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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: May 11, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
The Origins of the 'Immortal Regiment' are in the Now-Closed Independent TV-2 in Tomsk
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The most impressive scenes from the 70th Anniversary of Victory Day in Moscow this past weekend weren't the shiny new tanks on Red Square, but half a million people marching with pictures of their relatives who served or were killed or injured in World War II.


The "Immortal Regiment" as it is called provided a graphic representation of the terrible impact of the war on people in the Soviet Union; nearly every family was affected. President Vladimir Putin led the march with a photograph of his own father, an NKVD officer who was severely wounded.

As Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Center in Moscow wrote in a blog post on Ekho Moskvy, the Immortal Regiment made the holiday more intimate again, more of a family holiday as it had been in the past -- although a family government holiday as well, as he noted, with Putin seeming to blend in as "one of us" without even his security visible.

For many people on social media, praising this event was a way of acknowledging the sacrifices of the Russians and other peoples of the former Soviet Union without glorifying Putin's current military cult associated with Russia's war on Ukraine.

But like many aspects of state propaganda, there is more than meets the eye.


@max_katz  Now the Immortal Regiment is really something cool.

@alloginoff @max_katz

Translation: the history of the appearance of the action of the Immoral Regiment directly demonstrates how important organizations independent of the government are for the country.

TV-2 in Tomsk ws one of most respected media organizations in Russi. In February 2015, TV-2 went off the air when its broadcast license expired and authorities would not renew it.

Much of the attention on the increasing crack-down on the independent media in Russia has been drawn to the Moscow media outlets, notably TV Rain, which lost its cable operators when it broadcast a controversial poll about the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, and then was forced out of its studio. Some of its journalists have been beaten by unidentified men after they published information about Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

But TV-2 in Tomsk was another independent station in the provinces that was forced out of business this year, even as TV Rain managed to survive.

So far from being yet another "Surkov propaganda" stunt, the Immortal Regiment was conceived of by journalists in a station the Kremlin has now shut down. As Meduza reports, the Tomsk journalists call the cooptation of the event, which is now in the hands of the state-created All-National Popular Front "a soft takeover." They point out that what began as a voluntary and non-political initiative is now losing its original meaning as people are turned out on assignment, and schoolchildren are compelled to carry the pictures of heroes of the USSR they know nothing about.

Originally Sergei Lapenkov and his colleagues Sergei Kolotovkin and Igor Dmitriev, the employee of an advertising company who now lives in St. Petersburg had the tradition of gathering at the Eternal Flame with their families. They had the idea to come with portraits of their relatives who had taken part in the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia, in 2012.


As Lapenkov told Meduza (translation by The Interpreter):

"There are fewer and fewer veterans, and truth on Victory day also becomes less and less. It's a holiday for bureaucrats and for some volunteers in military uniforms. All of this was somehow lacking in life."

When they went to get permission from the mayor's office in Tomsk, their request for a permit for 1,500 people was turned down and they were told they could have space for only 500. In the end, 6,000 people came. They brought all kinds of stories, for example about the 166th Division of Tomsk, nearly all of whom were lost in the battle of Smolensk.

Now the Immortal Regiment project is being run from a web site managed by members of the Communist Party with ANNA News, which is a pro-separatist propaganda station.

In another twist, it turns out that TV-2 was supported in part by Internews, a non-profit organization promoting media development around the world which is now largely funded by USAID. This fact led a pro-government blogger named Patriotka to denounce the station.

She was also outraged that in Vologda in 2013, the Immortal Regiment march banned Stalin portraits and Soviet banners. As Patriotka commented, perusing Lapenkov's Facebook page,

"References to TV Rain, Meduza, RBK and Navalny, anti-Stalinist and anti-church posts leave no doubt that we have before us a typical liberal. There are very many posts about pickets and rallies against the closing of the Tomsk TV-2."

The mass, state-organized aspect of the Immortal Regiment now has prompted some to ask if it is still authentic. If people are able to throw out posters of the World War II heroes so easily after the event, are they really carrying cherished pictures of their own relatives they brought down from the attic?

Many on social media shared this photograph:

Translation: Immortal Regiment. Parade is over...Photo by Denis Bezgachin.

This blogger made a joke about US President Barack Obama who is often castigated at state rallies as the cause of Russia's problems.

Translation: Last night on the 9th of May Obama cunningly threw away all the ribbons and veterans' portraits in the garbage. And that's how it is all over Russia.

Translation: The Olgino bots [Kremlin troll farms] explain clearly that it was visual agitation that was thrown in a heap, not the participants in the Great Patriotic War.

Slon pasted a screenshot from a debate on the social media network VKontakte:

Aleks, where is the place where you can throw in a heap the participants in the war like the posters from all the rest of the pro-government rallies?

Aleks Moskovsky
Slon United, volunteers turned in the visual agitation, and what of it? To those they had received it from...that's it different at the oligarchs' marches?

Aleks, did I imagine it, or did you, a snot-nose, just called the faces of defenders of the Motherland visual agitation?

Slon United, and in this concrete instance, why not? It's a good cause, after all these are not losers from Bolotnaya.

Aleks, is your grandfather an agitation, too?

Slon United, and what of it? We among others have shown you with its help the futility of your hopeless cause.

Aleksandr Samoilov indignantly posted a blog claiming the portraits were piled neatly to be taken away until next time, although this was in dispute as some did look like they were thrown away. He dug himself in deeper by discussing the "infrastructure of the holiday" and bashing liberals who protested what it had become, claiming they were "far removed from ordinary people." He even characterized them as "Martians" who "have a rich inner life and not the slightest idea of surrounding reality." Except the march was conceived by just such creative liberals as he denounced.

There was further evidence that government offices had gotten busy making up signs with Soviet heroes -- in this case the notorious secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's executioner.

Translation: Department of Culture of Moscow came out to the Immortal Regiment with a portrait of Beria. Beria, Karl!

The "Karl!" meme is taken from a scene in the Walking Dead and has become popular on Russian social media ever since the opposition used the expression about their primaries.

Translation: Damn, that's not a photoshop, this really was posted on the Facebook of the Department of Culture.

The photo has now been removed from the Department's Facebook page but we could still retrieve it here.

The photo shows the new head of the Department of Culture, Aleksandr Kibovsky, walking with Aleksandr Zaldostanov, known as "Surgeon," the head of "Night Wolves," Putin's favorite bikers' club.

Photos from Департамент культуры города... - Департамент культуры города Москвы | Facebook

Департамент культуры города Москвы posted this photo on 2015-05-10. 57 likes. 23 comments. 171 shares.

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May 12, 2015 05:15 (GMT)

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick