MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday postponed next month’s Victory Day celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, citing the worsening coronavirus pandemic for putting off the lavish festivities that have dominated the Kremlin’s political agenda.
In televised remarks, a grim-faced Putin said the virus makes public gatherings such as the huge parade through Red Square on May 9 too dangerous.
“The risks linked to the epidemic that hasn’t yet reached its peak are extremely high, and that doesn’t give me the right to start preparations for the parade and other festivities,” he said, adding that the celebration will be held later this year.
The postponement followed an earlier decision by Putin to put off a vote originally scheduled for April 22 on constitutional changes that would allow him to stay in office until 2036, if he desired.
The plebiscite and the Victory Day celebrations had topped Russia’s political calendar for months, and the decision to delay both was clearly a painful and difficult one that followed weeks of procrastination by the Kremlin.
“The May 9 date is sacred for us, but every life is priceless too,” Putin said.
All Victory Day celebrations across Russia will also be postponed, he added. The festivities include gatherings of veterans and massive demonstrations dubbed the “Immortal Regiment” in which relatives of those who fought in the war carry their photos.
Putin himself took part in those marches, carrying a picture of his father.
The president has ordered a partial economic shutdown until April 30 and recently warned officials to prepare for the “most extraordinary” scenarios of the outbreak, because the number of infections in Russia has grown exponentially.
The country has registered 27,938 coronavirus cases and 232 deaths. Officials have scrambled to secure breathing machines and other essential supplies as the outbreak has worsened.
Since the Soviet era, Victory Day has been the nation’s most revered holiday, reflecting the country’s enormous suffering during World War II. Russian officials have put the nation’s death toll at 27 million in the war, and some historians think it could be higher.
“On Victory Day, we honor the heroes who defended the country and the rest of the world and sacrificed their lives to protect others,” Putin said, adding that Russians still will mark the day despite the need to delay the public ceremonies. “Every family will remember and honor its heroes.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron and other foreign dignitaries had promised to attend this year’s parade, which was to involve 14,000 troops and 300 tanks and other vehicles in a massive display of military might.
Russian troops already had started rehearsing for the parade, drilling at a range outside Moscow that was configured to resemble Red Square.
The Kremlin saw Victory Day as an opportunity to underline Russia’s vital role in history and showcase its international leverage. It would have been an important political coup for Russia, which has been under U.S. and European sanctions since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
While a quick rollback of sanctions never seemed plausible, the Kremlin hoped that the presence of Macron and possibly other Western leaders at the parade might provide momentum for normalizing ties.
Putin vowed to organize a parade later in 2020 without setting the date. Russian media reported that festivities could be held in June to coincide with the date in 1945 when the Soviet Union staged a massive parade through Red Square to mark the victory, or on the anniversary of Japan’s emperor signing surrender documents on Sept. 2, 1945.
“We will face down the threat we are confronting now,” Putin said. “And then we will embrace our veterans.”
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