Note: this post doesn’t contain any photos, aside from the one above (which was taken with my old phone). If you’d like to see some shots from today’s parade, head to Eurasianet’s gallery here. Also, this post includes some train-of-thought ramblings. Consider yourself warned.
Today, May 9, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany, which effectively ended WWII in Europe. Unsurprisingly, this day is celebrated with great fanfare and zeal throughout the former Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the Nazi assault on Europe and suffered some 24 million casualties between 1939 and 1945. Kyrgyzstan, then the Kirghiz SSR, sent 363,000 soldiers to the front; one in three never returned.
Despite this horrific loss of life, however, the May 9th festivities – and in particular, the annual Victory Day parade – seem to glorify war, aggression, and frightful weaponry, rather than condemn them. May 9th is a day for military grandstanding and sword-rattling, rather than a day for mourning and remembrance. The Victory Day parade is a clear projection of military power; a threat to any country that might dare to tread on the fearsome Russian Bear, or any of its vassal states. Frankly, I find this hypocrisy quite perverse.
This morning, tens of thousands of people descended on Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square to watch the Kyrgyz army flaunt its arms in the local Victory Day parade. I have to say, it was quite a show, unlike any parade I’ve ever seen. Approximately two thousand of soldiers – some clad in dress uniforms, but many in full combat regalia, bearing rifles and (what I can only hope were defused) hand grenades – strutted up and down the street to the rat-tat-tat of a drumline and raucous applause. Dozens of tanks, APCs, anti-aircraft batteries, artillery pieces, and missile carriers thundered down Chuy Avenue, eliciting hysterical shouts of glee from the crowd; the bigger the guns, the louder they cheered. Mi-24 Hind attack choppers laden with rocket tubes buzzed overhead in close formation, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Finally, a pair of dated but menacing Su-25 jets screamed past at low altitude, to the delight of their captive audience.
As a child, I built dozens of model tanks and aircraft. I obsessively studied the design and technology of these vehicles, poring over diagrams and spec sheets in order to deduce the relative merits of their engines and armor, radars and radios. I’ve seen many of these machines in person, at airshows and museums in the U.S. But these displays typically showcase the unparalleled agility and raw performance of these machines, and the skill of their pilots, rather than their fundamentally lethal purpose and frightful capacity to kill. The signature blue-and-yellow livery of the Blue Angels’ F/A-18s is intended to be sleek and sexy, not intimidating; likewise, aviation museums often display military aircraft without their weaponry. So, to see these war machines today, armed and camouflaged as though rolling into battle, was quite a chilling experience for me.
Victory Day celebrations in the former Soviet Union are largely orchestrated by Russia, which still exerts considerable influence over many CIS countries. In fact, Russia lent several fourth-generation jet fighters to Kyrgyzstan for today’s parade, but the flyover was cancelled due to poor weather. Nevertheless, Russia was still represented in the parade: some 75 Russian soldiers marched under their own flag alongside Kyrgyz troops, and on Lake Issyk-Kul, six Russian warships performed maneuvers for the public. At a time when Russia grows increasingly isolated from the West, the country leverages pan-Eurasian holidays such as Victory Day to drum up patriotic fervor – or at least to remind former Soviet states of their shared history. Incidentally, official Russian doctrine promulgates a highly revisionist view of the past – textbooks gloss over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the critical impact of other Allied forces in WWII, and the Stalinist purges – to strengthen the mythos of Mother Russia and inculcate utter devotion to the Motherland. Last year, President Putin even introduced law criminalizing the “falsification” of Russia’s war history.
Some former republics – notably, the Baltic states, which have thrived economically and socially in the post-Soviet era – have managed to distance themselves from Russia’s political and ideological machinations. The president of Lithuania recently condemned Russia’s Victory Day celebrations as hubristic and insincere, and Latvia hastily cancelled its scheduled events, criticizing Russia’s increasingly authoritarian regime and expansionist maneuvers. Comparisons between Putin’s Russia and Nazi Germany, strained and problematic though they may be, are increasingly common in Western media. And Russia’s recent military incursions in Eastern Ukraine have raised questions over the country’s intentions.
Russia’s aggressive posture places Kyrgyzstan, and other young CIS countries that still rely on Russia, in an awkward position. As these countries struggle through the nation-building process, they must balance their obligations to Russia (the price of aid and investment) with their own domestic traditions and beliefs. For instance, Kyrgyzstan was recently strong-armed into joining the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union, much to the detriment of its bazaars, long a central source of revenue for the resource-poor country. Until Kyrgyzstan can stand on its own, it must embrace Russia’s vision of the past – and the future.
Now, this isn’t to say that Bishkek’s Victory Parade is entirely disingenuous – or worse yet, that it’s some Russian propaganda show. The country’s veterans are hailed as heroes, and given VIP seats. But there’s no doubt that it’s the machinery, and not than the veterans, that draw the crowds to the parade. And this display of power certainly doesn’t help to distance Kyrgyzstan from Russia. Sooner or later, this country will have to confront the truth about the Soviet Union’s role during and after the Great Patriotic War – and hopefully, this confrontation won’t involve grand formations of tanks and jets.