MOSCOW — As coronavirus cases skyrocket in Russia, with more than 63,000 cases reported this week, President Vladimir Putin on Saturday presided over a muted 75th anniversary celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Russia, like many countries across Europe, was preparing for a fanfare day of pageantry and military parades to mark the 75th anniversary of the Third Reich’s defeat.
For Putin, the day once held special significance as the high watermark of his nearly 20 years in power, with a large parade planned and high-profile international guests such as French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to attend.
"For all of us, this is our most important and grandest holiday. ... The spiritual and moral significance of Victory Day remains invariably great, and our attitude toward it remains sacred," Putin said at a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin walls on Saturday.
The Victory Day celebration was once a low-key and somber day of remembrance for the tens of millions who died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II, marked with infrequent parades every few years.
Under Putin, it has been reinvented as an annual patriotic blowout, complete with nuclear missiles and tanks parading the streets under the cover of booming jets.
However, he was forced last month to call off most of the parade as the coronavirus pandemic spread across Russia. The large-scale parade has been postponed to later this year — likely in September to mark the end of the war in the Pacific. Russians had to be content with Air Force flyovers and fireworks.
"We will, as usual, mark the anniversary date widely and solemnly, and with dignity — as is our duty to those who have suffered, achieved and accomplished the victory," Putin promised.
Postponement of the ceremony was the second blow to the Russian leader, who had to call off an April 22 constitutional referendum that would have reset his presidential term and allowed him to stay in power until 2036 — in effect crowning him leader for life. But, as with this year’s Victory Day extravaganza, the coronavirus scuppered those plans.
Cases of the deadly virus have been climbing for more than a month in Russia, but in the lead-up to Victory Day, they exploded. Russia has reported more than 10,000 new cases every day for the last six days, according to official government statistics.
As of Saturday, Russia had reported 198,676 cases in total and just under 2,000 deaths.
The pandemic is now spreading faster there than in any other country aside from the United States, according to official statistics.
The government was initially slow to react, insisting through March that early action had prevented a large-scale outbreak. But by the end of March, the Kremlin moved to implement a monthlong stay-at-home order, which remains in place until May 12.
In Moscow, where about 50 percent of the nation’s outbreak is, most of the population will remain under a strict pass-enforced lockdown until May 31.
Low-key events to commemorate Victory Day — modern Russia’s most revered and politically significant holiday — did take place in Moscow and other major cities on Saturday. Putin, not wearing a face mask, laid flowers at the Eternal Flame outside the Kremlin. On Friday, he held calls with a number of world leaders, including with Britain’s Boris Johnson.
Many locked-down Russians will tune in to television Saturday night to watch artillery fireworks across cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg, as local leaders urge them to stay home to avoid spreading the virus during what is usually a busy weekend that sees city streets across the country reserved only for pedestrian traffic.
Though the coronavirus loomed large over the holiday, Putin did not make any overt references to the pandemic in his remarks.
The pandemic has turned into Putin’s greatest challenge since coming to power in 2000. Rather than celebrating his 20th year with grand coronations and bombastic military parades, he has seen his approval rating hit a historic low of 59 percent, according to a poll released this week by the independent Levada Center polling outfit.
Health care workers have been particularly critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
This month, images of two Russian doctors falling to their deaths from hospital windows dominated headlines and social media and brought the plight of front-line medical workers into sharp focus.
Frustrated health workers have raised the alarm over what they say are acute equipment shortages and poor procedures to control hospital outbreaks.
On April 28, Putin admitted there had been a shortage of personal protective equipment, such as masks, and ordered production to ramp up.
Others in Russia have taken a creative approach to vent their frustrations, attending online, virtual protests to display their discontent at a lack of work and the handling of the pandemic.
Celebrations in neighboring Belarus went ahead as planned on Saturday. A large parade, concert and fireworks are set to take place in the capital, Minsk, where President Alexander Lukashenko appears unfazed by the pandemic.