Russian troops marched down Bishkek’s main thoroughfare on May 9 for the first time since Kyrgyzstan’s independence from the Soviet Union. They were there to celebrate a common victory in World War II, a memory that some say is being manipulated by Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin.
The parade in Bishkek was one of dozens across the former Soviet Union commemorating the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in what is known throughout the former Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War.
President Almazbek Atambayev was in Moscow attending a celebration on Red Square with other Putin allies. But his absence – and a heavy rain – did not stop thousands of Kyrgyzstanis from gathering on Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square for Victory Day festivities.
More than 2,000 troops took part alongside dozens of military vehicles. Helicopters from the Kyrgyz Air Force performed a flyover. In a post-Soviet first, according to Russian state media, the parade included 75 Russian soldiers from the Kant Airbase outside Bishkek.
Two days earlier, as our photo story shows, participants in a dress rehearsal enjoyed better weather.
About 365,000 Kyrgyzstanis were mobilized during World War II, according to official figures; 115,000 of them died. Separately from the main pageant on May 9, hundreds carried portraits of the dead to the eternal flame on Victory Square, following a trend that has become popular in Russia in recent years.
To those celebrating Kyrgyzstan’s closer ties with Russia, the sight of Russian troops on Chui Avenue might be comforting. Others, though, complain that what was once hailed as a joint achievement has been sullied as a celebration of Putin and his divisive nationalism. “The May 9 parade in Moscow is not a parade commemorating the victims and the heroes of the war – it is a parade of loyalty to Putin and his state,” wrote prominent Russian blogger and Putin critic Oleg Kashin last week.
The patriotic fervor can prove divisive: Atambayev and President Islam Karimov of neighboring Uzbekistan argued during a meeting in Moscow on May 8 over who was more patriotic.
On Ala-Too Square in central Bishkek, those disputes seemed far away. “I visit the Victory Day parade every year because it is the most important day in our history. We are the winners,” said university student Anarbek Nazarbekov, 22.
After the parade, groups of university students greeted veterans with flowers and orange-and-black St. George ribbons.
Tamas Paczai is a Hungarian photographer currently based in Kyrgyzstan.