Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Moscow Diary: Show of strength

The BBC's James Rodgers watches Russian soldiers prepare for Victory Day, which celebrates the defeat of the Nazis on 9 May, and considers whether the commemorations reflect military ambitions in the new Russia. His diary is published fortnightly.


Russian soldiers take part in Victory Day parade, May 2007 (Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova)
Soldiers need supple limbs for the goose step
It was part of the warm-up routine for the goose step. How else could you do it?

You could not risk striding across Red Square swinging your feet waist-high without stretching first.

And woe betide any proud son of the fatherland who was unlucky enough to pull a muscle and fall out of the ranks.

The papers here the other day were full of pictures of Russian soldiers rehearsing for 9 May, when they will commemorate victory in World War II with a parade on Red Square.

The image which especially caught my eye was a row of troops resting their - very shiny, naturally - left boots on the shoulder of their comrades-in-arms.

Their right feet were firmly on the parade-ground floor. Their left were at almost head height.

Russia always marks 9 May with great ceremony.

This country lost millions of its people as they faced invasion, merciless blockade in Leningrad, the brutal battle for Stalingrad, and then, ultimately, enjoyed victory.

The years since the defeat of the Nazis have barely lessened its significance.


Plans to include military hardware in this year's parade are causing great excitement.

Last year, there were rumours of tanks too - but it did not happen. Now it looks as though it will.

 Russian military personnel march in a parade, Red Square May 9, 2006
Victory Day marks the USSR's greatest military achievement

The armed forces are going to get the chance to show their strength in a way that recalls the days when they marched beneath the hammer and sickle.

As they look on, outsiders will be looking for clues as to where resurgent Russia is heading.

Is it a sign that the Kremlin wants to regain the superpower status of the USSR?

It is important to think of this in a wider context.

The victory over Nazi Germany was the Soviet Union's greatest - some of its enemies might suggest only - achievement.

In a country where much of the 20th Century ideology has been ditched, remembering the successes is important.

Russia may well be seeking a greater international military role in years to come, but rolling tanks onto Red Square will not tell the full story.


Firstly, this is not the Soviet Union. It has a far smaller population.

It does not have the network of client states across the world that the USSR built up.

Remember that beating and bullying in the army are so widespread that many young men use whatever means they can to avoid serving at all.

Reflect that in 2006, 15% of the conscripts who were called up were found to be undernourished - not many ministers' or oligarchs' sons among that lot, or indeed candidates for an elite fighting force.

Note that the defence ministry is to auction off property because it needs the cash for new accommodation for poorly housed officers.

Then walk trough a pedestrian subway in Moscow and see the men in uniform busking for money. Some have no legs.

At least some are presumably veterans. The words of some the songs they sing suggest grim memories of Chechnya rather than battledress worn as a stage costume.

So when the pictures of tanks and goose-stepping are flashed around the world, remember there is a different side to Russian military life.


By then, Russia will have a new president.

All the eyes which are not on military hardware will be looking at how President Medvedev and (by then, former) President Putin perform on what may well be their first major public appearance after Mr Medvedev's inauguration.

Nobody - even the two men themselves, if some newspaper columnists are to be believed - really knows how this relationship will work.

So the pundits are looking for clues. President Putin is having a sports hall built in the main government offices, some reports suggest, in preparation for his arrival there as Prime Minister.

That means he is planning to be there a long time.

Others claim exclusives with the story that there will be no new gym.

If anyone is thinking of ordering sports equipment, but wants to be discreet, maybe they should get it delivered on Victory Day.

Everyone will be too busy tank-spotting to notice.

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James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008



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