MOSCOW — In a schoolyard in Moscow shaded by birch trees, a group of children held in their hands portraits of their ancestors who died in World War II. They were waiting to join one of this year’s Immortal Regiment marches — held across the country to honor the war dead.
“The idea is that we walk with pictures of our relatives,” said Pavel Mramornov, 11, holding a portrait of his great-great-grandfather, who died in 1944. “We carry our relatives in our hearts.”
The students’ relatives were among the 27 million Soviet soldiers and citizens estimated to have died in the war, which touched nearly every family in the country and which is still treated as a sacred era in Russia’s history.
While celebrating the end of the war has long been an important holiday in Russia, the way the country remembers Victory Day has taken a few twists.
In recent years, the marches of the Immortal Regiment have snowballed in popularity in Russia, as a way of restoring family history to commemorations of the war, a realm that had come to be dominated by government-run observances like a military procession on Red Square.
In this year’s Immortal Regiment events, ten million Russians marched while carrying images of their war dead in parades across the country, including a million in a single parade in Moscow, according to a police estimate.
When most veterans were still alive, Victory Day, which celebrates the end of the conflict in Europe, was widely loved as a time for family visits. Russians stopped by the homes of their grandfathers and grandmothers, to drink tea or have lunch, and let the wartime generation know they were appreciated.
But as the number of living veterans dwindled in the new millennium, President Vladimir V. Putin reinvented Victory Day as the country’s most important political holiday, replacing the Soviet-era Revolution Day that had been celebrated in November to mark the Bolshevik seizure of power. The pageantry of a grand Red Square parade shifted to May 9, Victory Day in Russia.
The rumbling parade of tanks and stomping soldiers underpinned an ideology of military strength and patriotism. But the personal element, of thanking family members, seemed to fall by the wayside.
The practice of marching with portraits of dead family members as a grass-roots movement in the Siberian city of Tomsk. Three friends who wanted to restore the familial tradition of the holiday and keep the memory of individual