The mayor’s office in the capital of Uzbekistan has risked drawing the ire of some veterans by denying permission for an Immortal Regiment march during this year’s May 9 World War II victory celebrations.
In Uzbekistan, the holiday is celebrated as the Day of Memory and Honor. Instead of processions, the day is mainly marked with visits to surviving World War II veterans.
The Immortal March is a relatively recent tradition that appeared in Russia and is now eagerly promoted by the Kremlin. Participants in the event hold up picture portraits of those who fought in the war and march in a mass gesture of commemoration. The largest event has typically occurred in Moscow, but smaller similar marches have taken place all over Russia and in many other countries.
But Uzbek authorities have resisted hosting the country's own version of the march for the third year running. The main reason is presumed to be the government’s dislike of the idea of independently organized assemblies by the general public, but there is a political aspect to the reluctance as well.
The main promoter of the Immortal Regiment in Tashkent this year is a 19-year-old student called Amir Mollah.
“The mayor’s office says that on May 9 all the city police will be deployed at various events. And so they cannot provide security for the Immortal Regiment event. We had calculated that around 3,000 Tashkent residents might take part in the event,” Mollah told Eurasianet.
Despite an official injunction against the march in 2016, around 200 people in the city nonetheless took the risk of holding the event, without any apparent adverse consequences.
But there is also a movement of people opposed to the Immortal Regiment. That group is headed by political analyst Anvar Nazirov and journalist Davronbek Tozhialiyev, who have said they are unsettled by some of the symbolism adopted at the march.
“In Uzbekistan, May 9 is not Victory Day but the Day of Memory and Honor. You cannot memorialize the dead by singing Katyusha [a Russian patriotic song from the war]. They come out to the event with Saint George's ribbons and portraits of Stalin. These are symbols of colonialism and the enslavers of the Uzbek people,” Tozhialiyev told Eurasianet.
Last year, Nazirov and Tozhialiyev appealed to the Interior Ministry and the city administration to ban people from handing out the black-and-orange Saint George's ribbons that are widely worn as a commemorative symbols around this time of year.
The reason that ribbon provokes heated sentiments are manifold.
The pattern is a throwback to the Order of Saint George, which was established in the 18th century by Empress Catherine the Great. Among the early notable recipients of the order were Russian colonial warriors like Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov. At the other end of the same spectrum, critics of the ribbon argue that the colors are a mark of distinction to be worn by military heroes who distinguished themselves in battle, not just regular members of the public.
The Saint George's ribbon has also been adopted as a symbol by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, adding more ammunition to those who see it as a subterfuge method by Moscow to promote its highly politicized use of World War II memorialization.
Instead of black-and-orange ribbons, people in Uzbekistan mark the May 9 holiday with the colors of the Uzbek national flag.
Still, anti-Immortal Regiment activists might have been in a stronger position under the late President Islam Karimov, who nurtured a palpable unease with vocal commemoration of World War II, in part on the grounds that it bound Uzbekistan symbolically to its Soviet past. It was on his orders in 2008 that a monument to Shaahmed Shamahmudov, a blacksmith celebrated in Soviet lore for giving shelter to war orphans of 15 different republics, was removed from its place of pride in central Tashkent. Last month, the monument was moved back to its old downtown location.
A statue to Sobir Rakhimov, another World War II military hero from Uzbekistan, met a similar fate in 2011, when it was relocated to the outskirts of Tashkent. That too is to be returned to a more prominent location.