MOSCOW When local officials wearing flowers and a medal arrived to pay tribute to a 93-year-old grandmother and war veteran at her home in northern Moscow, they were not quite as expected .
As one of the officials leaned in for a hug, the award-winning granddaughter jumped to arrest him.
I said, This is my grandmother, my apartment, remembers Yevgeniya Ovod, who had done his best to keep his grandmother isolated from the outside world and from the coronavirus. I ask you to leave. Honestly, I pushed her outside.
Such ceremonies to celebrate war heroes took place in homes and schools and in veterans unions across Russia before the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II.
But the coronavirus has turned the festivities into a matter of life and death for the diminishing number of war veterans in the country.
The pandemic also disrupts President Vladimir V. Putin’s ambitious vision of glorifying triumph and his own leadership.
Victory Day, celebrated on May 9, is Russia is the main national holiday and has long been the cornerstone of the patriotism of the great powers cultivated by Mr. Putin. This year’s edition has been planned as one of the biggest celebrations to date, doubling as a crowning achievement of all kinds for Mr. Putin in the wake of a constitutional review that could allow him to rule for life.
But now the May 9 military parade in Red Square Moscows, generally observed by world leaders hosted by Mr. Putin in the midst of a crowd of veterans and other spectators, may be canceled due to the pandemic, the Kremlin said. The April 22 referendum to approve the constitutional changes has already been postponed.
Russia has reported more than 1,200 cases of coronavirus and four deaths, with a sharp increase in the number of infections reported in recent days.
The epidemic is still concentrated in Moscow, but experts say that while Russia has so far avoided the dire scenarios seen in parts of Europe and the United States, the virus can be primed to wreak widespread havoc. here as well with the elderly, as elsewhere, at greatest risk.
Despite their vulnerabilities, veterans and survivors of World War II in the 1980s and 1990s have continued to be invited to rallies across Russia in recent weeks. Under Mr. Putin’s decrees, all living veterans and many other survivors of the war get a payment from 75,000 rubles about $ 1,000 as well as a medal to be awarded in a festive setting.
Several hundred thousand people will receive the awards, according to official figures. While the money is transferred electronically, the medals are awarded by local officials during ceremonies and during visits to veterans’ homes.
Lyudmila Klimentenko, an 86-year-old survivor from the Leningrad headquarters, opened her mail last week to find an invitation from the mayor of her city to a festive event for an award ceremony during which she and several others would receive their 75th anniversary medals.
His reaction: Bozhe moy! My God!
Is it to send us all to the other world? she remembered asking.
His city, Pskov, on the border with Estonia, postponed the event after an outcry launched online by the son of Ms. Klimentenkos, Igor Batov, an environmental activist. But the districts of St. Petersburg and other cities have gone ahead in recent weeks with medal ceremonies bringing together veterans and dozens of others.
Still, the cycle of events dedicated to the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War continues, said a publication on social networks Tuesday by the administration of Starozhilovsky district southeast of Moscow. He was accompanied by photographs of two local officials visiting war survivors at their homes.
Some of the events honoring veterans have been curtailed, and organizers say they have been careful not to violate their rapidly changing social distancing orders from their local and regional governments.
In Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow, a spokeswoman for the city branch of the ruling United Russia party said schoolchildren were no longer participating in the events and that participation in rallies last week was lower than the limit of 100 set for the city at the time.
In addition, organizers have warned visiting veterans of the risk of coronavirus infection, and many have chosen not to attend, spokeswoman Marina Koprova said.
Everyone was notified and everyone was aware, said Koprova.
Ms. Ovod, a municipal politician from the city of Yaroslavl north of Moscow, had suggested to her grandmother, Venera Ovod, that she give up the medal in person because of the coronavirus. But she said it was out of the question for her grandmother, who is the only World War II survivor in her community and who participates in Victory Day celebrations every year.
Any social interaction is really precious and important, said Ms. Ovod about her grandmother. Pandemic or no pandemic, it doesn’t matter.
Critics say that Moscow’s mixed messages about how serious the authorities should take the epidemic and the determination of local officials to follow Kremlin orders have put older veterans at greater risk.
In an example of confusion, Putin said Wednesday that the coming week was a paid holiday, prompting the Russians to book vacations. This allowed the Kremlin to clarify on Friday that the purpose of the vacation was not to encourage travel but to reduce social contact as much as possible.
Many events for veterans take place in schools. Daniil Ken, a St. Petersburg-based teacher activist who followed the events and called for a halt, made it clear to officials that the award of Victory Day medals in the middle of a large band is a priority absolute for Mr. Putin.
It’s a cheap and populist way to build loyalty, said Mr. Ken about the medal ceremonies. Local officials doing this fear they will take responsibility for making the decision to temporarily stop these rallies.
Last Friday, 80-year-old survivor of the siege of Leningrad siege Valentina Bushuyeva joined four other war veterans and survivors to receive medals at a rally on the outskirts of Moscow. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Moscow had reached 131 on the same day, but Bushuyeva said she saw no risk in leaving her home at the time. It was only in the days that followed, she said, that Russian officials appeared to sound the alarm on television.
At the meeting, at the local veterans office, the guests drank tea and Ms. Bushuyeva shared her memories of the war: living near a cemetery where bodies were placed in a mass grave. One million people died in the Nazi siege of Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg among the 27 million Soviets who perished during the Second World War.
In a telephone interview several days after the ceremony, Bushuyeva said she was unsure if she would go to a veterans’ gathering again with the spread of the coronavirus and if the May 9 parade for the day of victory was to take place.
It’s hard to say it’s such an important day, but at the same time, you have to protect the people, said Bushuyeva.
Monday, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of Moscow called everyone over the age of 65 to stay at home and promised a payment of 4,000 rubles $ 50 to those who followed the order.
But Mikhail Moiseyev, the 81-year-old president of the Russian Veterans Union and the former chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces, said he was still working and holding meetings. Preparations for the May 9 parade are continuing at full speed, he said, unless and until Mr. Putin decides to cancel it permanently.
A parade is a banner a banner displayed, said Mr. Moiseyev. No disease can change that.
Oleg Matsnev contributed to the research.
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