Covid-19 mars Putin's ambitious plans for Victory Day

Russian President Vladimir Putin (front, left) and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (right) visiting a hospital where Covid-19 patients are being treated in Moscow last week. This year's edition of Victory Day has been planned as one of the biggest celeb
Russian President Vladimir Putin (front, left) and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (right) visiting a hospital where Covid-19 patients are being treated in Moscow last week. This year's edition of Victory Day has been planned as one of the biggest celebrations yet, but the Kremlin said the May 9 parade may be cancelled because of the pandemic. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MOSCOW • When officials bearing flowers and a medal arrived to pay tribute to a 93-year-old grandmother and war veteran at her home north of Moscow, they did not get the welcome they expected.

As one of the officials leaned in for a hug, the woman's granddaughter jumped in to stop it.

"I said: 'This is my grandma, my apartment,'" recalled Ms Yevgeniya Ovod, who had been doing her best to keep her grandmother isolated from the outside world and the coronavirus. "'I'm asking you to leave.' Honestly, I pushed her out."

Such ceremonies to celebrate war heroes have been happening in homes and schools and at veterans' unions all across Russia ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II. But the coronavirus has turned the festivities into a life-or-death matter for the country's dwindling number of living veterans of the war.

The pandemic is also disrupting the ambitious vision of President Vladimir Putin to glorify the triumph, and his own leadership.

Victory Day, marked on May 9, is Russia's main national holiday and has long been a cornerstone of the great-power patriotism cultivated by Mr Putin. This year's edition has been planned as one of the biggest celebrations yet, doubling as a coronation of sorts for Mr Putin on the heels of a constitutional overhaul that could allow him to rule for life.

But now, the May 9 military parade on Moscow's Red Square, usually observed by world leaders with Mr Putin as host, amid throngs of veterans and other spectators, may be cancelled because of the pandemic, the Kremlin said. The April 22 referendum to approve the constitutional changes has already been postponed.

Russia has reported more than 1,200 coronavirus cases and four deaths. The epidemic for now is still centred in Moscow, but experts say that while Russia has so far avoided the dire scenarios seen in parts of Europe and the United States, the virus may be primed to wreak widespread havoc in the country as well.

Despite their vulnerabilities, World War II veterans and survivors in their 80s and 90s have continued to be invited to gatherings all over Russia in recent weeks. Under decrees from Mr Putin, all living veterans and many other war survivors get a payout of 75,000 roubles (S$1,360) as well as a medal.

Several hundred thousand people will get the awards, according to official figures. While the cash is being transferred electronically, the medals are being presented by local officials in ceremonial gatherings and in visits to veterans' homes.

Ms Lyudmila Klimentenko, an 86-year-old survivor of the siege of Leningrad, opened her mail earlier this month to find an invitation from her city's mayor to a "festive event" for an award ceremony.

Her reaction: "My God! Is this to send us all to the other world?"

Her city, Pskov, postponed the event after an outcry initiated online by Ms Klimentenko's son, Mr Igor Batov. But districts in St Petersburg and other cities went ahead.

Some of the events honouring veterans have been scaled back, and organisers say that they have taken care not to violate their local and regional administrations' fast-evolving social distancing orders.

Ms Ovod, a municipal politician in the city of Yaroslavl, had suggested to her grandmother, Ms Venera Ovod, that she forgo being awarded the medal in person because of the coronavirus pandemic. But she said that was out of the question for her grandmother, who is her community's only surviving World War II veteran and takes part in Victory Day celebrations every year.

"Any social interaction is really valuable and important," Ms Ovod said of her grandmother. "Pandemic or no pandemic - it doesn't matter."

Critics say mixed messages from Moscow on how seriously the authorities should take the epidemic have put elderly veterans at greater risk.

But Mr Mikhail Moiseyev, the 81-year-old chairman of the Russian Union of Veterans and one-time head of the general staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, said he was still working and holding meetings.

Preparation for the May 9 parade was continuing at full speed, he added, unless and until Mr Putin decided to definitively cancel it.

"A parade is a banner - an unfurled banner," Mr Moiseyev said. "No disease can change that."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2020, with the headline 'Covid-19 mars Putin's ambitious plans for Victory Day'. Print Edition | Subscribe