Tanks and air defence missile systems rolled through the heart of Saint Petersburg on Sunday as the city formerly known as Leningrad marked the 75th anniversary of the end of a World War II siege that claimed more than 800,000 lives.
The parade in Russia’s second city was the first time war-era and modern heavy weaponry, including the famed T-34 battle tank and multiple-launch rocket systems, have trundled past the Hermitage Museum to mark the end of the siege of Leningrad, sparking controversy with some survivors criticising “militarism”.
President Vladimir Putin, a native of Saint Petersburg, skipped the show of force in the snow-covered Palace Square, although his itinerary included a visit to a memorial cemetery and several other events.
More than 2,500 servicemen in modern and period uniforms including sheepskin coats and felt boots took part in the parade which also included a flyover of military aircraft.
Hundreds of spectators watched the performance in falling snow and temperatures of minus 11 degrees Celsius (12 Fahrenheit), some wrapped in blankets against the cold.
A moment of silence was observed to the ticking of a metronome used to warn residents about air-raids during the siege. Some clutched flowers and could not hold back tears.
– ‘We have to remember’ –
“This is a celebration for the city and the country,” said Ivan Kolokoltsev, a 45-year-old manager.
“We have to remember, we have to commemorate it so that people remember.”
Natalya Gerashchenko brought her 12-year-old son to see the military display.
“A military parade is very beautiful,” the 35-year-old said. “The lifting of the siege is very important for everyone.”
Encircled by the Nazi troops for 872 days between 1941 and 1944, the city of around 3 million people went through unspeakable horrors.
With supplies to the city cut, bread rations plunged to 250 grammes (about half a pound) for manual workers and 125 grammes for other civilians.
More than 800,000 people starved to death or died of disease and shelling. Numerous historians say the true figures are higher
Many in Saint Petersburg, including some siege survivors, have denounced the parade as misplaced sabre-rattling and militaristic propaganda.
“I am against militarism,” Yakov Gilinsky, an 84-year-old siege survivor, told AFP ahead of the parade. “War is horrible.”
Some said that the money spent on the parade should have been given to survivors instead.
“Old people would buy some medicine and new clothes and for a time forget they have to count pennies,” wrote political observer Anton Orekh.
“Though after the siege they are not afraid of anything, of course.”
Irina Sadchikova, a 47-year-old librarian, said that the authorities were often so focused on official events they forgot about siege survivors and war veterans.
A defence ministry official has insisted the event was not celebratory in nature, describing it as a “soldierly ritual”.
– ‘Important date for Russians’ –
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the day was important “for all Russians and personally for President Putin.”
Clutching red roses, Putin visited the famed Piskaryovskoe cemetery where groups of Russians wished him good health.
Putin, at 66, was born after the war. But his older brother died in childhood during the devastating siege and is buried in a mass grave at Piskaryovskoe.
The Russian leader’s mother nearly succumbed to hunger, while his father fought in the war and was wounded near Leningrad.
Since Friday, the city has been holding a series of commemorative events that include music concerts and film screenings.
On Sunday evening, authorities will conduct a gun salute in memory of the gun fire that marked the end of the ordeal in 1944.
The trauma from the war is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the city.
Some buildings still carry signs warning residents about air raids.
Russia’s former imperial capital is home to some 108,000 war veterans and siege survivors.