Red Soviet flags and orange-black striped military ribbons can be seen in Russian cities and towns. Neighborhoods organize holiday concerts. At monuments of the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in the country, flowers are laid by groups of veterans.
At first glance, preparations for Monday’s Victory Day celebrations, which mark Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945, seem the same as ever.
But the mood is very different this year, as Russian troops fight and die again.
And this battle, now in its 11th week, is underway in neighboring Ukraine, against what the government has erroneously called an anti-Nazi campaign.
The pride and patriotism usually associated with Russia’s most important holiday, marked by a huge parade of soldiers and military equipment through Red Square, mingles with concern and unease about what Victory Day may bring this year.
Some Russians fear President Vladimir Putin will use it to declare that what the Kremlin previously called a “special military operation” in Ukraine will now be a full-fledged war — with a broad mobilization of troops to bolster Russian forces.
“I can’t remember the May 9 holiday being anticipated with such dread,” historian Ivan Kurilla wrote on Facebook.
Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said Moscow was secretly preparing such a plan. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC Radio that Putin was “laying the groundwork for being able to say, ‘Look, this is a war against Nazis now, and what I need is more people.”
The Kremlin denied having any such plans, calling the reports “false” and “nonsense”.
Asked by The Associated Press on Friday whether mobilization rumors could dampen the Victory Day mood, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “nothing will cast a shadow” on “the holy day, the most important day” for Russians.
Still, human rights groups reported a spike in calls from people inquiring about mobilization laws and their rights in the event that they were ordered to join the military.
“Questions about who can be called up and how have started en masse through our hotline about the rights of conscripts and the military,” Pavel Chikov, founder of the Agora legal aid group, told the Telegram messaging app.
Russian state television has stepped up the patriotic rhetoric. When announcing the February 24 military operation, Putin said it aimed at the “demilitarization” of Ukraine in order to remove an alleged military threat to Russia posed by “neo-Nazis”.
A recent TV commentary said Putin’s words were “no abstract thing and no slogan” and praised Russia’s success in Ukraine, even as Moscow’s troops have stalled and made only small gains in recent weeks.
Ukraine, which has a democratically elected Jewish president who lost relatives in the Holocaust, and the West have condemned the comments as a fictional cover for a brutal act of aggression.
But many Russians who were fed a steady diet of the official story have cheered their troops on and compared them to “our grandfathers” fighting the Germans.
Popular support in Russia for the war in Ukraine is hard to gauge in a country that has steadily cracked down on journalists in recent years, with the shutdown of independent media and state-controlled television having a ubiquitous influence.
A recent poll by the respected independent Levada Center found that 82% of Russians remain concerned about the military campaign in Ukraine. The vast majority of them – 47% – are concerned about the death of civilians and Russian soldiers in the war, along with the devastation and suffering. Only 6% of those involved in the war said they were bothered by the alleged presence of “Nazis” and “fascists” in Ukraine.
“A significant part of the population is shocked, and even those who support the war are in a permanent psychological militant state of a perpetual nightmare,” political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov said in a recent commentary.
A government campaign encouraging support for the military uses the signature black-and-orange St. George’s ribbon traditionally associated with Victory Day. The letter “Z” has become a symbol of the conflict, decorating buildings, posters and billboards all over Russia, and many shapes use the ribbon’s colors and pattern.
In recent days, rallies have taken place to support the troops at World War II memorials, with participants singing 1940s war songs.
An official has suggested that Victory Day protesters display photos of soldiers now fighting in Ukraine. Normally, during the holidays, Russians wear portraits of their relatives who took part in World War II in honor of those in the so-called “Immortal Regiment” from a conflict in which the Soviet Union lost as many as 27 million people.