So it’s the second of August, and that means Den’ VDV, or Russian Paratroopers’ Day, a chance to honor the brave, mourn the fallen… and for drunk ex-paras to fall into fountains, brawl with the cops and race around town in cars mounting blue and green flags and sometimes even more exotic apparatuses, even fake turrets. VDV Commander-in-Chief Col. Gen. Shamanov issued a pro forma appeal to the paras to behave (I now find myself wondering if he is channeling Austin Powers)
In Moscow, there’s a parade and formal ceremony in Red Square, with sharply-drilled ranks, top brass, and a cavalcade of Russian Orthodox dignitaries, and then rather more informal celebrations, not least in Gorky Park. This year was another Big Anniversary, the 85th of the Air Assault Forces (VDV: Vozdushno-desantnye voiska) as a distinct force, so Gorky Park’s entrance was even decked out in the blue-and-white striped tank top, the telnyashka, which has become as much their trademark as their sky blue berets and formidable tattoos.
In the afternoon, it was a relatively civilized event, regardless of the raucous heavy-military-metal band music, especially as this has become a family event of sorts, with WAGs (wives-and-girlfriends), kids and even the odd family pet sporting a telnyashka, while veterans were each given a watermelon for reasons unfathomable but touching. Nothing helps make boisterously tipsy muscle-bound ex-paras look less intimidating that seeing them all cradle oversized fruit. Not that it necessarily reassured the police, who inside the park patrolled in fours, while outside OMON riot police in body armor watched and waited. It is in the evening, after all, that time, alcohol and the relative absence of kids and civilians tends to lead to more muscularly aggressive rituals.
But I could not help but wonder why Russia has such a day. Let’s be clear, Russia has days for all kinds of professions and arms of military service (this weekend also saw Railway Workers’ Day) and these are meaningful things, not just ersatz events dreamed up in some Hallmark Cards brainstorming awayday to sell “Thanks for Being a Great Secretary” cards, as if that makes up for 364 days of patronizing subjugation and under-paid exploitation. No, these are big deals, but even so one does not see train drivers besporting themselves in public fountains or social workers (8 June) picking fights with tax inspectors (21 November).
Even though there are days for the army and the navy, the border guards and the radio-electrical warfare operators, the submariners and the interior troops, Den’ VDV is distinctive.
In part, this is down to the kind of people who become paratroopers, typically blessed with a lack of introspective self-doubt, an amiably physical response to challenges and a willingness to take on authority. Add to that, a clannish culture that sees themselves – with reason – as a distinct elite (their motto is Nikto krome nas!, “Nobody, but us!”) and perhaps it is inevitable that they are going to express this esprit de corps in their own way.
It is also, I feel, an expression of Russia’s cult of hypermasculinity, something that has only been deepened by Putin’s bare-chested politics of sovereignty and nationalism. But beyond that, it is also a sign of the way that Russian society contains a variety of means whereby individuals and groups have ways of blowing off steam. Anyone who thinks Russia is a drably controlled police state has never, for example, seen a long-suffering cop being berated by a granny, and the ways in which Russians collude to get round the system – not even necessarily for personal gain, simply to do a good deed – likewise demonstrate a certain triumph of humanity over bureaucratism. And just like the Soviet one before it, today’s Kremlin realizes this on some level and to some degree. Even undemocratic systems need pressure gauges and vents, implicit flexibilities that allow them to conform, however briefly and slightly, to the wishes and needs of their populations. Even if it means letting them splash in your fountains and stagger drunkenly through your streets. It’s only one day a year.