When foreigners travel to Russia, many arrive with the intent of experiencing true Russian culture. They visit villages like Mandrogi and Yaroslavl to get the oft-forgotten aspects of Russia’s history. They indulge their taste buds with the best Russian cuisine such as borsch, pelmenis, and blinis. Yet no matter how many foods they eat or villages they visit, there is one event on one day that will give them more culture than the rest of their travels combined: the Victory Day Parade on May 9th.
This once-a-year celebration is a historic landmark as well as a display of modern military might. Sixty-six years ago, one of the strongest enemies the world has ever encountered was defeated under a joint effort by the Allies. Russia suffered the most lives lost during World War II, capping their death toll at nearly 30 million. The impossible victory over Germany stirs a sense of gratitude through Russia. The Victory Day Parade is a solemn but victorious affair, one in which accomplishment is recognized above tragedy.
Flashback down the timeline
Nazi Germany, even quicker than it had risen as a military power, fell fast. In the first months of 1945, Soviet units raced across present-day Poland to the Oder River, evicting the last Wehrmacht troops by March 20th from its eastern bank. A few days later, the first of 1.1 million Soviet troops crossed this last great natural barrier to start its final contest for Berlin. After Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the supreme Soviet commander, pierced the last German defensive line at Seelow Heights on April 19, his First Belorussian Front positioned itself so that it could bombard the German capital just in time for Adolf Hitler’s last birthday. Ten days later, fearful of the fate of Benito Mussolini (the news of his lifeless body being disrespectfully hung upside down at an Esso gas station by Italian partisans had only just reached Berlin), the Nazi Fuhrer took his own life on April 30, as did his wife Eva Braun in 40 hours.
German troops resisted the Soviets in the streets above Hitler’s bunker for another three days before Helmuth Weidling, commander of Berlin’s defenses, surrendered unconditionally to General Vasily Chuikov on May 2nd. Meanwhile, Wehrmacht forces continued to retreat into an ever shrinking zone of German control. The British accepted the surrender of the Nazis in Holland and Denmark at the same time that the Americans accepted the surrender of Bavaria, all on May 4th.
By May 7th, Soviet forces moved swiftly into Prague while simultaneously taking Fortress Breslau (today’s Wroclaw, Poland).
In a desperate bid for the survival of what was left of Germany (nominally ruled by Admiral Karl Donitz’s cabinet, situated on the Baltic within the Naval Academy at Murwik, near today’s German-Danish frontier), General Alfred Jodl, Wehrmacht chief of operations, rushed to Allied headquarters at Reims, and preliminary agreed to the surrender of all German troops, to take place at 11 p.m. Berlin time on May 8th.
When German troops laid down their arms, about 17 minutes after the German military leadership signed the final surrender terms, it was officially 1 a.m. in Moscow on May 9th. As a result, while the West celebrates Victory in Europe Day on May 8th, Russia and the former Soviet countries regard May 9th as their Victory Day. Some 67 years after the arrival of the capitulation document at Moscow’s Frunze Airport, May 9th is still one of the most important holidays on the Russian calendar (far more prominent a day of celebration than in the West).
What to expect from a visit to Moscow on Victory Day?
Certainly a strong level of Russian patriotism will be in the air. From the Orthodox masses commemorating the sacrifice of an ever-aging generation of veterans and wreath-laying at war memorials, to individual family remembrances (veterans of Soviet or post-Soviet forces, and in some families the veterans of “their allies,” are typically honored with special toasts on this day), television documentaries, and the famous military parade on the Red Square, Russians will never seem more proud of their country than they will on this day. Considering the odds stacked against them at the start of the Great Patriotic War, the courage in which their troops and partisans fought, and the great hardships that just about every family had to endure, it would appear that they would have every reason to be.
The 9th of every May strikes a wave of appreciation into onlookers the world over as one of the most important victories in history. Russia’s modern-day military embodies the country’s air of honor as they march through the famous Red Square to the beat of their own drums. It as much a part of Russia as the Kremlin itself, and seeing this fantastic display of military might and appreciation is a can’t-miss for those traveling during the spring season. The overall atmosphere of sovereignty and gratefulness as Russia remembers how it attained the freedom it loves today.
If the military aspect of the Victory Day Parade interests you, we also offer a themed military tour of Russia.