Moscow: It was one of the biggest public celebration of the war that Russia has seen since its invasion of Ukraine – an overflow crowd at the country’s largest stadium, cheering images of destruction and songs about spilling blood and conquering its neighbour.
Formally, the event was tied to the annual Defenders of the Fatherland holiday, honouring veterans, but coming two days before the anniversary of the invasion, it served as a televised show of popular support for the war, the armed forces waging it and the man behind it, President Vladimir Putin.
Participants wave Russian national flags during the “Glory to the Defenders of the Fatherland” concert waiting for President Vladimir Putin at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.Credit:AP
“I love it!” said Alexander, 47, a lawyer from Moscow who was waving a flag high up in the stands while a performer rapped about the Ukrainian territories Putin claimed to have annexed. “I don’t understand how can I not support it,” he said of what the Kremlin forbids people to call a war, referring to it as a “special military operation”.
The highly choreographed concert and rally romanticised the military and the war; while performers sang, the screens throughout the stadium did not show them, but instead played videos of soldiers fighting and firing heavy weapons, and destroyed buildings. Next to the entrance to the stadium, volunteers sewed camouflage nets.
In uniform, 1st Lieutenant Nikolai Romanenko performed a rap “remix” featuring the popular World War II song Katyusha, with updated lyrics including, “I’m not afraid to stain my hands in blood up to the elbow.”
Another person performed a rap ballad about “demons buried in Azovstal,” the Ukrainian fighters who held out for weeks in a steel plant in Mariupol, including lyrics in Ukrainian, with a video mocking the Ukrainian women who pleaded for the evacuation of their husbands, sons and brothers.
Vladimir Putin told the crowd: “All our people are defenders of the fatherland”.Credit:AP
Grigory Leps, one of Russia’s best-known pop singers, sang a song fusing the World War II recruitment slogan “Homeland: Mother is calling” with the contemporary pro-war refrain “We don’t abandon our own.”
In all, the celebration at Luzhniki Stadium reflected the Kremlin’s campaign to normalise the war for the populace, a tacit recognition that it will not end any time soon. The event even featured some acknowledgement of Russian casualties, though not their enormous scale.
“They’re trying to militarise the whole society,” said Grigory Yudin, a political philosophy professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, who did not attend the event.
Tickets were free, distributed mostly to state employees and students, who were given the day off from work or studies and provided with round-trip transportation. Matvey, 19, a university student from Tambov, said several buses from two universities there had travelled more than eight hours each way to the concert. Several attendees from the Moscow region said they had been encouraged by their employers to go.
The stage at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. In front of it a Z which has become the unofficial tag of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.Credit:For The Washington Post
“People were bussed there, forced to attend; we have reports of that from multiple universities” said Yudin.
“Putin coerces people, lures them into participating, and these students are promised free passes on exams,” he continued. “He wants both the total mobilisation of the country and the total passivity, a total acceptance,” an approach he described as “schizophrenic”.
The 81,000-seat stadium appeared more than full despite temperatures far below freezing, with people in the aisles and on the field, and thousands more on the grounds outside. And for many of them — at least those willing to speak with an American journalist — the enthusiasm seemed genuine, even if they have been touched by the war’s losses.
“I support it, yes, because it was high time to start this,” Katya, 26, who works for an aesthetic medicine clinic in the Moscow region, said of the war. She cited what she called the suffering of many friends from the Donetsk region of Ukraine, where Moscow’s separatist proxies began fighting Ukraine eight years before Russia’s invasion last year.
But Katya admitted that she wished the war had ended already, and said one of her university classmates had been killed. It is a sensitive topic — any criticism of the war can result in a prison sentence — and she, like some others interviewed, declined to give her surname.
“I don’t understand why it’s become so drawn out,” she said. “It’s a pity. Everyone in their families already has at least some acquaintances who died.”
Despite her support for the war, she voiced some surprise at the enthusiasm around her, tacitly acknowledging how artificial such public displays can be.
“What impressed me the most was that I could see people were genuinely coming, not coerced,” she said. “I also came here willingly myself.”
Her husband, Stanislav, 31, had received tickets to the event from his job, and said he was glad he had come. “It was very emotional,” he said.
Concert emcees shared stories about Russian soldiers fighting and falling in Ukraine and invited their relatives onstage. The Kremlin has not conceded the scale of Russian casualties — about 200,000 killed or wounded, Western officials say — and has generally avoided releasing the names of the dead.
Boris Lugin spoke of his son Anatoly’s death in battle. “Our task is to do everything to win: every beat of our heart for victory, every beat,” he told the crowd. “This is how I live my life. A soldier’s father.”
A children’s choir sang a song, “Greetings Soldier”, written as a message to troops at the front, in the mould of the letters Russian schoolchildren have been asked to write as homework.
Another group of children from occupied Mariupol appeared, along with a soldier named Yuri Gagarin, code name “Angel”, who was introduced as having saved 367 children from the devastated city – although how he did so was not explained. As images of the destruction played on the screen, without addressing the Russian bombardment that levelled much of the city, small children onstage covered their ears.
Ukraine and rights groups say that Russia has stolen thousands of children from occupied territory and has killed countless civilians in Mariupol and elsewhere. But no one onstage asked about these children’s parents. One emcee encouraged the children to hug Gagarin, who was decorated with an “Order of Courage” for his army service, in thanks.
“These are our children, and we, the Russian army, must protect these people and these children,” said Gagarin, whose name echoes that of the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, a hero to many Russians. “We are a strong army; we are a powerful army. But your support is important to us. We’re together; we’re going to win.”
It was the same message delivered by every speaker at the event: Social unity and support for the troops from all strata of society are essential.
Putin made a brief appearance, acknowledging the dissonance that people were “gathered for a festive event” while soldiers were fighting and dying, and encouraged all Russians to join the war effort.
“Even children who write letters to our fighters at the front are very important,” he said. “All our people are defenders of the Fatherland.”
Anna Vasilyevna, 87, who had come to the concert from Solnechnogorsk, 72 kilometres from Moscow, said her father died fighting in World War II. She completely supported Putin because “now everything is the same as it was back then,” she said, echoing the Kremlin’s propaganda equating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with Soviets fighting Nazis.
As she left the stadium, she passed an exhibit of “Heroes and acts of bravery”. On one side of the panels were heroes from World War II. On another, pictures and descriptions of those who died invading Ukraine.
“And now we have the same heroes,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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