Bloomberg’s Leonid Ragozin visits Kaliningrad during the celebrations of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany to find a population that is cautiously accepting official mythology.
Tanks and ballistic missiles lumbered past thousands of spectators gathered in Kaliningrad on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe, an historic triumph for Russia that the Kremlin has used to whip up a new nationalist fervor.
“We need to show our enemies, who deem us guilty just because we exist, that Russia is a very peculiar woman—she can knock you down without a second thought,” said Aleksandr Sapenko, a 64-year-old history teacher, citing the U.S. and European Union as Russia’s main enemies. “Soviet soldiers saved them from the Nazi gas chambers, but they are barking at Russia like a pack of stray dogs.”
This Russian enclave was once the German province of East Prussia; the city’s Victory Square was known for centuries as Hansa Platz and briefly as Adolf Hitler Platz. On Saturday, when Russia and the former Soviet republics marked the anniversary of Hitler’s defeat in World War II, the square was awash in Russian and Soviet flags. Many people brought their children, whom soldiers encouraged to climb tanks and pose for photographs while wearing garrison caps and clutching tank-shaped balloons. Similar parades were held all over Russia, notably in Moscow, the capital, where more than 16,500 troops marched in Red Square.
In the postwar settlement, East Prussia was incorporated into the Russian republic of the USSR, its entire population deported to Germany and the province repopulated with Soviet citizens, primarily ethnic Russians. Nearly flattened by British bombers and Soviet artillery, the East Prussian capital, Koenigsberg, was rebuilt as a drab Soviet city and renamed Kaliningrad, after Mikhail Kalinin, a Stalin functionary who held the largely ceremonial post of Soviet president during the war.
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At the rally, Nikita, a 21-year-old student sporting a red Soviet flag on his bicycle, complained about the hardware. “Why couldn’t they show the new T-90 tanks instead of the old T-72s?” he said, more satisfied with the state-of-the-art Platforma-M robot tanks. Nikita said such parades were necessary so that no one forgets Russia’s war sacrifice. “It is also important to show our military might, but it’s not to scare the neighbors,” he said. “They are not our enemies, and we should all be united.”