of the First Polish Army.

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After a 20-year hiatus, the parade was held again and became a regular tradition among Eastern Bloc countries and Soviet allies, most of whom have discontinued the tradition since the 1980s.

Soviet troops parade during the commemoration of the end of World War II on May 8, 1985 (AFP via Getty Images)

While Victory Day lost some of its relevance as Russia struggled to reform in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin revived it on an unprecedented scale as it feeds into his patriotic vision of restoring Russia’s power on the world stage.

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The Russian President always takes part in the Red Square parade, which showcases the nation’s military prowess to the fullest, typically with around 14,000 military personnel and dozens of vehicles. Around 90 aircraft also take part in a flyby.

Aside from the parades, which are also held in cities across Russia, Victory Day is marked by the “Immortal Regiment,” where people carry pictures of relatives or family friends who served during World War II, and religious ceremonies , in which the Russian Orthodox Church is involved.

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What could Putin announce on Victory Day?

There are growing fears that Vladimir Putin could use Victory Day to announce a full-scale war against Ukraine as the conflict enters its eleventh week.

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The Kremlin has previously described the invasion as a “special military operation”.

Many experts believe that Putin was hoping to set Victory Day as a deadline to achieve a military victory in the war, or at least declare the conquest of the Donbass region.

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However, Russian forces are bogged down in battle due to disastrous decisions, major supply problems and low morale among troops. It failed in its initial aim of capturing the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and its efforts to control the east have stalled.

Vladimir Putin (L) and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (2nd L) talk to army officers during the Victory Day Parade in Moscow’s Red Square May 9, 2012

With a declaration of victory now impossible, many predict that given the historical context of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, Putin will attempt to use Victory Day as a point to herald an escalation.

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Putin’s stated goal of “denazifying” Ukraine as justification for the invasion is linked to the Kremlin’s efforts to cultivate World War II history for its own political purposes.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC radio that Putin is “laying the groundwork for him to be able to say, ‘Look, this is a war against the Nazis now, and what I need is more people'”.

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The Kremlin denied such plans, calling the reports “untrue” and “nonsense”.

Asked May 6 whether mobilization rumors could dampen Victory Day sentiment, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “nothing will cast a shadow” on “the holy day, the most important day” for Russians.

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Still, human rights groups have reported an increase in calls from people asking about mobilization laws and their rights if they are drafted into military service.

“Questions about who can be called up and how have started flowing en masse through our conscript and military rights hotline,” said Pavel Chikov, founder of legal aid group Agora.

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State Department spokesman Ned Price recently told reporters: “It would be highly ironic if Moscow used Victory Day to declare war, which in itself would allow them to swamp conscripts in a way like they can’t now.

“In a way, that would be tantamount to showing the world that their war effort is failing, that they are faltering in their campaign and military objectives.”

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Whatever Putin announces on Victory Day, there is little chance that the Russian leader will withdraw his forces from Ukraine any time soon.

His original plan may have failed, but he still aspires to create a land corridor to Crimea by capturing Mariupol, where fighting has intensified in recent days.

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