In a Celebration of War, Moscow Displays, and Demands, Unity

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MOSCOW — It was one of the biggest public celebrations of the war that Russia has seen since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine — an overflow crowd at the country’s largest stadium, cheering images of destruction and songs about spilling blood and conquering Ukraine.

Formally, the event was tied to Russia’s annual Defenders of the Fatherland holiday, honoring veterans, but coming two days before the anniversary of the invasion, it served as a televised show of popular support for the war, the armed forces waging it and the man behind it, President Vladimir V. Putin.

“I love it!” said Aleksandr, 47,  a lawyer from Moscow, who was waving a flag high up in the stands while a performer rapped about the Ukrainian territories Mr. Putin claimed to have annexed last year. I don’t understand how can I not support it,” he said of a war that the Kremlin forbids people to call a war, referring to it as a “special military operation.”

The highly choreographed concert and rally romanticized Russia’s military and the war; while performers sang, the screens throughout the stadium did not show them, but instead played videos of soldiers fighting and firing heavy weapons, and destroyed buildings. Next to the entrance to the stadium, volunteers sewed camouflage nets.

In uniform, First Lt. Nikolai Romanenko, performed a rap “remix” featuring the popular World War II song “Katyusha,” with updated lyrics including, “I’m not afraid to stain my hands in blood up to the elbow.”

Another person performed a rap-ballad about “demons buried in Azovstal,” the Ukrainian fighters who held out for weeks in a steel plant in Mariupol, including lyrics in Ukrainian, with a video mocking the Ukrainian women who pleaded for the evacuation of their husbands, sons and brothers.

Grigory Leps, one of Russia’s best-known pop singers, sang a song fusing the Second World War recruitment slogan “Homeland: Mother Is calling” with the contemporary pro-war refrain “We don’t abandon our own.”

In all, the celebration at Luzhniki Stadium reflected the Kremlin’s campaign to normalize the war for the Russian populace, a tacit recognition that it will not end any time soon. The event even featured some acknowledgment of Russian casualties, though not their enormous scale.

“They’re trying to militarize the whole society,” said Grigory B. Yudin, a political philosophy professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, who did not attend the event.

Tickets were free, distributed mostly to state employees and students, who were given the day off from work or studies and provided with round-trip transportation. Matvey, 19, a university student from the city of Tambov, said several buses from two universities there had traveled more than eight hours each way to the concert. Several attendees from the Moscow region said they had been encouraged by their employers to go.

“People were bused there, forced to attend; we have reports of that from multiple universities” said Professor Yudin.

“Putin coerces people, lures them into participating, and these students are promised free passes on exams,” he continued. “He wants both the total mobilization of the country and the total passivity, a total acceptance,” an approach he described as “schizophrenic.”

The 81,000-seat stadium appeared more than full despite temperatures far below freezing, with people in the aisles and on the field, and thousands more on the grounds outside. And for many of them — at least those willing to speak with an American journalist — the enthusiasm seemed genuine, even if they have been touched by the war’s losses.

“I support it, yes, because it was high time to start this,” Katya, 26, who works for an aesthetic medicine clinic in the Moscow region, said of the war. She cited what she called the suffering of many friends from the Donetsk region of Ukraine, where Moscow’s separatist proxies began fighting Kyiv eight years before Russia’s full-scale invasion last year.

But Katya admitted that she wished the war had ended already, and said one of her university classmates had been killed. It is a sensitive topic — any criticism of the war can result in a prison sentence — and she, like some others interviewed, declined to give her surname.

“I don’t understand why it’s become so drawn out,” she said. “It’s a pity: Everyone in their families already has at least some acquaintances who died.”

Despite her support for the war, she voiced some surprise at the enthusiasm around her on Wednesday, tacitly acknowledging how artificial such public displays can be.

“What impressed me the most was that I could see people were genuinely coming, not coerced,” she said. “I also came here willingly myself.”

Her husband, Stanislav, 31, had received tickets to the event from his job, and said he was glad he had come. “It was very emotional,” he said.

Concert M.C.s shared stories about some of the Russian soldiers fighting and falling in Ukraine and invited their relatives onstage. The Kremlin has not conceded the scale of Russian casualties — about 200,000 killed or wounded, Western officials say — and has generally avoided releasing the names of the dead.

Boris I. Lugin spoke of his son Anatoly’s death in battle. “Our task is to do everything to win: Every beat of our heart for victory, every beat,” he told the crowd. “This is how I live my life. A soldier’s father.”

A children’s choir sang a song, “Greetings Soldier,” written as a message to troops at the front, in the mold of the letters Russian schoolchildren have been asked to write as homework.

Another group of children from occupied Mariupol were brought to the stage, along with a soldier named Yuri L. Gagarin, code name “Angel,” who was introduced as having saved 367 children from the devastated city — though how he did so was not explained. As images of the destruction played on the screen, without addressing the Russian bombardment that had leveled much of the city — small children onstage covered their ears.

Ukraine and rights groups say that Russia has stolen thousands of children from occupied territory and has killed countless civilians in Mariupol and elsewhere. But no one onstage asked about these children’s parents. One M.C. encouraged the children to hug Mr. Gagarin, who was decorated with an “Order of Courage” for his army service, in thanks.

These are our children, and we, the Russian Army, must protect these people and these children,” said Mr. Gagarin, whose name echoes that of the first person in space, Yuri A. Gagarin, a hero to many Russians. “We are a strong army; we are a powerful army. But your support is important to us. We’re together; we’re going to win.”

It was the same message delivered by every speaker at the event: Social unity and support for the troops from all strata of society are essential.

Mr. Putin made a brief appearance, acknowledging the dissonance that people were “gathered for a festive event” while soldiers were fighting and dying, and encouraged all Russians to join the war effort.

“Even children who write letters to our fighters at the front are very important,” he said. “All our people are Defenders of the Fatherland.”

Anna Vasilyevna, 87, who had come to the concert from Solnechnogorsk, 45 miles from Moscow, said her father died fighting in World War II. She completely supported Mr. Putin, because “now everything is the same as it was back then,” she said, echoing the Kremlin’s propaganda equating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with Soviets fighting Nazis.

As she left the stadium, she passed an exhibit of “Heroes and Acts of Bravery.” On one side of the panels were heroes from World War II. On another, pictures and descriptions of those who died invading Ukraine.

“And now we have the same heroes,” she said.

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from London, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.


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