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What is Victory Day in Russia? Historical meaning, what Putin said about war in Ukraine on 9 May

Russia’s most important holiday has taken on added significance this year following Putin’s brutal and bloody invasion of Ukraine

The eyes of the world are on Russia on today (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 is also apprehension around President Vladimir Putin‘s intentions, given his desire to make military progress as his brutal invasion of Ukraine stalls.

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Early on in the conflict, Victory Day on 9 May was earmarked by Russia as a point of focus, even if it has become clear to Moscow that a swift victory was impossible in the face of stern Ukrainian defence.

But what is Victory Day, how is it celebrated in Russia, and what has Putin said?

A screen shows Russian President Vladimir Putin giving a speech as servicemen line up on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022

What is the historical meaning of Russia’s Victory Day?

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

The Soviet government announced victory early on 9 May 1945 after the signing ceremony in Berlin.

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

Victory Day is Russia’s central national holiday and carries ongoing importance to ordinary Russians, many of whom carry portraits of their relatives who fought in the war.

The Soviet Union suffered the highest human losses of any country during World War Two, with as many as 27 million Soviets losing their lives.

There were as many as 11.4 million military casualties, while millions of civilians died in the fighting, or through famine or disease.

Soviet troops parade on the Red Square during the commemoration’s ceremony for the end of the 2nd World War on May 8, 1985 (AFP via Getty Images)

How is Victory Day celebrated in Russia?

Victory Day in Russia is all about parades and pageantry.

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

The first victory day parade took place in Moscow’s Red Square with the participation of the Red Army and a small detachment from the First Polish Army on 24 June 1945.

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 dropped the tradition since the 1980s.

Soviet troops parade during the commemoration’s ceremony for the end of the 2nd World War on May 8, 1985 (AFP via Getty Images)

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

The president of Russia always attends the Red Square parade, where the nation’s military strength is on full display, typically involving around 14,000 military personnel and dozens of vehicles. Around 90 aircraft also take part in a flypast.

Aside from the parades, which also take place in towns and cities across Russia, Victory Day is marked by ‘The Immortal Regiment’, where people carry pictures of relatives or family friends who served during WWII, and religious ceremonies involving the the Russian Orthodox Church.

What did Putin say on Victory Day?

There were fears that Vladimir Putin could use Victory Day to announce an all-out war on Ukraine, as the conflict drags into its eleventh week.

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

Many experts believed Putin had hoped to set Victory Day as a deadline to achieve a military victory in the war, or at least to declare the conquest of the Donbas region.

However, Russian forces have been bogged down in fighting as a result of disastrous decision-making, major supply issues and low morale among troops. It failed in its original aim to take the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and its efforts to control the east have stalled.

Vladimir Putin (L) and Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (2nd L) speak with army officers during Victory Day parade at the Red Square in Moscow, on May 9, 2012

Rather than announce any significant escalation or conscription of troops, today (9 May) Putin has described Russia’s military action as a forced response to Western policies.

In fact, there was no major announcement to speak of, just a reiteration of his justification for the aggression.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking at the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Putin drew parallels between the Red Army’s fighting against Nazi troops and the Russian forces’ action in Ukraine.

He said that the campaign in Ukraine was a timely and necessary move to ward off potential aggression.

The Russian leader added that troops are fighting for the country’s security in Ukraine, and observed a minute of silence to honour those who had fallen in combat.

Key points of Putin’s speech:

  • He said Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine was a necessary and "timely" measure, and was the "right decision" of an independent, strong, sovereign country.
  • He told Russian troops they are fighting for the security of Russia now: "You are fighting for your motherland, its future. The death of every soldier and officer is painful for us. The state will do everything to take care of these families."
  • He claimed that Nato was a “threat to Russia: "In Kyiv they were saying they might get nuclear weapons and Nato started exploring the lands close to us and that became an obvious threat to our country and to our borders. Everything was telling us that there is a need to fight."
  • He claimed that the West was preparing for the "invasion of our land, including Crimea" and that they did not want to listen to Russia.

Asked on 6 May whether mobilisation rumours could dampen the Victory Day mood, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “nothing will cast a shadow” over “the sacred day, the most important day” for Russians.

Nevertheless, human rights groups have reported a spike in calls from people asking about laws concerning mobilisation and their rights in case they are ordered to join the military.

“Questions about who can be called up and how have started to flow on a mass scale through our hotline about the rights of conscripts and the military,” said Pavel Chikov, founder of the Agora legal aid group.