A Soviet hue to victory parade

Times Staff Writer

The armored personnel carriers led the way, groaning in the cold sunlight past the cafes and boutiques of Tverskaya Street and, finally, over the vast cobblestone stretches of Red Square. The tanks came after, machine guns pointed skyward. Then missiles, some of them with the capacity to carry nuclear warheads.

Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev, smiled. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who hovered over Medvedev's shoulder on the reviewing stand, stared somberly. Russians cheered as bombers sliced the sky, low over the rooftops and church steeples.

The military parade that streamed through the historic heart of Moscow on Friday revived yet another iconic Soviet tradition: For the first time since the disintegration of the USSR, tanks and missiles rumbled over Red Square to commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War II.

The display of military hardware was intended as a show of muscle, a declaration of Russia's return to power after a tumultuous and humiliating tumble into post-Soviet disarray.

"A demonstration of our growing potential in the defense sphere," Putin called it this week. "We are able to protect our people, our citizens, our state, our wealth, which is not inconsiderable."

But the parade also was an inadvertent reminder of Russia's soft spots. Its military is still considered weak despite heavy spending and heady promises of reform. And the country is pushing forward into an uncertain political era -- and falling back on old Soviet symbols, drained of ideology but held aloft as talismans of a stronger, more straightforward era.

"People are nostalgic for Soviet times," said Anton Izmestyev, a 23-year-old advertising manager who had yanked a ball cap over sleepy eyes and wandered down to Tverskaya to see the tanks pass. "We are a new generation, and we missed the whole thing. We want to see the great military glory of Russia again."

Russians packed the side streets along the parade route on the national holiday. They brought their children, their beer and their cameras, and craned their necks excitedly for a glimpse of the weaponry as it rolled past.

Local newspapers printed spreads with photographs of the military vehicles, allowing spectators to follow along as the massive machines rumbled through. When the biggest missiles came into view, a roar went up from the crowd.

"All these years, for dozens of years, we've been hearing only bad news. This is bad, that is bad," said Alexei Chuguyev, 42. "Now it's time for us to feel confident in tomorrow. Maybe this means the black tide is behind us."

On Red Square, the parade began with high-stepping soldiers displaying the Russian and Soviet flags. Eight thousand troops stood at attention. World War II veterans and invited dignitaries squinted in the morning sunlight.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov appeared in an arched gate and veered across Red Square, standing up in the back seat of a Soviet-era Zil limousine, top down. He pulled to a stop before first one group of troops, then another, each standing stiff in perfect lines.

"Hello, comrades," Serdyukov shouted at each stop.

"Hello, comrade minister," the troops yelled in reply.

"I congratulate you on the 63rd anniversary of the victory of the Great Patriotic War," he boomed.

"Hurray!" the men shouted.

When Medvedev stood to address the crowd, Putin stood behind him.

"Our army and fleet are gaining strength, they are getting stronger together with Russia itself," said the president, who was inaugurated Wednesday. "Their current might is based on the historic glory of the Russian weaponry, on the victorious traditions and high spirit of our army."

In what sounded like a veiled reference to the United States, Medvedev said that wars are created by "those whose irresponsible ambitions prevail over the interests of countries and whole continents, over the interests of millions of people."

When he finished his address, the troops bellowed out three final hurrays, and the Soviet anthem, reinstated as the national anthem early in Putin's eight-year rule, struck up.

Reminders of Soviet days have gained new life throughout Putin's rule. There was, along with the anthem, the red Communist flag, preserved at Putin's insistence as the symbol of Victory Day. Then there were the printing of "USSR" on caps and workout clothes; the reappearance of the hammer and sickle on government posters; and the trendy use of Soviet insignia by fashion designers.

"A majority of the people who buy these things, they don't really have a good recollection of the Soviet times," said Anna Rikova, chief of the fashion department at Russia's Cosmopolitan magazine. "But those were the symbols that were famous and known and recognized, the symbols of empire. These days Russia does not have its own, new Russian symbols."

Putin's Russia also witnessed the return of Kremlin-backed youth groups, propagandistic news coverage and a de facto ruling party -- not to mention the personality cult around Putin as his days in the presidency waned.

Putin himself, a former KGB officer, has called the fall of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

But analysts and people on the street say the popularity of the images doesn't indicate a sincere desire to return to Soviet days. The familiar icons are embraced because they evoke a time when the Soviet Union was a feared superpower, when people felt strong and protected, and Russians lived on a relatively equal plane.

And just as today's Russia is a far cry from the Soviet Union, the military on display Friday was a rusted and limping remnant of its Soviet glory days, experts say.

Putin had hoped to rebuild the Russian military, and oversaw the transfer of billions of dollars into its budget. But analysts say much of that money was lost to corruption.

"Most of the weapons are Soviet-made," said Pavel Felgengauer, an independent military analyst. "This is an old and rusty military. It's repainted, but it's rusty."



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